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When Form Ambushes Substance: Media Reporting On The Failon Case (Updated With ABS-CBN Statement)

April 19, 2009


It is never good when government people in authority, uniformed or not, are perceived to be or actually are “over acting” in the uniquely Filipino idiomatic sense or worse: violating the legal norms and the constitutionally-protected rights of citizens.

But tangentially, it is disconcerting, distressing even, when in the news media’s reportage seemingly focuses on form rather than substance particularly when the media organization involved is itself “right in the middle” of the events it is expected to be chronicling objectively, in a balanced and fair manner.

We can even give allowance for some measure of emotional attachment given that this involves the death of the wife of Ted Failon, inarguably one of hardest hitting and influential shapers of public opinion.

And hey, Mario Trinidad Etong, and his legions of friends , supporters, and colleagues in the news profession, have reason to be angry and decry “police brutality.”

For their part, police authorities, the notorious Quezon City police in particular, are pinching themselves for going overboard yet again.

“We’ll punish those who violated the Miranda Doctrine,” they are telling us, no matter how incredulous most observers have become.

But can we all get back our bearings and let the investigations go forward.

Given how his own image “has come under a cloud of doubt” Ted Failon knows the only way for things to go back to normal is for him to be fully cleared of any and all charges against him.

Let sanity in the public discourse return, and open the way fully for Trina Etong to rest in peace and for the truth to be discovered, and justice served.


This writer joined Ms, Cheche Lazaro for her Media In Focus progran on ANC which tackled the media reaction to how ABS–CBN handled the Failon story.

I sat with their SVP for News and CurrentAffairs. (T’was a reunion of sorts with Maria as we had the chance to work briefly together in the TV new department of the pre-EDSA I Maharlike Brocasting System (Now NBN-4).

I am reproducing in full Ms. Ressa’s online piece on the story at hand:

Telling it like it is
By Maria A. Ressa, Senior Vice-President, ABS-CBN News & Current Affairs; Managing Director, ANC | 04/27/2009 8:37 PM
In the past week, several people have criticized ABS-CBN, saying its coverage of the Ted Failon story is biased. How could we not be biased, they ask? After all, Ted Failon is a top network anchor.

While everyone is entitled to an opinion, statements like these are a disservice to the journalists of ABS-CBN, men and women who set aside their personal likes or dislikes and attempted to treat this story like any other. It’s not the first time we’ve become the story. We’ve had some practice: PGMA’s attack on Julius Babao in 2005, Ultra in 2006, the Peninsula arrests in 2007, the Ces Drilon kidnapping in 2008. What we’ve learned is that every situation is different, and it requires moment-to-moment judgment and vigilance to maintain the professional standards we aspire to. (It helps to pretend you’re from another network.)

Given that, I ask our critics to look closely at our coverage. On April 15, just hours after the shooting, our reporter relayed the different theories of the QCPD, including their initial statement that Ted shot his wife during a fight in their car. The reporter ended the live report with the most recent statements from Superintendent Franklin Mabanag, who said they were looking at two angles: suicide and foul play. He also said he planned to charge several people with obstruction of justice because they cleaned the “crime scene.”

I immediately instructed our reporters to stay away from calling it a “crime scene” because police still needed to establish a crime was committed. Is that a bias for Ted? No. It’s good journalism. The police, by using “crime scene” was premature and displayed a bias – something they corrected days later after the suspension of QCPD operatives, announcing in a press conference that they would now be calling it “scene of the incident.”

That live report based on a quote from the QCPD saying Ted shot his wife triggered angry reactions inside ABS-CBN. Some of our people said, “nilaglag natin si Ted.” I explained that wasn’t the case and that they shouldn’t be interpreting events from that view. Some felt we were flagellating ourselves since the situation had already changed, and that scenario seemed improbable. But the police hadn’t withdrawn it. Since we didn’t know what really happened, any statement by the police is important.

But what if the police seem biased and act in an unprofessional manner? Imagine the head of the investigating team smuggling a press photographer inside Ted Failon’s house without the knowledge of the family. Imagine the same police officer – within about two hours of a cursory “investigation” – taking the alleged suicide note to the reporters outside the house and telling them he didn’t consider it a suicide note, then using it to fan himself while he spoke further to the cameras.

The next day, the QCPD chief and his officers on the scene said they arrested Ted’s household staff. We headlined that based on their statements. An hour later, another police official contradicted that, saying that they had only been “invited for questioning.” Then the QCPD chief reiterated it was, indeed, an arrest … only to be debunked moments later by his boss, the NCRPO chief, who said they made no arrests! What did we decide to go with? Confusion among the police.

Even the media was confused: the Inquirer headline a day later bannered, “ABS-CBN’S FAILON ARRESTED.” As of this writing more than a week later, that headline remains false. Ted Failon was invited for questioning, but he was NOT arrested. Are we biased for not carrying that headline? No, we were good journalists reporting the facts.

In a story like this, police statements and actions determine the story, and all we did – like in any other story – was to focus on that. ABS-CBN took no positions in reporting their actions. Those positions are best taken by Ted, his family, his lawyers and the forensic experts they hired – which we also reported.

Other critics say Korina Sanchez went overboard in her commentary on her radio program, “Tambalang Failon at Sanchez.” Some in our newsroom told me the same thing, and this was my response. Remember she was speaking on a radio commentary program, much like a newspaper’s opinion columns. On that day, Korina repeatedly disclosed that she was not speaking as a journalist but as a commentator and a friend of the family. She also had first-hand knowledge: she was with Ted and his daughter at Camp Karingal till after 3am on April 16 and admitted on-air she was upset by the way they were treated by the police. This is her personal opinion, not the views of our network.

Finally, let me address the criticism that ABS-CBN had more access than other media. That, unfortunately, is not in ABS-CBN’s control but in the hands of the newsmaker. Like in any story, the newsmaker chooses whom to speak with.

Ted and his family didn’t want to speak to journalists … until he heard that the police told reporters he had scratches on his arms and back. He wanted the right to reply. Did we give him an easier time? No, because we wanted the truth. Ces Drilon asked him the questions our viewers had: Did he own a gun? Did he quarrel with his wife? Would he lash at his wife in anger? Would a wife refer to her husband as “po” (focusing on the alleged suicide note)? Did he order the maid to clean the bathroom? He broke down several times and ended the interview when she asked him how he felt being treated as a suspect.

ABS-CBN never asked for exclusive access. In fact, I encouraged opening it up, and when we could help our colleagues in other news groups, we did – including sharing the sworn statement of Ted Failon with GMA7. Given Ted’s state of mind and the sensitivities involved, the family made its choice. That changed in succeeding days as the family absorbed the impact of events and dealt with how their private grief had been turned into a public spectacle.

What I have learned from this story is that talk is cheap in our country: in this case, those with the authority to determine the course of events had little regard for the lives and reputations they may have ruined. The police spoke quickly.  With one statement, they turned a possible suicide into a possible murder.  The way they conducted the “investigation” and their succeeding actions – in full view of television cameras – betrayed a lack of professionalism that triggered a public outcry.  For that, they were suspended.

Because we reported it, we were accused of bias.  Talk is cheap.  Perhaps it’s a reflection of the mindset, customs and bias that says a news group cannot report on one of its own well.  I ask you to look closely at our coverage and our past actions which show that we in the news group are often harder on our own.

In the end, I can’t say ABS-CBN was perfect, but I can tell you we struggle every day to be fair and to be worthy of the public’s trust in our search for the Truth. We are open to constructive criticism because we want to continually improve. I only ask that you think it out – as much as we weigh every decision we make.

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