When the Dust Settles: Thoughts on the Luneta Hostage Tragedy

by | Jul 1, 2010 | Commentary



We are so broken yet so proud to ever admit it. We will acknowledge a few mistakes we’ve committed but will go only as far as the competition will themselves admit.


We are so powerful yet are unable to make tough ethical decisions without prodding from authorities. No different from children, we need to be told and controlled. Yet we cry censorship or violation of press freedom when we are told what we cannot do. We do not want our freedoms curtailed in the belief that freedom is absolute when deep inside we know it isn’t.


We watch with horror video or images that slip through coverage but are slow to come up with policies to assure our public that these would never happen again. Instead we say that collective decisions made by major players in the industry should be made. We are afraid, we are helpless, we think it will all be futile if there is no decision made by the media to collectively agree on ethical protocol. Or we say we are making individual reviews and will come up with our own, separate policies as if this would cure the problem that plagues the industry.


We prefer pointing to the lapses of others (it’s easier to do, after all) than admitting what we could have done better. The police, the military, and authorities are our favorite enemies.


We tend to trumpet what we did right even at a time when a horrible tragedy stares us in the face. In the same breath we declare that had a news blackout been ordered, we would have followed. All we needed was to be told. And then we don’t understand when our public remains critical and does not seem to appreciate what we’ve managed to do.


We send them mixed signals, that’s why. We try to convince our public we adhere to ethical standards by pointing out what we did right, but we mix that with market standards. All broadcast companies must follow the same restrictions for coverage so that everyone is on a level-playing field and no one loses audience share.


Without acknowledging it, the fear of losing market share when we choose to do what we believe is right, irrespective of the consequences, is too much to handle. In the end, even when we do not explicitly say so, we admit that even in life-threatening coverage, the market rules.


This is not to say we did not do anything right or that we have never learned anything from past coverage of similar crisis situations. We have had ample exposure: there was the Philtranco bus terminal hostage situation in June 2002 which had a TV reporter acting as mediator and the NAIA air traffic control tower takeover by Panfilo Villaruel in November 2003 which also had a radio anchor acting as mediator. Both situations tragically ended in deaths.


Then there was the Oakwood mutiny in July 2003 and the Manila Peninsula takeover in November 2007, both involving the military. Earlier in March of the same year, a similar hostage-taking incident that involved a busload of day-care students occurred. Three years later, we have the Luneta hostage tragedy that ended with eight tourists dead.


Certainly, given these experiences, some valuable on-the-ground lessons have been learned.


What did we do right in the latest hostage drama? This time around, most of us refused to be involved as negotiators or mediators. We have learned that we do not possess the expertise to handle situations like these. However, as of this writing, we are unsure if some of our radio colleagues were still obsessed with the scoop. Neither are we sure if they were truly or solely responsible for agitating the hostage-taker or keeping the phone lines busy when trained negotiators were trying to reach him. If investigations show their culpability, it is inexcusable.


Among us, some but not all, exercised a degree of restraint. It may not have been that evident given live coverage on television and radio. Print journalists acknowledge that the job of broadcast journalists is harder than theirs because quick decisions have to be made on the spot with little time for reflection. The levels of tension and stress rise considerably when such decisions have to be made for live coverage. One must experience it to truly understand that it is far from a perfect or ideal situation and mistakes and misjudgments are bound to occur.


Though having the best of intentions, unpredictability rules and destroys everything that the most well meaning of us intend. We wish that we had the gift of perfect foresight but we don’t.


The more experienced among us tried to be more sober in our reporting but it was difficult to control one’s excitement and fear of being shot in the crossfire.


Though mirroring incremental gains compared to past coverage, much is still to be desired. We need to be more humble and to accept that we do not know everything. Humility, after all, precedes genuine learning.


Like other institutions in our decades-old democracy, we too, are broken. We need to strengthen ourselves, we need our public’s criticism and inputs, for we realize that without a public that believes in us, we lose our reason for being.


Urgent question demanding an urgent answer: concretely, what do we do now?


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