Writing at a Time of Turmoil


From Jumpstart Your Freelance Writing Career (April 2010) | Photo by Ena Terol
From Jumpstart Your Freelance Writing Career (April 2010) | Photo by Ena Terol

As I write this, it’s the evening before we close our workshop, Jumpstart Your Freelance Writing Career 2.0, and a few days after the much-publicized hostage crisis in Quirino Grandstand, Manila. On one hand, it is part of my job in Writer’s Block Philippines to encourage writers and other kindred spirits in the creative industry to follow their passions and try to write for a living; on the other, I am reminded of the tremendous burdens that writers and journalists carry on their shoulders.

And I can only underscore that writing, although highly creative and has been defined by many by its romantic characteristics, is a craft and a discipline. It comes easily at times, but it is also complex and challenging–especially in today’s age of fast and easy access to information, social media, and everyone’s obsession with “the right to know.”

Writing as a craft and a discipline

Writing, at its core, is both an art and a science–much like baking a cake or playing the piano. Before you can even be creative with its execution, you need to have mastered your fundamentals. Grammar, usage, and composition are very, very important, and before you even start to get flowery with your words you’ll need to know how best to say what you really want to say.

Add to that the fact of having to fulfill editors’ or clients’ objectives, under often-tight deadlines, and the task becomes even more challenging and, sometimes, nerve-wracking.

And once you throw into the mix the reality that writers in the Philippines (or, perhaps, writers everywhere in the world) don’t really get paid much and often have to wait for months before their paychecks come out, then you’ll understand why writing is such a high-EQ activity. It takes passion, dedication, commitment, perseverance, and a lot of hard work to succeed–and to succeed ethically–in this field.

The tremendous responsibility of journalists

Once a writer takes up the challenge of being a journalist, the responsibilities become much greater, the stakes much higher. In the European Journalism Institute, the program I attended just in July, we were reminded of the nine fundamental principles of journalism:

  1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
  2. Journalism’s first loyalty is to its citizens.
  3. The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification.
  4. Its practitioners must maintain a distance from those they write about.
  5. Journalism must serve as an independent monitor of power.
  6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
  7. Journalism must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
  8. It must keep news comprehensive and proportional.
  9. Journalism practitioners must be allowed to practice their personal conscience.

Credit: Professor Laura Kelly, European Journalism Institute 2010

Filipino broadcast journalism Erwin Tulfo at a Senate hearing on the bus hostage crisis | Photo by Paul Zialcita
Filipino broadcast journalism Erwin Tulfo at a Senate hearing on the bus hostage crisis | Photo by Paul Zialcita

The widely criticized coverage of the Quirino Grandstand hostage crisis underscored all of this, and it opened up serious issues of ethics and competence among our reporters. Did they truly know how to cover a life-threatening crisis such as this one? Regardless of police directives, or the lack thereof, weren’t they aware of their boundaries as reporters and truth-seekers? Did the ratings game between networks really come into play in the coverage?

When is enough enough, and when does a reporter’s job end and the urgent task of saving lives begin? Our friends in Philippine media are still reeling from the question, and nobody is offering up any reassuring answers.

How blogging and social media are changing the landscape

The explosion of blogging and social media has forever changed the way people consume–and produce–information, as well as the way we write. Well-researched, in-depth reports are no longer the order of the day; these days, people want everything in bite-sized pieces, and they want them fast. Twitter has revolutionized (or revived?) the art of writing headlines, and anyone with a camera phone can now send information to the wires and be a “citizen journalist.”

I have to admit: I’m a fan of citizen journalism, and it’s a shift that I advocate. However, some discussions in EJI–plus the fact that the title “blogger” was hardly met with any admiration while I was in Europe–have opened my eyes to the reality that blogging and bloggers have, to a large extent, eroded the standards of journalism. Unethical blogging practices have put the reputation of online journalism at serious risk, and the proliferation of purely free content has put a huge dent on freelance writers’ income potential.

Why pay for content when you can get it for free?

Who needs to fact-check when you can put a piece up to drive traffic to your site and then just remove it later if it turns out to be false?

It’s clear that bloggers need to be trained on the discipline that accompanies “traditional” (or “legacy”) journalism, and while some blogging organizations are actually quite vigilant when it comes to journalism standards, others simply don’t bother; they continue to get the perks of blogging anyway.

Where do we draw the lines?

All of these realities are making the profession of freelance writing even more challenging than it used to be. It is no longer just enough to turn in a good story on time; a freelance writer now also has to contend with a rapidly changing landscape, growing competition, technology shifts, dipping pay, and a public that is insatiable and easy to criticize.

And speaking of the public: How much should they really know anyway? When is enough enough, or when is it too much or too little? In the case of the bus hostage crisis, did they really need to know everything in real-time? Couldn’t the coverage have been delayed even by a few minutes so as not to divulge too much information that became readily available to the hostage-taker? When journalists engage the public on Twitter and sometimes offer opinions and colored comments, aren’t they crossing the lines of objectivity and bias? And as for citizen journalists and bloggers with no formal media training, should they really be let loose with press passes and be allowed to cover events once reserved only for journalists?

There are many questions and not enough answers–at least not for now. But, perhaps, as we learn from the painful lessons of the past and, as Daniel Wagner has written in the Huffington Post, “demand more of [ourselves],” we will find more ways to equip ourselves with the proper tools and mindsets to do our jobs better.

Indeed, the demands of the job are growing. We will need to strike a balance between getting a good story and being guided by our ethics. We will need to remain objective and unbiased even when it becomes tempting to use our names to promote–or destroy–something. We will need to thorough and accurate, yet speedy and efficient. We will need to balance the need to serve the public and the the need to feed ourselves. We will be contending with a lot of issues, and must  face them squarely and honestly.

We have no other choice. As writers who are as good only as our last byline, our survival in this industry will depend on our ability to transcend the turmoils of present.

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Niña Terol-Zialcita, Writer’s Block Philippines (August 28, 2010)