Live Coverage of Philippine Hostage Situation Sparks Criticism, Debate

When journalists in the Philippines heard that a man was holding tourists on a bus hostage on Monday, they were faced with a tough question: Should they broadcast live coverage of the situation?

Many broadcast news outlets decided to go live, giving viewers front-row access to a crisis that led to the death of eight tourists and hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza, a former police officer who was fired last year after being charged with extortion and robbery.

Journalists’ live coverage and involvement in the crisis has sparked discussion about three key issues that Filipinos continue to debate:

  • The disagreement between journalists and the public over how the situation should have been covered
  • The need for greater communication between journalists and the police during hostage situations
  • The differences between how the Philippines and the U.S. have applied ethical guidelines to crisis situations

Why the media coverage sparked criticism

News consumers used Twitter to publicly blame the media for risking the lives of the tourists and for enabling Mendoza, who had access to a TV in the bus, to track how a police assault team was responding. Viewers were especially concerned that live footage of Mendoza’s brother being arrested caused the hostage-taker to become more violent. Shortly after the arrest, shots were fired from inside the bus.

Many tweeted and posted to Facebook a link to an 11-year-old Poynter story in which ethics guru Bob Steele wrote about why journalists shouldn’t provide live coverage of hostage situations. They faulted the media for not following the guidelines and for interviewing Mendoza during the standoff.

One local radio station did a live interview with him. ABS-CBN, one of the Philippines’ major broadcast networks, also interviewed him but aired it later. And at Mendoza’s request, one broadcast journalist showed up to help with the negotiations.

Tony Velasquez, a senior news correspondent for ABS-CBN and an anchor for ANC, its English-language news channel, said the station considered the implications of its decision to broadcast the hostage situation live. He pointed out that the decision would have been easier to make if there had been better communication between police and journalists.

“Most of our colleagues agree that our overriding goal of delivering information justified keeping the live broadcast on air,” Velasquez said via e-mail. “But in retrospect, some have also acknowledged that the authorities could, and should, have put their foot down when the situation was getting critical, and directed that live coverage be cut before any provocative action against the hostage-taker would be taken.”

Maria Ressa, head of ABS-CBN News & Current Affairs and managing director of ANC, talked in an e-mail interview about the uncertainty and chaos surrounding the hostage situation. Police provided little guidance, she said, and they brought family members to the scene and allowed them to speak freely with the media.

“In my view, covering these situations is always a struggle between journalists, whose goal is to tell the story, and authorities, who must resolve the situation,” Ressa said. “Controlling the information is part of resolving that. If authorities are in control, they lay ground rules. It makes journalists’ jobs easier.”

Police, who were widely criticized for botching the rescue attempt, have since admitted that the assault team that tried to rescue the hostages was inadequately trained.

In an effort to help both police and the media, President Benigno Aquino III has assigned government officials to meet with various media groups to set up parameters for covering future hostage situations.

Addressing cultural differences in coverage

Ressa and others from ABS-CBN said that journalistic practices widely accepted in the U.S. are not as relevant halfway across the world.

“Every country has its own tradition of journalism and culture, which can change the way journalists operate,” Ressa said.

She was one of the first people to tweet a link to Steele’s guidelines on Monday, but by Tuesday she was defending why journalists acted otherwise. In response to criticism of the media, Ressa tweeted: “In phil, where some officials even turn to journalists to negotiate, the rules are very different. Hostage sitns vary with culture & context.”

This isn’t the first time that the media in the Philippines have provided live coverage of a hostage situation or tried to interview a hostage-taker. During a similar bus-hijacking incident in the Philippines three years ago, most local radio stations interviewed the hostage-taker live from the scene, Ressa said.

ANC’s “Media in Focus” cable TV program addressed the differences in how the American and Filipino media cover hostage situations. The program tweeted highlights from a “Media in Focus” interview between Ressa and Vergel Santos of the Philippine Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. One tweet read: “Ressa: In this country, have journalists ever NOT interviewed a hostage-taker? Vergel Santos: It’s the least you could do.”

Jojo Malig, a copy editor/writer for ABS-CBN, talked to me via e-mail about the differences in coverage.

“Reporting live from hostage scenes is standard in the Philippine media setting,” Malig said. “Viewers/listeners/readers expect media interviews with hostage-takers, kidnappers, and terrorist-groups. You cannot say that the way the coverage was handled was wrong, because it was expected to be that way.”

But was it?

Many in the Philippines, Ressa explained, have expectations of the media that may differ from those in other nations. And they rely on the media differently.

“People do expect live coverage, and we’re criticized if we don’t give it,” Ressa said. “We have weak institutions and endemic corruption, and focus group discussions show media is one of the few institutions Filipinos trust. When they have problems, they run to us. Part of the reason is because when we deploy news teams to disaster areas, we automatically deploy a public service team as well.”

Reassessing the decision to go live

Though the hostage crisis has ended, the conversation about how it was covered has in many ways just begun. Journalists and news consumers are now assessing the media’s coverage and how it could have been handled differently.

Paul Pajo, a lecturer for applied mathematics at De La Salle — College of Saint Benilde, created a survey for anyone interested in the media coverage. Pajo said in an e-mail interview that he’s hoping to use the survey results (which he is still collecting) to gauge how media coverage aligned with Steele’s guidelines.

At ABS-CBN, Ressa has been having ongoing conversations with her colleagues about other ways the station — and the media in general — could have approached the story.

There are alternatives to live coverage, Poynter’s Steele told me in a phone interview. Echoing much of the advice he offered more than a decade ago, Steele pointed out that journalists could have reported from the scene but not gone live. By not airing live footage of crisis situations, he said, journalists can omit details that could potentially harm the individuals involved.

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He suggested that journalists covering hostage situations ask themselves: What do the viewers need to know, and when do they need to know it?

“Clearly, people needed to know a lot about this very volatile situation in the streets of Manila, and they needed to know it quickly,” Steele said. “But did they need to know it instantaneously? That would be hard to justify.”

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