Thursday, February 03, 2005

Tracking changing stories

Tracking changing stories

Posted 11:28pm (Mla time) Feb 02, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the February 3, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

HAS this country become a media treadmill? And does it straightjacket us into mechanically inserting new data, over dated figures, within stale stories with dusted-off headlines?

That bone-weary question arises when you scan new findings, whether in population, forests, nutrition, schools, even gunning down of journalists. "Is there anything new under the sun?" a burnt-out Ecclesiastes asked in 300 B.C.

At a Philippine Press Institute meeting, for example, former Health Undersecretary Mario Taguiwalo lucidly summarized impacts from a population that mushroomed from 43 million in 1975 to roughly 83 million today.

"Our national papers published in the mid-1960s the first reports on population surges," recalled the demographer sitting next to me, Mercedes Concepcion, the University of the Philippines (UP) Population Institute's founding director. "You wrote that series. Remember?"

Yes, but what changed since then? you asked as Taguiwalo displayed slide number 16. It was on skewed income distribution.

In 1961, the upper half of Filipinos nailed roughly 82 centavos out of every peso. The poorer half made do with 17 centavos -- crumbs, really. By the year 2000, their share of crumbs barely budged. The better off had a “kosing” [centavo] shaved off their 82 centavos. And the poor had a “kosing” tacked to their 17 centavos.

But the arithmetic shifted. In 1961, there were 27 million of the poor. By the 21st century's start, that had swollen to 76 million. "The population issue is about impoverished people," Taguiwalo said.

It's about "expanding their choices to lead the lives they value," as the UN's Human Development Report notes. But with 17 centavos, what choices do our poor have?

They have no tiaras, like Imelda Marcos. Nor can they fly barbers in business class to Hong Kong. Joseph Estrada did that when he needed a trim. That disparity makes our TB incidence inevitable: 219 for every 100,000 citizens. Compare that to 26 for Thais, 8 for Mexicans.

Of course, numbers "alone cannot explain poverty." In their follow-up paper on the fiscal crisis, UP professors underscore that "bad governance, high wealth and income inequality, weak economic growth" stoke penury.

Thus, journalists must "track a story in real time," CNN's Frank Cesno says. "The story changes out from under you, and you've got to ride the roller-coaster."

So, did you track your stories on the first protests in the 1960s on spreading forest devastation? asked Metro Post editor Irma Faith Pal at a Silliman University seminar. "Your hair is now gray," she noted.

The late Sen. Emmanuel Pelaez and forester Nicolas Lansigan, we wrote then, hit the alarm button, saying the logging frenzy couldn't be sustained. Clear-cutting would chainsaw into resource base itself. Forest cover, then, was a still-manageable 39 percent of the total area. We strutted among the four prima donnas of world timber exporters.

Today, the country is a wood pauper. We buy logs from Sabah or New Zealand, a country that nurtured tree plantations. Forest cover has been whittled down to barely 17 percent. Yet, remaining stands in the Sierra Madre and remote parts of Mindanao are being ravaged, if Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago's privilege speech is right, by people like Angara-Castillo, Zubiri, Enverga, Joson, among 42 officials in 25 provinces.

That nationwide pattern of plunder beggared thousands. It wrecked a world-class industry. Unwittingly, we provided a case study on how not to handle a natural resource, the Food and Agriculture Organization notes. Worse, it handed denuded deserts on to future generations.

Journalists must track these basic changes. However, "the market has no alarm that sounds when a biological system's carrying capacity is breached," Worldwatch Institute cautions. The real costs for remedial policies, long postponed, appear belatedly in lethal flash floods, as in Aurora, Quezon, Ormoc and Caraga.

The treadmill prevails in the media. In Tagum, the 60th assault on a journalist, since 1986, has been reported. Yet, it was 26 in 1999 and rose to 32 by the year 2000. "Today, the body count is 56," Cebu's Press Freedom Week editorial noted in 2003.

Not a killer has been convicted. The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists blames "a culture of violence"-often condoned by officials-for making the Philippines, after Iraq, the world's deadliest place for media workers. Malacañang bristles at the charge of nurturing impunity. O.K. How about impotence?

Take schools. In 1996, we commented on the tail-ender record notched by Filipino students in the first International Mathematics and Science Tests. Today, Education Secretary Florencio Abad is confronted by the dusted off headlines: failure in the fourth IMST in 2004. And the Department of Public Works still spends P600,000 on a schoolhouse which the Chinese Federation of Commerce builds and donates for P300,000.

"Treadmill stories" are often about issues that persist over the long haul. But we in the press find the demand for "something new" bearing down relentlessly. It's difficult to stave off that pressure by greater stress on reporting of significance. But we must try. As the Nobel Laureate Archbishop Romero said, "We are prophets of a future not our own."


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