Chayhofilena's Random Thoughts

On media, education and life

If only priests and policymakers understood arousal more

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Did you know that arguments for the distribution of condoms can be based on results of a scientific experiment that sought to show the influence of arousal on behavior?

In the heated debates over the Reproductive Health (RH) bill, proponents have used the poverty card often enough, if not resorted to criticizing advocates who rely solely on religious beliefs and Vatican pronouncements. Others have also used women’s rights and women’s health, even freedom of choice as counter-arguments to the weighty appeal to religious authority.

Opponents of safe sex advocates assert that distributing condoms for free would promote promiscuity, irresponsible sexual behavior on the part of the youth, and even unwanted pregnancies. To counter this, proponents of the RH bill cite recent survey results from Pulse Asia indicating that 69 percent of Filipinos favor the passage of the bill.

Surely, there has got to be a fresh perspective in all these exchanges. Looking at the debate over the distribution of condoms, for example, one could search for something empirically convincing. I found it in one of the amusing chapters of Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational” published in 2008.

Ariely and his collaborator carried out an experiment, tapping bright Berkeley students in 2001 to “understand the degree to which rational, intelligent people can predict how their attitudes will change when they are in an impassioned state.” They chose sexual arousal, so common and predictable among college students, because “understanding the impact of arousal on behavior might help society grapple with some of its most difficult problems, such as teen pregnancy and the spread of HIV-AIDS.”

Berkeley students, according to Ariely, are neither wild, rebellious nor risk-taking teenagers. 25 males were chosen for the experiment and were given a 12-key multicolored keypad to respond to questions answerable by yes or no. In their rational cold state, they were asked to imagine being sexually aroused and to reply to the questions as they would if they were aroused. Among the questions asked were, “Would you encourage your date to drink to increase the chance that she would have sex with you? and “Would you always use a condom if you didn’t know the sexual history of a new sexual partner?”

The conditions in a second session were slightly altered as the same subjects were instructed to get themselves aroused by viewing erotic pictures on a computer and masturbating. “What we want you to do is to arouse yourself to a high level, but not to ejaculate. In case you do, though, the computer will be protected.” An Apple iBook whose keyboard and screen were covered with Saran wrap were given to the subjects who were asked the same set of questions.

What did Ariely discover? Among others, he found that despite repeated warnings about the importance of condoms, subjects were 25 percent more likely to forego their use when in an aroused state. The propensity to engage in immoral activities when aroused also increased by more than double. “Prevention, protection, conservatism, and morality disappeared completely from the radar screen.”

“Sexual arousal is familiar, personal, very human, and utterly commonplace. Even so, we all systematically underpredict the degree to which arousal completely negates our superego, and the way emotions can take control of our behavior,” Ariely asserts.

Those who believe that abstinence is adequate protection against sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies may be wrong. According to Ariely, “in the heat of passion, we are all in danger of switching from ‘Just say no’ to ‘Yes!’ in a heartbeat; and if no condom is available, we are likely to say yes, regardless of the dangers.” Just think of priests who themselves have sired children, or of religious who have engaged in consensual though prohibited sex.

What do the findings of his experiment suggest? For teenagers, it is important to teach them how to say no “before a situation becomes impossible to resist.” Likewise, precisely because this may not be easy since passion cannot be switched off at will, widespread availability of condoms is essential—just in case.

“One thing is sure: if we don’t teach our young people how to deal with sex when they are half out of their minds, we are not only fooling them; we’re fooling ourselves as well.” If only there were less hypocrisy around, we would perhaps be closer to formulating more sound policies and strategies relating to reproductive health and safe sex.

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Written by chayhofilena

December 9, 2010 at 9:49 pm

We Leak

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Is WikiLeaks good or bad news for journalism? Any quick or easy verdict would be an oversimplification.

The big news is that founder Julian Assange, an Australian, is being hunted by the Interpol for sexual charges relating to two Swedish women sometime in August. The arrest warrant is obviously a form of harassment intended to shut him up or close down his operations. This type of harassment doesn’t always work, however, as the closure of one site can mean the opening of another—pretty much like terrorist cells that mutate because they are anchored on an ideology. In the case of WikiLeaks, a strong argument for its existence is really the quest for transparency and the right to freedom of expression.

At the core of the debate over WikiLeaks, I think, is the question of whether there are absolute rights. Should governments have absolute rights to secrecy, in the same way that individuals should have absolute rights to privacy? On what occasions can the abrogation of those rights be justified? Quick but tricky answers are when there are threats to life or threats to national security.

If employees of private banks or investment houses uploaded vital personal information about their Top 100 depositors or investors (name, address, amount of deposits or investments) on the Web, this will be most beneficial to journalists who will have a lode from which to extract wonderful, rich information. It will also benefit tax collectors and other government personnel tasked with lifestyle checks.

Individuals on the Top 100 list could stake a claim on the absolute right to secrecy because without it, their lives could be put in danger. They know that the information disclosed will make them easy targets of kidnappers and other criminal syndicates. Using the same argument, governments could also make a case for secrecy on grounds that publication of details about a person on the list who could hypothetically be an agent on a mission, might jeopardize his and his family members’ lives and in turn, endanger national security. And yet, the upside of disclosure is greater transparency and the exercise of the right to freedom of expression.

Some journalists have argued that WikiLeaks is great for journalism because it can provide context and perspective to decisions made by governments. Locally, think of Philippine National Police “confidential” documents relating to the Dacer-Corbito case landing in a local version of WikiLeaks. Or of “highly confidential” exchanges between Manila and Washington over the Lance Corporal Daniel Smith Subic rape case being exposed.

Defense, police, diplomatic and Palace reporters would surely have a field day. Defense and police reporters would understand the roles, if any, that Sen. Ping Lacson and former President Joseph Estrada played in this case. And if diplomatic and Palace reporters had their hands on vital documents before Smith was acquitted, who knows if the acquittal wouldn’t have happened? Or if his being spirited away would have been prevented?

Then there are still other journalists who have countered that WikiLeaks is a bane to journalism because governments would become even more secretive than they already are. As it is, even in democratic environments where a free press supposedly exists, obtaining official and harmless documents from government offices can already be such a challenge. Here, the degree of paranoia will certainly rise to a preponderant level—to the detriment of those pushing for the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, for instance.

In both situations, arguments are valid. One could even contend that WikiLeaks could make journalists lazy and less enterprising or resourceful. True. But it would also make their jobs a whole lot easier. Also true. Then again, in our country, we naturally leak. Our lively gossip mill is our institutional version of WikiLeaks, minus the documents and the vetting.

What is undoubtedly revolutionary about this whole issue is that WikiLeaks wrests power from those who feel that absolute secrecy is their ultimate protection. It rocks the status quo as it creates an unsettling degree of insecurity on the part of those who have become too comfortable not having to account for decisions they have made. It is an equalizer of sorts. At the same time, there might come a point when documents and cables will contain information that is no longer useful or revealing. This could spell irrelevance for WikiLeaks and inordinately raise the value and importance of insiders and whistle-blowers. Thankfully, we still have a number of those brave souls.

Written by chayhofilena

December 3, 2010 at 5:24 pm

Changing of the Guards

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Whenever there are major movements in newsrooms and networks, journalists and ordinary folks alike often take notice. There is endless speculation about what could have caused a resignation or a dismissal. Rumors about who’s soon to get the boot or who’s expected to come barging in swirl like whirling dervishes. After all, it is an information business.

When Cheche Lazaro and her Probe Team left GMA-7 in November 2003, it left a lot of bad blood that has not been diluted one bit by the passage of time. When Luchi Cruz Valdez left ABS-CBN in 2008 after jumping from the GMA fences in 2002, talk about a power struggle among the newsroom executives also circulated among practitioners. When Bel Cunanan, a long-time columnist of the Inquirer, was let go just this year, it stirred controversy and raised questions about partisanship among columnists, or journalists, for that matter.

When Maria Ressa, news and current affairs head of ABS-CBN, announced Monday evening that she was ending her contract this year and that Ging Reyes, the network’s North America bureau chief was taking over, it unleashed a fusillade of questions and speculations about the reasons for her departure.

Was there a falling out with big boss Gabby Lopez? Was the hostage crisis coverage the culprit? Did both internal and external politics become too hot to handle? Was the invisible hand of TV5’s Manny V. Pangilinan at work somewhere? Was the entry of Ging (a former executive producer of TV Patrol when Noli de Castro was at the helm), and the foreseeable return of the former vice president himself, part of the reason? And for that matter, Korina Sanchez? Are there irreconcilable differences over the return of these two personalities who have strong associations with politics?

If there’s anything certain about the media, it is its instability. And borrowing from author Dan Ariely, the media too can be so “predictably irrational.” One time you’re at the top; another moment, you’re out. If you’re lucky and patient enough to wait it out, you can even get a second wind. Reasons for the predictable unpredictability can range from purely business interests to political pressure, public criticism, popularity, loose talk, or just plain personal issues.

The irrationality is especially true for television whose vulnerability stems from both its influence and its being a capital-intensive business. Its strength is also the very source of its weakness. When journalists say “you are only as good as your last story,” it is true especially for TV where stories are even more fleeting. Network executives would adopt a variation: “You are only as good as the last meaningful battle won.”

How does one survive the instability and irrationality of the media? Veterans’ lists would include the following: 1. know the lay of the land and the power players; 2. do due diligence and know what the agenda or interests of the players are—these tend to shift; 3. choose the battles you wish to be part of—not all battles are worth fighting; 4. learn the art of healthy compromise—reciprocity demands give and take; 5. ally yourself with the dominant players; 6. strengthen your forces and constantly watch your back; 7. have a core group that does regular analyses and readings of the situation with you; 8. adapt or adjust your action plans accordingly; 9. avoid painting yourself into irrelevance; constantly reinvent yourself; 10. have an exit plan and timetable in anticipation of a worst case scenario, and leave when compromising your core beliefs and principles becomes an imperative.

The soul must remain intact. At all costs.

Written by chayhofilena

October 14, 2010 at 3:32 am

A Driver’s Half-a-Dozen Pet Peeves

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Please allow me to rant, just this once.

Patience is not one of my virtues. I have long acknowledged this as among my weaknesses. The only times I am able to handle it quite well is when I am writing, teaching, and working on a story.

But as a driver in the crazy and chaotic streets of the city, I lose it because there are just too many challenges to my patience every single day. I lost it so badly one time, I furiously and repeatedly honked the horn of my old Volkswagen until it fell off!

My only comfort is that I know I am not alone. These challenges have been my perennial pet peeves and the first government that is able to fix them or deal with them will win my vote in the next elections. After all, if a government can’t solve simple problems, all the more it won’t be in a position to handle more complex ones.

1. Manila Water, the best road wrecker in town.
Its corporate tagline says, “Securing the future today.” Ironically, its contractors madly drill and barrel through even the rare, perfectly cemented roads supposedly to lay pipes for the future. They leave behind a consistent corporate imprint—roads left in disrepair and low-grade asphalt hurriedly and unevenly laid over what were once smooth paved roads. And by the way, who’s supposed to make sure that roads are restored to their original state after the wrecking crew has left? Fortunately for the road wreckers, nobody complains loud enough. So while government builds roads, private contractors destroy them and get away with it.

2. Jeepney drivers who stop and wait for passengers by “No loading or unloading” signs.
Without a care in the world, they mistake or misread “no loading or unloading” for “jeepney terminal.” Never mind if they block traffic or that a long queue of vehicles has started to loudly honk their horns to get them to move—all in vain. Jeepney drivers are quick to complain about their rights being violated but have absolutely zero sense of community. Do Metro Manila traffic enforcers give a hoot? Hell, no. That’s why the tong system thrives.

3. Buses that can’t keep to their lanes.
Here, road lanes are mere suggestions of space that vehicles could confine themselves to. Swerving is common practice so that when whimsical Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) traffic enforcers suddenly halt vehicles that carefully shift from one lane to the next, drivers cry bribery! Buses bully and barrel their way through, and given their bulk and their hulk, they should be easy targets for traffic violation tickets. Yet traffic enforcers choose to look the other way.

4. Worsening EDSA traffic.
When the Aquino administration took over, the traffic managers tried to put on a good opening performance. Colorum buses were targeted and lined up close to the People Power monument, providing drivers who regularly ply the EDSA route a brief respite from traffic stress. MMDA chairman Francis Tolentino even put traffic enforcers on the graveyard shift, but really, nothing has changed. Are the colorum buses back with a vengeance, contributing to the over-two-million vehicle load on EDSA? Rhetorical question.

5. Tricycle lanes exempt from one-way roads.
“One way” means all traffic should head toward one direction. Yet one-way streets are bound to have one lane dedicated to tricycles that are allowed to go in the opposite direction. Why the special treatment and the accommodation, and for how much? No wonder road and traffic signs are never taken seriously by motorists.

6. Smoke-belchers
Old rickety, unkempt, dilapidated buses continue blowing black billows of smoke on windshields that protect motorists from toxic emissions. Last September, the environment department reported that air pollution in the metro is worse compared to last year, with emissions close to 50 percent above normal standard. Yet buses, jeepneys, tricycles—the very culprits that had already been identified—continue with their toxicity. It seems we have to wait for a case of death from smoke-belching before authorities act more decisively. In which case, I would propose that a minimum 30-minute direct exposure to black emissions become part of the penalty for offending drivers. “Back to you!” or “Up your nose!” I’d love to declare.

Written by chayhofilena

October 7, 2010 at 1:22 am

Looking Ahead

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Every crisis is an opportunity for growth and further strengthening. The media, which are thrust into such challenging and unpleasant circumstances, are no exception.

GMA-7’s improved guidelines for crisis coverage (GMA Network releases new guidelines for crisis coverage) was a breath of fresh air in the otherwise suffocating media tunnel. Hopefully, the rest of the broadcast industry would emulate and build on them. Change in the entire broadcast industry, after all, will not come about with just one initiative.

What is noteworthy about GMA-7’s effort is that the guidelines were made public after their own introspection and review of their own coverage. The guidelines reflect sensitivity to realities on the ground, including the inability of our police to control the media or the crowd. The guidelines also mirror a basic principle: value for human life—not only that of journalists’, but more importantly, of hostages and possible victims.

Likewise, the effort to reach out to the public is evident with the guideline, “Explain to viewers why certain information is being withheld.” As some viewers themselves had said, there was over-information at some points, information they didn’t need to know and didn’t appreciate having at particular moments.

The openness to dialogue with authorities for better coordination during similar crisis situations is a positive signal they are sending out, too.

But what about live coverage policies? All the network says is, “In the event of live coverage, avoid revealing in video and audio the plans, positions, movements, weapons, and preparations of law enforcers.” Other networks and radio stations will most likely agree that it would be difficult to legislate or regulate this altogether. Quick judgment calls will have to be made for every similar situation, with critical questions being anticipated, among them:

1) Are we endangering lives if we go live?

2) If we sense that risks have risen exponentially, are we able and prepared to delay broadcast?

3) What are our contingencies for coverage of crisis situations?

4) Are our people deployed both on the ground and for coverage supervision experienced and mature enough to deal with the hazards and surprises of crisis situations?

5) Are we ready to explain our decisions to our public, especially if they turn out to be wrong? Are we ready to be accountable?

For sure, individual efforts are excellent beginnings, but if they remain isolated from each other, the net effect will not be as powerful as when they become coordinated and complementary.

After all the stormy exchanges and finger-pointing, it really is time to sit down and try to communicate with each other about how best to move forward. Hopefully the catharsis gives birth to new beginnings.

For the record, the GMA-7 guidelines as released, are reposted below for quick reference. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by chayhofilena

September 11, 2010 at 3:03 pm

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Heroes

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A junior student of mine in Investigative Journalism wrote an article for the Phil. Star last Saturday about her heroes. “The men and women whose bylines appear in newspaper headlines and columns every single day are my role models. The extra chatty radio broadcasters who keep rush hour traffic a little saner, they’re my kind of rock stars. The people who bring my family a daily round-up of news on television every night, someday I’d like to be one of them. These people–these journalists, broadcasters and members of the media–they are my heroes,” wrote Iya Joson in her piece, Reckless Heroism.

Then she continued, “So you can just imagine how heavy my heart was when I caught my heroes acting everything else but heroic five days ago. My eyes stung when I saw them stubbornly persisting to catch the entire crisis on air, because the heroes I knew would have (done) their best to control the release of explicit, compromising information. My breathing was thick with disappointment when I heard the reporters’ voice-overs to the video, because my heroes wouldn’t have gone as far as sharing inaccurate and, often, insensitive commentaries on live television. How my heroes–the media–handled the hostage massacre on Aug. 23 was a painful slap on everything I knew as an aspiring journalist.”

Ouch. As someone who also teaches journalism, I try my very best to balance idealism and theory on the one hand,  with pragmatism and large doses of reality on the other hand. It is never wise for any aspiring journalist to venture out into the world cloaked in or protected by excessive naivete. It is always best to get one’s hands dirty, see the ugly side of people and life, and plunge into valleys of darkness to better survive the sometimes harsh world of writing and reporting.

Yet I am careful to temper my sometimes jaded view of journalism and try my very best to inject excitement, idealism, values, and hope. After all, there is no profession or craft like journalism. One can make a difference, meet different kinds of people from all walks of life, be immersed in different places and situations in a short span of time, and grow in wisdom while mastering the ways of the world. As they say, journalism is a life-long learning experience. It teaches you to be street-smart. It teaches you about your limits and makes you realize how far you are willing to go to stretch them. It’s a continuing journey of self-discovery. Can you beat that?

After an eye-opener that is Newswriting and a more rigorous and stressful Investigative Journalism, some students who go through the wringer make wise decisions. They either realize they are not cut out for journalism or they deepen their resolve to plunge into it after they graduate. It’s not easy, they know.

Whenever there are major crisis events in the media, I come alive and I worry to death at the same time. From the professional and even academic standpoint, there is new experience to learn from, talk and debate about. From the teaching perspective, there is concern that more of the youth will shun the practice of journalism because of extreme disappointment and sheer disgruntlement. This is bad for a profession that needs a continuous supply of critical thinkers who can write and run after stories too. So I continue to wish that deep inside, they regard even ugly experiences as part of the challenge.

Iya ended her piece with, “In the embarrassing aftermath of it all, I will take comfort in knowing that because what happened last Monday happened, it will never, ever repeat itself again. My heroes will hopefully get their good cape straight again–Aug. 23 will be the last time reckless journalism will set foot in this country.”

And I couldn’t help but bite my lower lip and restrain my spontaneous urges.

Written by chayhofilena

September 2, 2010 at 4:43 pm

When the Dust Settles: Thoughts on the Luneta Hostage Tragedy

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We are so broken yet so proud to ever admit it. We will acknowledge a few mistakes we’ve committed but will go only as far as the competition will themselves admit.

We are so powerful yet are unable to make tough ethical decisions without prodding from authorities. No different from children, we need to be told and controlled. Yet we cry censorship or violation of press freedom when we are told what we cannot do. We do not want our freedoms curtailed in the belief that freedom is absolute when deep inside we know it isn’t.

We watch with horror video or images that slip through coverage but are slow to come up with policies to assure our public that these would never happen again. Instead we say that collective decisions made by major players in the industry should be made.

We are afraid, we are helpless, we think it will all be futile if there is no decision made by the media to collectively agree on ethical protocol. Or we say we are making individual reviews and will come up with our own, separate policies as if this would cure the problem that plagues the industry.

We prefer pointing to the lapses of others (it’s easier to do, after all) than admitting what we could have done better. The police, the military, and authorities are our favorite enemies.

We tend to trumpet what we did right even at a time when a horrible tragedy stares us in the face. In the same breath we declare that had a news blackout been ordered, we would have followed. All we needed was to be told. And then we don’t understand when our public remains critical and does not seem to appreciate what we’ve managed to do.

We send them mixed signals, that’s why. We try to convince our public we adhere to ethical standards by pointing out what we did right, but we mix that with market standards. All broadcast companies must follow the same restrictions for coverage so that everyone is on a level-playing field and no one loses audience share.

Without acknowledging it, the fear of losing market share when we choose to do what we believe is right, irrespective of the consequences, is too much to handle. In the end, even when we do not explicitly say so, we admit that even in life-threatening coverage, the market rules.

This is not to say we did not do anything right or that we have never learned anything from past coverage of similar crisis situations. We have had ample exposure: there was the Philtranco bus terminal hostage situation in June 2002 which had a TV reporter acting as mediator and the NAIA air traffic control tower takeover by Panfilo Villaruel in November 2003 which also had a radio anchor acting as mediator. Both situations tragically ended in deaths.

Then there was the Oakwood mutiny in July 2003 and the Manila Peninsula takeover in November 2007, both involving the military. Three years later, we have the Luneta hostage tragedy that ended with eight tourists dead.

Certainly, given these experiences, some valuable on-the-ground lessons have been learned. What did we do right in the latest hostage drama? This time around, most of us refused to be involved as negotiators or mediators. We have learned that we do not possess the expertise to handle situations like these. However, as of this writing, we are unsure if some of our radio colleagues were still obsessed with the scoop. Neither are we sure if they were truly or solely responsible for agitating the hostage-taker or keeping the phone lines busy when trained negotiators were trying to reach him. If investigations show their culpability, it is inexcusable.

Among us, some but not all, exercised a degree of restraint. It may not have been that evident given live coverage on television and radio. Print journalists acknowledge that the job of broadcast journalists is harder than theirs because quick decisions have to be made on the spot with little time for reflection. The levels of tension and stress rise considerably when such decisions have to be made for live coverage. One must experience it to truly understand that it is far from a perfect or ideal situation and mistakes and misjudgments are bound to occur.

Though having the best of intentions, unpredictability rules and destroys everything that the most well meaning of us intend. We wish that we had the gift of perfect foresight but we don’t.

The more experienced among us tried to be more sober in our reporting but it was difficult to control one’s excitement and fear of being shot in the crossfire.

Though mirroring incremental gains compared to past coverage, much is still to be desired. We need to be more humble and to accept that we do not know everything. Humility, after all, precedes genuine learning.

Like other institutions in our decades-old democracy, we too, are broken. We need to strengthen ourselves, we need our public’s criticism and inputs, for we realize that without a public that believes in us, we lose our reason for being.

Urgent question demanding an urgent answer: concretely, what do we do now?

Written by chayhofilena

August 30, 2010 at 5:08 pm

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