Eugene Martin from USIP is interviewed during a break in the discussions.

Journalists from the Philippines Hold Discussion On Standards for Coverage of Conflict in Mindanao

The 19 journalists from the Philippines had differing views on how well the media cover conflict in their country and different explanations for some of the weaknesses they identified, but they agreed on two concrete activities that they felt might improve media coverage.

The journalists felt that better resource materials, including briefing papers and lists of recommended books and articles, would help improve coverage of the ongoing conflict in the southern Philippines.

They also felt that a list of standards for coverage should be available.

The group decided to do something to address these needs: create a web site to which journalists can turn for the needed resource materials and for lists of standards on how to cover war and other types of conflict sensitively.

The journalists had been meeting across three days in late March and early April in Subic Bay in a roundtable discussion organized by the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research at the University of Georgia.

Lee Becker talks with Jessica Soho, vice-president of News at GMA Network, during a newsroom tour.

In addition to the 19 journalists, two experts on the conflict in Mindanao were in attendance, as was a journalist from Thailand, where the government also is dealing with a conflict in its southern regions.

The workshop was held at Subic Bay Yacht Club, so the journalists, most of whom worked in Manila, could get away from the routines of their work. Subic Bay is a three-hour drive from Manila.

“We are very western,” one of the journalists in the roundtable discussion said. “The people here who are Muslim are to us the ‘other,’” she said. The Manila journalists have difficulty covering the conflict in the south in part because of their lack of understanding of the culture there, many at the workshop agreed.

Most agreed, however, that the conflict between the government in Manila and the armed groups in Mindanao and other southern islands not only has religious components but also involves issues of land ownership, control over natural resources, economic development and poverty.

The conflict has been ongoing for more than 30 years, though peace negotiations are currently underway between the government and one of the local groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The journalists identified various problems in the coverage, including a focus on bloodshed and suffering, over-reliance on government sources, and the restaging of events to produce better visuals for televison and audio clips for radio.

The very competitive nature of the news business as well as traditional news definitions focusing on conflict were offered as explanations.

“Quite a number of stories focus just on the action,” said Carolyn Arguillas, editor-in-chief of MindaNews, an online news publication in Mindanao. Missing are stories that give the background of the conflict and the details of view of the peace process, she said.

The group will put a set of guidelines for covering conflict developed in 2002 on the web site it is creating, as well as guidelines for Conflict Sensitive Journalism developed by Ross Howard for the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society (IMPACS) and guidelines from a book on Peace Journalism authored by Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick and published by Hawthorn Press.

“Not only should we share guidelines with professionals,” said Javier Vincent Rufino from the online publisher Inq7 and one of those agreeing to take primary responsibility for the web site to be developed out of the roundtable discussions. “Our readers should need to know them as well.”

The workshop was the second organized by the Cox Center in the Philippines in as many years as part of a project funded by a competitive grant from the United States Institute of Peace, an independent research and training organization located in Washington. In the spring of 2005 journalists from Mindanao met to discuss coverage of conflict in Cebu City.

The Cox Center is a unit of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. Foundation for Communication Initiatives assisted the Cox Center with local organization of the seminar in Subic Bay.

Cox Center Director Dr. Lee B. Becker and Assistant Director Dr. Tudor Vlad moderated the roundtable discussion. Following the workshop, the two visited radio, television and newspaper organizations in Manila to summarize the discussion for editors not about to attend the Subic Bay event.

The conflict in Mindanao, which involves indigenous peoples as well as the more organized Muslim community, saps resources from the country, many of those in the group lamented.

“Sometime in the future peace will return to Mindanao,” one of the journalists at the roundtable discussion said. “This is something very exciting.”