Sunday, March 02, 2014

Peddling a hoax


The first thing that hit me while watching the February 24 ABS-CBN late-night news report on the supposed “mysterious disease” caused by a “flesh-eating” bacteria that was allegedly spreading like an epidemic in Pangasinan was that the whole reportage was too dramatic to be taken seriously. Yes, truth is stranger than fiction, but truth seldom comes packaged in modern-day theatrical ways. Most often than not, truth comes in stark simplicity.
The ABS-CBN report was too scripted for comfort and seemed more like a documentary feature than a news report. The reporter Jasmin Romero was wearing a surgical gown and a mask although she still didn’t look like she was in danger of contracting something as common as, well, the common colds. The interviews and the shots of the patients and their families showed tell-tale signs of directing—the technical crew obviously had lots of time to block, rewrite, and reshoot. The background information provided on the two patients, their families, and their situations tended to focus on their deprivations; I half-expected to hear some sappy orchestral music playing in the background as musical score while the patients and their family members recited their litany of woes. The footages were too graphic, and some of the allegations (such as worms and ants allegedly coming out of the lesions) were clearly meant to shock rather than inform and educate. No sir, the whole thing didn’t come off as newsworthy.
The more analytical would also note the obvious lack of empirical facts in the story to merit credibility. How can two measly cases be considered an epidemic? And there was obviously no outbreak as the relatives of the two patients, who unlike Romero were not wearing protective gears, were clearly uninfected with the skin disorders.
But if - as ABS-CBN newsreader Julius Babao intoned - the item was really a piece of breaking news, the reportage should have had urgency and alarm written all over it. But as it turned out, it looked like a poorly-researched segment for, say, Ted Failon’s public affairs show, that someone in the news department picked up and given a sensationalist spin. Someone in ABS-CBN clearly made a monumental gaffe and others seemed to have allowed that person to run amuck with the story.
Unfortunately, it seems not too many people in this country are naturally suspicious or cynical. It does seem like we truly are a country of gullible people. I didn’t give the news story credence because I have seen a couple or two special reports on National Geographic that narrated the travails of people with rare skin diseases—I even saw that feature on a hapless woman that had advanced psoriasis—nails were growing on many parts of her body like scales. But apparently many people did give the ABS-CBN story credence and promptly went into full panic mode. A digital file of the newscast was the most forwarded video the following day. By lunch time, the story had started to spiral out of control and more flourishes have been added to the original story.
ABS-CBN promised a continuation of the report in which the reporter was supposed to establish a link between the two cases and the recent prophesies of self-titled prophet Vincent Selvakumar who predicted that a flesh-eating disease would spread from Pangasinan to the world. But public uproar, particularly in social networking sites, seemed to have armed ABS-CBN with a social conscience so the story was not only taken down its website, a public apology (or what was passed off as one) was issued.
One can always cast doubts on the sincerity of media networks, but the incident clearly illustrated just how easy it is for people to believe media reports, even those that are clearly spurious. This has been said more eloquently by others, but seriously folks, how does something nonsensical and alarmist such as the report on the “supposed epidemic” get through a battery of editors, production managers, hosts and newsreaders, and directors? More importantly, why did it take so long for ABS-CBN to withdraw the story and issue an apology?
At the same time, the incident clearly illustrated just how easy it is for people to believe news reports. Even when government authorities had already declared the supposed epidemic a hoax, there remained individuals who insisted that something sinister was afoot and that a conspiracy was in the works. In this country, media are more credible than government. This is why media must practice responsible journalism and broadcasting. We cannot afford a repeat of what happened.
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Because I am running out of space I will keep this simple and direct to the point: Please watch Repertory Philippines’ latest production August: Osage County. We caught a screening of the play last Friday and were enthralled by the brilliance of the material and the excellent staging. The whole cast led by Baby Barredo and Pinky Amador was stunning. There’s a movie version of the Pulitzer winning play and it stars Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. The movie has been gaining some buzz in the run-up to this year’s Oscars (where Streep is nominated again for outstanding performance. I would advise you to catch the play first before the movie gets shown on local theaters.

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