Wake Up, Philippines!

‘Right to Reply’ leads to confusion, absurdity

Posted in Constitutional Rights, Human Rights, Legislation, Media by Erineus on February 24, 2009

NO SUCH RIGHT?: My eyes have grown bleary reading and rereading the Bill of Rights (Article III of the Constitution). But I cannot find any so-called “Right to Reply” for persons cited in newspapers and other mass media.

What I see instead are two sections:

“Section 4. No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

“Section 7. The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”

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OTHER SIDE: The framers of the Constitution overdid themselves inserting all conceivable concerns of a nation emerging from Marcosian dictatorship. If they saw a basic right to anything important, they would have included it in the Bill of Rights.

But even with their penchant for thoroughness, the wise men and women who wrote the 1987 Charter did not include a Right to Reply that some quarters now insist on exercising in reaction to media reports.

There is really no need to insist. Legitimate media know it is to their best interest to print also the “other side” — not really as a matter of right of an interested party, but as a matter of policy of the paper and a matter of good practice of the writer.

The problem is that the process is so complicated that it borders on the absurd.

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SYMPATHY: Readers who do not know how a newspaper operates are likely to sympathize with the demand that media publish with equal prominence the side of anybody claiming to have been mentioned in an unfavorable light.

Those who are familiar only with the theories (but not the realities) of the press latch on to the romantic notion that everyone must have his side read or heard.

Many Right to Reply advocates address in scattergun fashion all newspaper items, without realizing that maybe they should be focusing only on news stories, the main fare of newspapers.

We should, for instance, differentiate between news stories and opinion pieces. We will cite later the difference between the two forms and show why a Right to Reply demand may not always apply.

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CONSTRAINTS: Reporters always strive to file a complete story within the constraints of time and space. Time refers to deadline, and space refers to the spot on a page where the story is to come out.

If the story touches on an issue where there are conflicting opinions, or if at least two persons are hurling accusations back and forth, how does the reporter present a complete story by deadline time and leave everybody happy?

The writer and his editor can hold the story until they have the complete details and all the sides balanced — but there is the real danger that by the time they finally come out with it, the competition has beaten them by a mile.

A good rule for a fast-breaking big story is to go with what you have, and whip up a follow-up on the double. You delay printing till the next edition and the competition would have grabbed your reader the next morning.

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VALUE JUDGMENT: Many times, some persons mentioned in, or omitted from, a story complain about their side not having been properly ventilated. Some of them then demand equal space to air their side.

Now, that is a big problem.

In this lumpy-bumpy world, not all opinions expressed on a subject deserve equal treatment. The writer and the editor have to exercise value judgment and give emphasis where due. You just have to trust them.

If newspapers accede to every Right to Reply demand, they would go bankrupt spending half of their time and resources printing the “other side.” Ironically, after the “other side” is printed, we are not even sure if we have seen the whole truth.

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COSTLY CONFUSION: Newspapers would have to double their pages (and double the costs) because aside from the day’s regular news, they would be carrying the replies to yesterday’s news.

Half of the front page would be reserved for replies to the previous day’s main stories. Layout artists would go crazy trying to balance things.

One story could spawn not one reply but several, because if many persons were mentioned and most of them demand to put in their side, the paper would end up with a reaction longer than the original story.

A way out of this costly confusion is not to mention names in delicate stories, so nobody can invoke a Right to Reply. Might as well convert the paper into a scandal sheet retailing nothing but blind items.

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OUT OF PLACE: I said earlier that we should differentiate between news stories and opinion pieces.

Opinion pieces include editorials, columns and commentaries. By definition, these are opinionated and are unabashedly subjective.

Precisely, a columnist is putting forward his position on an issue. It is therefore out of place to demand that he also give equal space and prominence to “the other side.”

Actually, the “other side” is — like the columnist’s piece — nothing but also opinion. The “other side” is not necessarily the truth.

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ePOSTSCRIPT: Read current and old POSTSCRIPTs at www.manilamail.com. E-mail feedback to fdp333@yahoo.com
View previous articles of this column.

POSTSCRIPT
By Federico D. Pascual Jr.

Updated October 16, 2008 12:00 AM
http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleid=407582

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