Agriculture biases, PAJ and the state of agri reporting

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The Philippine Agricultural Journalists Inc. (PAJ) recently held its Binhi Agricultural Journalism Awards, which celebrated the best and brightest in agricultural reporting in various fields, while lamenting the continued biases against agriculture, despite the unanimous chorus of economists that, if proper attention is only given to agriculture, massive poverty could be eradicated or reduced substantially.

Effects of agri biases on reportage. The biases against agriculture have also resulted in a dichotomized type of reportage between business stories and national issues. Many policy issues seldom become page-one material, being considered technical and relegated to the business sections, where they are drowned by “bigger” and preferred stories on banking, trade, capital markets and stories about top 100 companies. Stories about small farmers or their co-ops do not make news.

Not all media outfits have agricultural sections. In fact, one big paper scrapped its weekly agri-business page, which may be understandable, as agricultural firms, like fertilizer companies, no longer advertise in publications that have more urban-based readers. For them, it is better to invest in point-of-sale promos aimed directly at farmers.

Perhaps, there is a chance of taking a paradigm shift in reportage, like linking agriculture with industry, rural with urban development, producers with consumers, or the big fast-food chains and their big advertising budgets with farmer producers in inter-locking supply chains, resulting from possible matching programs.

The press itself is both a victim and a perpetrator of this dichotomized and biased view of agriculture. Journalists must, thus, be educated regularly, so they could play their indirect role as mediums and purveyors of change.

PAJ’s weakness is its strength? Despite these biases and other problems, PAJ has stood the test of time. Its inherent weaknesses have ironically become its strength. This explains why it has lasted for 40 years now, and probably the second-oldest local press club next to the National Press Club.

With the fast turnover of journalists covering a beat or area of coverage, their beat-based press clubs die as fast as they are formed. This prevents them from gaining longer experience and deeper grasp of issues.

Meanwhile, as information writers of government agencies make up the membership base of PAJ and considered less independent than mainstream journalists, they have ironically become PAJ’s strength for providing permanence and stability to PAJ.

Pressing media’s role. Media is usually considered as mere outlets of information, but as the mirror of public opinion and the most effective feedback mechanism, one cannot ignore its supportive role in the formulation of public policies, plans and programs, even starting in the initial stages of crafting ideas, research support, etc.

Unfortunately, owing to the lack of transparency and the absence then of Freedom of Information, many plans and programs are often incubated out of sight from public feedback through the press. It is, therefore, no wonder they incur strong public rebuke once announced for implementation.

Perhaps, it is worth borrowing some ideas from the Japanese press, which may be among “the freest institutions”, while still maintaining the Japanese culture of consensus-building, that makes its press, ironically, more accommodating and responsible.

However, allowing media access in every stage of policy-making, like in Japan, may be untenable here, owing to our prevailing culture of tribalism and lack of a sense of nationhood, although it’s not hopeless. We have this voyeurist culture and penchant of gossiping even trivial tribal stuff of what other groups are doing or not doing. Worse, we highlight the negative over the common good, whether one is with government or the opposition. Worst, we tolerate the wrongdoings of our own tribe or group.

Weak but still standing. Despite all the biases and internal problems, PAJ has hurdled everything. Ironically, it is perhaps because of these biases and the underdog mentality that PAJ has challenged itself to pursue its inherent strategic role and advocacy of reversing the biases against agriculture.

Its members may carry individual interests of their respective agencies and industries, but these interests neutralize each other and are subsumed under a broader and more independent position that PAJ represents.

It is encouraging that mainstream columnists now write about agriculture. Thus, PAJ honored them along with the 2017 Binhi Journalism awardees, namely, ex-Neda chief Dr. Cielito Habito of the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI); Dr. Rolando Dy of the University of Asia and the Pacific; former Undersecretary Dr. Ernesto M. Ordoñez of Alyansa Agrikultura, who writes for PDI; and former UP Chancellor Dr. Emil Javier of the Manila Bulletin. Sen. Cynthia A. Villar, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and guest speaker, echoed her support for PAJ’s advocacy, citing her many reforms.

Notwithstanding its manifold problems, I take pride in PAJ not only because I was its five-time president over two decades ago, but more so for the loftier advocacy it has assumed unto itself. It now has four chapters; PAJ Calabarzon, headed by Johnny Goloyugo; PAJ Eastern Visayas, President Ray Junia of Opinyon; PAJ Cagayan Valley, Ding Fugaban; and PAJ Bicol, Juan Escandor of the PDI. Congratulations to all awardees and honorees. Thanks also to sponsors, led by San Miguel Corp. and SL Agri-tech, and to PAJ’s board, led by Roman Floresca, who has a “Roman empire” of friends.

E-mail: mikealunan@yahoo.com