Christopher Lao: Meat thrown to the pack
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Christopher Lao: Meat thrown to the pack

I have to disagree with my friends over at the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, which publishes the PJR (Philippine Journalism Review) Reports, on the Christopher Lao controversy.

Lao, as you know, is the Filipino motorist who drove his car into a flooded street and later complained in front of the camera that he did not know the floodwater was that deep, that he did not see a sign warning him not to wade in, that there was no roadblock that could have prevented him from taking Mother Ignacia Avenue in Quezon City, which was flooded one stormy day recently.

GMA News, one of the country’s largest networks, aired the report. As a result, Lao got a serious beating online, with Filipinos acting like teenagers in the locker room, ridiculing him, depicting him as  a moron for driving his car into flood water, and for being an arrogant fool for blaming everybody for his misfortune but himself.

It is clear in the video that Lao merely responded to a question from the reporter. What it was, was not clear in the video. But the online opprobrium Lao got as a result of his comments was such that many have described it as cyber-bullying. A hate page set up on Facebook, for instance, was being liked every second, literally, when I checked it last night.

I blamed GMA News partly for the online lashing Lao received, mainly because it  was clear that Lao was upset after he got out of his waterlogged car and was understandably fuming mad when he was practically ambushed by the network’s crew. To record it and broadcast his rant was simply unfair in my opinion. Lao is a private citizen who had just survived a mishap. The last thing he needed was some nosy reporter questioning his judgment and miscalculation and then broadcasting it later to the world. No wonder the juveniles online piled on him.

In fairness to the network, it has taken down the video and has released a statement urging the public to stop bullying Lao. But that’s like putting the genie back inside the bottle.

In a statement released today,  the CMFR concluded that “what happened to Christopher Lao is an issue of social media excess more than it is of journalism ethics.” (Read the full statement here)

While I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse my friends at GMA News of unethical behavior in this case, I think they mishandled the story. (By the way, just so you know, I also work at the website of News5, a GMA News competitor)

CMFR, in its statement, defended GMA News: “Who really knows if the intention of the reporter was to ridicule the person? GMA News could not have known that the report would elicit such an over the top public reaction.”

I find this conclusion hard to accept.

First, the video and Lao’s comments are clear and should speak for themselves. Here was a man that was so upset he mouthed those possibly ridiculous lines that would surely expose him to ridicule, if not outright spite. The question the GMA News editors should have asked themselves is – is it fair to use that interview under the circumstances and expose Lao to ridicule and spite?

Couldn’t the editors of that report know the impact and implications of Lao’s comments? If they couldn’t, the network should fire them. Editors are editors for a reason. There’s a reason they’re higher in the pay grade  than the reporter who interviewed Lao.

And how couldn’t they know when the network, just recently, launched a campaign called “Think before you click” – the assumption being that before GMA News posts or airs anything, it has weighed and gauged its impact and implications. That they’re the ones who launched the campaign suggests that they’re better at thinking than their competitors.

I have long ago accepted the fact that the denizens of the online world can be a rowdy and chaotic bunch and that if presented with an opportunity to have a little fun at the expense of others, they would do so without hesitation. Frankly, I have no problem with that. That’s the nature of the Internet and the social media. They’re like wolves who were thrown inside a coop and then proceeded to devour the chicken; you just can’t blame them.

But it’s another matter  altogether when journalists are the ones throwing the meat to the pack.