BELOW is the full text of Sheila Coronel’s lecture last Friday, August 22, at the University of the Philippines National Institute of Science and Mathematics Education Development (NISMED) Auditorium. The lecture is part of the ongoing “UP: View from the Outside” lectures of the UP Centennial Lecture Series to commemorate the 100th-year foundation of the State University this year.

Media Power & People Power: Citizens, Journalists, and the University in the Internet Age

IT’S great to be here. UP is many things to me. But it is first and foremost the place where I learned what real journalism is all about and where I practiced it for the first time. That was 30 years ago.

In 1978, I joined the staff of the Philippine Collegian. That year Ferdinand Marcos called the first election for a sham parliament, the Batasang Pambansa. Imelda Marcos led the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan ticket for Metro Manila against the Laban ticket that included Ninoy Aquino, Nene Pimentel, Alex Boncayao and Charito Planas.

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It was the first election I had ever voted in. Marcos and the KBL cheated shamelessly — it was not the first time they did so nor would it be the last. On April 6, 1978, Manila exploded in a noise barrage against the regime. Everywhere, cars, buses, and jeepneys honked their horns. From the slums of Manila to its gated villages, residents banged pots and pans. Many took to the streets and marched in protest, risking arrest and prison. It was unlike anything I had seen — or heard — before. I was hooked. History was being made and I wanted to witness it. I wanted to be there when it happened.

News has many uses. But to me, among the most important functions of journalism are its witnessing and catalyzing functions. Journalists are society’s eyes and ears. Our task is as old as history itself. Since ancient times, there have always been those who recorded events so others, in their own time, as well as in the future, would know what had taken place.

In modern democracies, the witnessing role of journalists — what we call the reporting of the news — confers visibility and legitimacy to issues and events. Anything that is reported is no longer secret or known only to a few. The information enters the public space and becomes part of public discourse and the political process.

Today we stand at the cusp of monumental changes in the media landscape. Radical, life and society-changing transformations in technology, work flow, organizational structures, and business models are overturning the world of media as we have known it for the last 100 years. These changes present new challenges and new opportunities for greater public access to information as well as citizen involvement. More than anything, they magnify the importance of information and communication in public life.

The news and opinion that journalists produce allow citizens to make informed decisions about whom to vote for, what reforms to demand, even, what to buy. But more than that, throughout the world, and indeed throughout Southeast Asia, journalists helped build nation and community.

In many countries in our region, including ours, the founding fathers were journalists — Jose Rizal and the propagandists of the late 19th century wrote for clandestine newspapers. Aung San, the leader of the independence movement in Burma and father of the currently jailed leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was the editor of a crusading campus newspaper. As a young man working in Paris in the 1920s, Ho Chi Minh was editor, writer. and distributor of a journal he founded for colonial subjects living in France.

After independence, the quest for freedom and democracy was inextricably linked to the press. In the Philippines, the mosquito press hounded Marcos out of power. In Indonesia, underground newspapers did the same to Suharto in the late 1990s. In Thailand, newspapers took a stand against the military junta in 1992. While journalists have also supported dictatorship and resisted reforms, in the last hundred years, important sections of the press have served as an enabler of people’s movements for independence, democracy, and social justice.

The media provide voice to those involved in these struggles. They legitimize the demands of social movements by publicizing their causes and successes. The media tell the public what they ought to be concerned about and what they can do. In pivotal moments like in Edsa in 1986 and again in 2001, the media — Radio Veritas in the case of people power 1 and television and mobile phones in the case of Edsa 2 — helped mobilize the crowds that toppled a president.

For sure, the instances when reporting has a direct, powerful, and immediate impact on the political process are few and far between. But journalism derives its power precisely from the possibility that such impact can take place. As long as information is publicly available, those in public life quake in the knowledge that someone somewhere is watching. As the US media scholar Michael Schudson says, “even if the public is absent, the assumption of the public presence makes all the difference.”

“The news gains its power,” he says, “not in its direct impact on audiences but in the belief…that the knowledge of citizens can from time to time be effective.”

I have been a professional journalist for a quarter of a century. During that time, I have seen many crimes committed in the name of journalism. Crimes against truth. Crimes against the public interest. But I have also seen what journalism can do and what it can become. I have glimpsed its greatness and its potential. That is why journalism for me is a romance. It may not always live up to one’s expectations, but when it’s good, it can be the most wonderful thing there is.

This campus was where I experienced the romance of journalism for the first time. And I was certainly not alone. Generations of UP students, many of whom have filled or now occupy important positions in the mainstream media, cut their journalistic teeth at UP. The intellectual stimulation and freedom that the university provided — even during the worst and most repressive years of Marcos — meant that UP was a haven for free thought and free expression.

That freedom to think, to innovate and experiment is particularly important in the Age of Information, where the societies that will thrive best are those that are able to adjust to the demands of the globalized knowledge economy. The new economy puts a premium on creativity, innovation, and information.

It is my hope that this great university can be the incubator of innovations and the producer of the workers that the knowledge economy needs. I do not mean only call-center employees but IT engineers, programmers, Web developers, knowledge entrepreneurs, world-class professionals and scientists, and of course, also savvy multimedia journalists able to help build nation and community in a global age.

For many years, the energies of many in the UP community, in popular movements, and in the media have been focused on toppling regimes. And rightly so – the Philippines, like its neighbors Thailand and Indonesia, have been held in thrall for so long by corrupt and tyrannical heads of state. The intellectuals, civil society activists, and journalists in these countries have understandably expended their energies in propelling people power.

The truth is that we have been more successful in toppling old regimes than in reforming new ones. The challenge for all of us is how to channel the energies of people power so we can bring the majority of our citizens into the Information Age and help them succeed in the knowledge economy. This requires not only the transfer of knowledge and skills but also laying the foundations for a more inclusive democracy.

It means engagement both in political contestation but also in finding new models for the society we want to become. The old utopian visions — whether it is that of a socialist or free-market utopia — no longer suffice in the complex, networked, and interconnected world we live in today.

Certainly that vision ought to include a more participatory and meaningful democracy, accountable government, and a vibrant economy that provides opportunities especially to those social sectors that have traditionally been excluded from the benefits of economic growth. Information can be a catalyst of a dynamic process that engages citizens in the creative — and monumental — undertaking of building a nation in the era of globalization. The media plays a key role in this endeavor but so do universities and the public at large.

Today we are witnessing seismic shifts in the media landscape. The ground is moving beneath our feet. The gatekeepers of news and information are losing their power. With the Internet, they can no longer control what people read or restrict people from publishing on their own. Indeed, the whole definition of journalist — and journalism — is evolving. A participatory revolution is taking place.

In addition, the business models that have supported journalism as we know it — circulation plus advertising — are being challenged by the Internet, where the news and information are largely free and where advertising cannot pay for the cost of news production. This means we will have to find new ways of funding the journalism that matters.

Increasingly, the audience, especially the young, are getting their news not from newspapers or television but from the Internet. Today 1.1 billion of 6 billion people on the planet are connected to the Web and the numbers are expected to increase dramatically in the coming years.

As of June 2008, Technorati, the search engine of blogs, was tracking 113 million blogs globally. Blogs, as you all know, are regularly updated journals published on the Web. They have changed the Internet paradigm because they allow open conversation between writer and reader.

There has never in the history of humanity so much journalism being produced as there is today. And in such diverse formats, from one-line news updates to long-form, in-depth multipart, multimedia investigative reporting.

Not in the last hundred or so years, when we saw the rise of professional journalism and mass-circulation newspapers, has the cost of producing and disseminating news been so affordable. Nor has news production been so efficient. Today anyone with an Internet connection, a computer and a Web page or a blog can be a publisher with potentially a worldwide audience. Anyone with a video recorder can be a broadcaster, simply by posting her video on YouTube. With applications like Twitter, anyone with a cell phone can beam the news via SMS instantaneously to the world. Today 3 billion people — nearly half of all humanity — own mobile phones, which are expected to be the next information platform after television and the personal computer. Soon, most people will be getting access to the Internet through their phones and this can have profound effects on the way we produce and consume news.

Earlier this month, an earthquake hit Los Angeles. The report of the event was posted on Twitter, the news sent by an LA resident, nine minutes earlier than the first professionally produced news bulletin. Twitter is a free social networking and micro-blogging service. You can send or get tweets via mobile phone or the Web.

CNN and the BBC are using Twitter to disseminate breaking news. The political campaign of the American Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama uses it as a publicity mechanism and some universities are employing the service to deliver information to their students. Two weeks ago, as the Olympic Games were in full blast and the Chinese government cracked down on dissidents. Through Twitter, Chinese blogger Zhu Shuguang let the world know he was being detained by officials.

All these changes are coming at a time when news has never been more necessary to the functioning of our lives. In the past, communities could survive without a newspaper or a radio set. But today farmers selling their produce in the global market need to get the latest prices of the commodities they sell. College students use the Web to get information on jobs and career opportunities. They use Facebook or MySpace to maintain and expand their social networks, relying no longer on just the phone or face-to-face meetings. Businessmen who want to bid for government contracts can now also do so on the Web, making government procurement of goods more transparent, if not yet wholly corruption-free. Ordinary people go online to find the best deals on air fares, the best buys on goods from sites like eBay. The more enlightened local governments like Naga City have posted a great deal of information online, including city budgets and information on city services.

The availability of so much information to so many people can have an equalizing and democratizing effect. Consumers are able to compare prices. At the same time, vendors of goods and services are able to get the best prices for their wares. By posting, like Naga City did, the delivery time for frontline services, such as applications for permits and licenses, as well as the fees and the procedures for accessing these services, citizens do not need to hire fixers or to have special connections in City Hall.

Transparency helps hold powerful institutions and individuals both in the public sphere and in private business accountable for their actions. The equalization of access to information has great potential for the kind of democratic renewal that we need now, when the integrity of our democratic institutions is being severely eroded and the functioning of government is weighed down by patronage, corruption, and political division. Information can help revitalize popular interest in rebuilding our damaged democracy and empower citizens with the facts they need to be able to demand change and take action in their communities.

The Internet facilitates the exchange of vital, empowering information. Its democratic potential is immense. Unfortunately, this potential remains largely untapped. The WorldWide Web today is a vast wilderness. Many users of the Web surf not for information about their governments or communities but for pornography or online games.

It’s true that the relative freedom and anonymity in cyberspace have made it a haven for dissident voices, marginalized groups and those who have been unjustly disempowered or disenfranchised. But for these same reasons, the Net is also an arena where terrorists, criminals and extremists can operate with minimal restrictions.

The techno-optimists tend to see cyberspace as the panacea for all our ills. They are oblivious to the danger that the inequities that exist in the real world would be replicated online. Access to the WorldWide Web is limited by the barriers of class, geography, language, education, and wealth. Even as more and more people go online everyday, the digital divide is as real as poverty, illiteracy, and lack of access to services like electricity and telephone connections. The Internet will not make these problems go away; it may even exacerbate existing inequities. Age-old problems limit the liberating potential of new technologies.

New technologies also bring with them new problems. Today there rages a passionate debate as to whether the Internet is responsible for declining literacy, lower reading scores among school children, and ever shorter attention spans. On one hand, reading online is creating a new form of literacy where texts have no predetermined beginning, middle and end; instead the reader navigates a series of links and uses search engines to find the information she needs.i

Reading online is a fractured experience. It involves looking for information quickly and then corroborating that information from multiple sites and sources. For sure, it is infinitely more interactive, but it is not as “cognitively enriching” as reading a book.

There is also a certain randomness in the way we get information from the Net. Most Web users do not go straight into a Web site if they are looking for information. They search for what they need on Google. Or their friends send them links via email or their favorite social networking site. If they have a Yahoo account, they click to Yahoo’s recommended links. The Internet is a link economy: two-thirds of Web traffic comes from links. In cyberspace, links are the de facto currency.

The habits of information searching in cyberspace shift power to the consumer and away from the gatekeepers of news and information. We don’t have to rely on the editor of the Inquirer or the news director of ABS-CBN or GMA-7 to tell us what we ought to know. We can choose from multiple sources and decide for ourselves what news is important or relevant to us.

These habits are radically different from those that have characterized news consumption for generations when news was a static commodity served on a printed page or aired on a broadcast. This year the Associated Press released an ethnographic study of news consumption of young people aged 18-34 in cities in the US, UK, and India. These young people, the study found, had evolved what it called “a chaotic system of self-aggregation.” They get news from a variety of platforms and sources, all day, constantly, and are avid consumers of online video, blogs, online social networks, mobile devices, Web portals, and search engines. They also multitask the news, meaning they scan news sites even as they do other things. News consumption is shallow and erratic. And, it left consumers feeling frustrated and overloaded.

Today’s consumers, said the study, suffer from news fatigue and are overwhelmed by the negativity of news. Instead of becoming engaged in current affairs, they tune out.

It is obvious that current models for packaging and delivering news are not connecting with the audience now coming of age around the world. Repetitive, shallow content tires the audience. News has to be delivered in innovative ways, using technology, humor, and new narrative devices and structures.

News, said the AP, creates social currency, meaning consumers want news that they can use to connect to friends, to look smart, to move up the social and economic ladder, to build existing networks of relationships. In other words, to help them engage the world.

Earlier this month, Marissa Mayer, the vice president of Google, told a conference on the future of news that the unit of news consumption is being atomized: online, most readers no longer read the entire newspaper, they look for the single news story; no longer do they view the entire newscast but instead find the single news item they are interested in.

This atomic unit of the news, she said, should therefore evolve as a living unit — perhaps a url, where new facts, new insights, new comments are added and that readers can follow over time.

News as a living organism is a radically new paradigm. And increasingly, an integral part of the task of doing journalism, of letting the news evolve as a live organism, is including citizens in the process of news creation. The top-down news approach to news is over. Journalists no longer have the monopoly of news production. More and more, they will be sharing the news space with citizens, whose reports, opinions and points of view will get equal billing with those of what we once called professional journalists.

One expert estimates that by 2010, 75 percent of the Internet will be composed of what is called “user-generated content,” meaning text, pictures, audio and video produced by ordinary people the media once referred to as their “audience.”

Journalism has ceased to be an exclusive priesthood whose rites can be performed by those who have been professionally trained — either in schools or at the workplace — to report the news. The witnessing function is being performed by citizens. Citizen journalists have reported on important events like the 2003 tsunami that hit South and Southeast Asia and the bombings in London and Madrid. They are covering the election campaign in the US. In Korea, they initiated and also reported on the recent protests against the importation of US beef. In Burma, images of the saffron uprising late last year that were beamed throughout the world were transmitted via mobile phones and the Web by ordinary people who took part and witnessed the events.

Through crowd-sourcing, citizens collaborate with news organizations in the reporting of complex stories. There’s crowd-funding — where citizens make small contributions to support investigations on issues they care deeply about.

The involvement of the community in news production does not make “professional” journalists superfluous. It makes their tasks different and more challenging. Journalists need to listen to many more voices. They need to aggregate. They need to provide the context that is missing from citizen reports. They need to produce rich content providing nuance and depth.

They also need to focus more on the concerns of ordinary people and provide citizens with the information they need to be able to address their concerns.

What is important is that the creation of news becomes a community effort, no longer just the effort of a news organization. We are still coming to grips with how exactly this can be brought about.

The BBC, for example, has a user-generated content hub, which uses special software for sorting audience email, going through images, and finding what, among user-contributed content, has relevance.

It is very hard to predict how things will play out in the Internet. I am nervous about this talk because things are changing so fast, what I say today will likely seem so dated and out of touch in a few months.

At any rate, I think it is reasonable to predict that over time, the involvement of citizens and communities in news production means radical cultural and organizational changes within newsrooms. The hierarchical order of things, where the editor is commander in chief, will not survive a world where user-generated content is an important part of the news business. Newsrooms need to be drastically altered if these are to adapt to the notion of news as a living organism produced by a community. Our fundamental notions of what journalism is and who journalists are have to be rethought.

The news organizations that will succeed in the Internet age are those that embrace the possibilities offered by the new technologies without letting go of the values that have traditionally defined journalism: These are the defense of the public interest, the discipline of verification, and the provision of a forum for community dialogue.

Those unwilling or unable to adapt will lose their audiences. The world is full of dead companies unable to adjust to the demands of disruptive technologies. The Internet is the gravest challenge to the news business: it is changing the way news is reported, disseminated, and paid for. Innovation needs to keep pace with the speed of technological development.

And this is where universities can play a role: they can be the incubators for innovation. They can be a place where the disciplines of journalism, business, and engineering, among others, can collaborate in birthing new models for the journalism of the future.

The crisis in journalism does not affect journalists or media companies alone. The business of news and information is too important to leave to journalists and to media companies. The quality of our societies and the future of our democracy depends to a large extent on the quality of news and information that we get. Everyone has a stake in ensuring that the journalism of the future is one that keeps citizens informed, that allows the public to take part in governance, and holds powerful individuals and institutions accountable for what they do.

This means ensuring that the digital infrastructure is available to the majority of our citizens and that Internet access is democratized and affordable. It also means educating citizens to access, sort, and evaluate the wealth of information they get from the Internet. It means training the coming generations of Internet users to demand and to create quality content. It means showing them how they can use the information they get from the Web to improve their lives and their communities.

Universities will sooner or later come around to the idea that the era that is dawning upon us is one where everyone is potentially a content producer for the Web. If they are not there already, our students, in whatever discipline they are engaged in, will be out in cyberspace communicating to the rest of the world. We might as well teach them how to do so effectively and how to use that space to promote the values for which this university stands: excellence, service to the people, a sense of responsibility for the future of the country and of the planet.

This university can be the country’s premier laboratory for experimentation on new forms of content production and citizen engagement appropriate to the particular needs of our country and its level of technological and economic development. We cannot embrace the new information and communication technologies unquestioningly. We should choose those technologies that best address the specific needs of our people and our desire for community and civic engagement.

This is the era of democratized innovation, where users — ordinary people like you and me — are actively engaged in modifying and developing new products and applications to suit their needs. Products ranging from surfboards to software have benefited from innovations by ordinary users.

The idea is that ordinary people, such as students, if given the right tools and resources, can innovate technologically to the point that they can produce better products than those developed by the R and D departments of big companies. In this way, users take control of technology instead of the other way around, and their innovations can have profound impact on their communities. In the long term, such experimentation creates a demand for more scientific and technological knowledge. This, in turn generates more innovation. This also means that over time, science and technology, like journalism, will no longer be an exclusive priesthood. I’m guessing that will be the way for the other professions as well — the social sciences and the humanities will cease to be the sole domain of so-called experts.

Given the proliferation of cellphones in the Philippines and the many uses Filipinos have found for them, I don’t see why we cannot be at the cutting-edge of new applications and new technologies that use the mobile phone as a platform for providing information to citizens and for getting them involved in civic life. I don’t see why UP cannot be the place where such experimentation can take place: what better laboratory is there than this university with its tradition of excellence and social engagement? Can you imagine what would happen if we got engineering, business, and mass comm students together to engage in such experiments? What would happen if the university set up an innovations lab bringing all these disciplines together? After all, Facebook was invented in Harvard; Google was a Stanford start up.

The problem, of course, is that in whatever platform, public-service content will continually be fighting for eyeballs with less edifying content. Democratizing digital access does not necessarily mean that citizens will use their access to get information on public affairs. The real challenge, both for professional journalists and others producing content that hopes to engage citizens, is how to make that content freely accessible as well as useful, interesting, and relevant.

Recent studies on media effects in both new and mature democracies have shown that there is a causal relationship between the use of news media and civic engagement. That is, information on public affairs increases the motivation to actively take part in the political process. Information on public life leads to engagement in it.

A recent study by the public relations company Edelman of blog readership in Asia shows that blog readers are more likely to sign a petition, forward email, or put pressure on governments or companies.

The problem is that those who are not politically interested don’t read the news, thus creating a chasm between those who are attuned to current affairs and those who tune out. As media audiences and media content become more and more fragmented, allowing readers to view just sites that cater to their narrow interests, there is a danger that those who are ill-informed will remain even more so. This could mean the rise of ghettoes of informed and engaged citizen amid a mass of disinterested and disaffected ones.

All of us here today have the difficult task of getting this mass of disinterested citizens into the public arena by delivering deeper and more relevant and useful content. We can’t force-feed them news and information, but we can find sweeteners to make our product more enticing.

This task is not the media’s alone. Universities play a role, as does civil society. We live in a networked world. The ties that bind us are multiple and overlapping. Information is one of those bonds. Family, community, nation, university are others. Technology provides us the tools to strengthen existing networks but it cannot on its own create those networks from scratch. Computers cannot perform the task of engaging citizens, much less the painstaking work of reforming society and building democracy. Computers cannot bring a moral dimension to our political life. But people can. Informed people can.

There is no substitute for human creativity and energy, what we call people power.

And that, in this country, we have plenty of. We may not have the edge in technology, but we have a tradition of public engagement. Creativity is in our DNA. We know what “people power” is all about. We have a global reach — the Filipino is everywhere. Combine that with computing power and information power and you have a combustible mix that can propel us ahead of our competitors. Once again we can show the world how.

Mabuhay ang UP! Mabuhay kayong lahat! Magandang hapon at maraming salamat.

9 Responses to ‘News as a living organism’



August 25th, 2008 at 6:32 pm

Thanks! I’m reading this tonight.



August 25th, 2008 at 8:56 pm

1978, my last year in college and remembered myself as one of the volunteers for Laban, Ninoy’s party inside a polling precinct inside the campus. I remember also my boarding house where the poster of Imelda as the front-runner for Batasang Pambansa Assembly. You would be amazed to find that Senator Aquino was trounced even by a non-political entities like Mr. Floro, the owner of Crispa or by Mr. Quiambao, who? Yes, Mr. Quiambao.

As regards the ease by which one gathers information in today’s digital revolution, aka internet, we can only credit among the most prominent, Bill Gates, Andrew Grove of intel and Cisco, the company that manufactures Cisco Routers and Switches.

Yes, we can have all the info in this world in a lightning speed for people who have the means, PC and internet connections, unfortunately, majority of our people do not have these “luxuries” yet in their homes.


tongue in, anew

August 25th, 2008 at 9:45 pm

So, Alecks, Shiela worked for Collegian which at the time, if I still remember right, was then steered by Malou as Ed-in-Chief. Tama?



August 26th, 2008 at 6:24 am

if it was in 1978, it was either Alex Poblador my classmate or Mr. Sarmiento, the son of SC Justice Sarmiento who was the editor of the Collegian. i think malou mangahas came after 1978.



August 26th, 2008 at 6:39 am

correction: yes it was Alex Poblador who was the editor in-chief of the collegian in 1978. some say that he became the editor by political convenience because the board of regents was arm-twisted to replace Gerry Anigan who bested Poblador in an examination, but was not allowed to discharge the position because he was “progressive” and Poblador, was not.


Alecks P. Pabico

August 26th, 2008 at 10:04 am

You’re right about the circumstances surrounding Poblador’s assumption as editor-in-chief of the Collegian except for the year, jcc. Poblador was EIC during the 1977-1978 term.

Tongue, Sheila joined the succeeding term headed by Diwata Reyes. Malou became editor-in-chief the next term (1979-1980).


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