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Bacolod City, Philippines Thursday, April 30, 2015
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Dash to Deadline
with Eli Tajanlangit

Journalism's day of infamy

Yesterday may well go down in history as journalism's day of infamy, when five of the country's major newspapers “killed” Filipino maid Mary Jane Veloso who is on death row in Indonesia.

“Death came before dawn,” screamed the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “Farewell, Mary Jane,” said the tabloid Abante. “PNoy is to blame,” said the hopelessly anti-Aquino Manila Standard. “All hopes fade,” said the Manila Times.

The Manila Bulletin, at least, was able to redeem itself with its evolving headlines: “We're hoping for a miracle,” said its first edition; “No delay in execution” said its second edition and finally, “Veloso granted reprieve,” its third edition said.

The famous singer Jim Paredes captured what happened in one tweet: “More eggs on more faces. The Manila substandard can make a huge omelette. LoL. Disgraceful spin that boomeranged.”

It will take a long time for these newspapers, and the press in general, to live down this day when they were all caught committing the one unforgivable sin in journalism: a failure of facts, plain and simple.

Indeed, how can a huge and respectable news organization like the PDI fail in what is arguably one of the year's biggest stories? We can dismiss the Manila Standard's awful mistake, considering that it has always found every excuse to crucify the President, but the PDI? More intriguing thoughts: how can five newspapers fail in their facts together, at the same time?

Well, it was precisely because Mary Jane's execution was all done save for the actual shooting that the editors of these newspapers were emboldened to go ahead with their headlines, perhaps weighing that all things considered, theirs facts were 99 per cent sure.

Well, the one percent won out in the end, and they now have to explain to their readers what happened, which to my mind, is something that can never be explained to the ordinary reader. There is no explaining faux pas this big, and it is best for them to apologize, to own up to the mistake, because doing so carries with it the assumption that they will be more careful next time.

For us who work in the newsroom, this is a reminder, indeed, that we can never risk on assumption and calculation. Who would have thought that the execution of Mary Jane would be stayed, considering the determination that the Indonesian government had showed early on?

And yet, if I recall this correctly, there was some hair-thin hope the execution would be temporarily shelved, when the Indonesian cabinet was called to a meeting to discuss fresh information that Mary Jane's recruiter had surrendered and she would now serve as witness to what could be an international drug and human trafficking ring.

For once, we see the vulnerability of the press here and we are reminded of the fact that no matter how much care and caution and preparedness newspapers put into their work, they are still work of humans, and mistakes can very well happen, as it happened yesterday.

What makes this mistake worse is its impact on the credibility not only of these newspapers but of the press in general. From hereon, it will not be such a surprise if people read newspapers with a grain of salt, so to speak, to question every fact they present because if they can kill Mary Jane is such a dramatic fashion, what else can do with less emotional facts?*

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