I’m guilty. I killed our president.
I wrote an online story about the passing of a former president but inadvertently referred to the current one who’s still very much alive in portions of the story. Instead of Mrs. Aquino, some sentences had "Mrs. Arroyo" in them.
Aside from both presidents having a last name that starts with letter "A," the two have other similarities: both are lady presidents, thrust into power by bloodless people power, and belong to a political family. But the differences are stark: Mrs. Corazon Aquino was herself not corrupt, was uncomfortable with the trappings of power, and stepped down as soon as her term was over in 1992. President Gloria Arroyo, however, has been dragged in almost all political scandals during the past 8 years, and has tried, through her allies in Congress, to amend the Constitution to possibly extend her stay in power beyond her term in 2010.
In typical online fashion, the comments to the online story were immediate. Some were horrified (‘How dare you dishonor the memory of Cory’). Some were naughty (Facebook comment: ‘Was that wishful thinking?’). Some even called me names (dullwhite in plurk.com: ‘Lala Rimando you're an idiot. It's MRS. AQUINO who died, not MRS. ARROYO, doh!’).
I was sinking in my seat as I read those comments. While I immediately made the corrections on the abs-cbnNEWS.com and www.newsbreak.com.ph sites, and added an erratum, the story with the wrong names on it stayed in Yahoo Philippines’ news page for at least 2 days.
I self-flagellated. Why did I not name-check before I published the story and went to do a couple more? Why did I put my name and fruitful 9-year journalism career on the line for a simple explanatory story that’s not likely to change national policies as did my award-winning ones? It was a story that simply explained the implications and contrasts of the Aquino family’s decision to hold a private instead of a state funeral.
Then I rationalized. I was processing many information and had limited time to spend on each story that day. Mrs. Aquino’s death was announced and stories were pouring from all over. We wanted to cover as many as we could. Too, days before that I was writing and editing stories related to the State of the Nation Address delivered that same week. There was constant reference to only one president: Mrs. Arroyo.
After Mrs. Aquino’s only son Senator Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III announced in a late Saturday morning press conference that there won’t be a state funeral, I merely wanted to explain what a state funeral is and what it is not. It was a story on protocols and symbolisms that could help readers better appreciate what Mrs. Aquino's supporters and her family members are possibly missing out on.
Then I laughed. I heard broadcasters make the same mistake. “Palabas na po sa La Salle ang convoy para sa labi ni Mrs. A-a-a-aquino,” a radio commentator stuttered. “Military honors para kay Ginang Arroyo, inihahanda na,“ a TV news show flashed on its screen. The slip ups occured countless times that I sheepishly thought, "Good, I wasn't the only one who "killed" our president."
I became a statistic. On top of the minute-by-minute account of their own 'Cory watch,' the bloggers and those in social networks included in their regular status updates how other media, big and small, committed similar slip ups. "That was fast!" said a Tweeter account holder about story of a national publication's online arm with "Arroyo" on the story's large-font title. The Tweet, however, had a screenshot of the story with the wrong title, before it was corrected to "Aquino."
A Facebook "friend" said in his status page, a "network reported that President Aquino will attend the funeral of President Arroyo." Not only did they "kill" President Arroyo, they also "resurrected" Mrs. Aquino! Worse, the "foreign network" ran this phrase for about an hour in their ticker.
Hilarious they may sound, these slip ups may be causing doubts on who really died. And for contributing to that confusion, I apologize.
It is our mantra as journalists that we exhaust all means to confirm that the facts of our stories are verified or documented, that we get all sides, that we put our stories in perspective, that we stand brave when harassed by libel or intimidation tactics for saying the truth, and that we humbly apologize when we commit mistakes.
How fitting that I practice the latter as we continue to cover the wake and funeral of the late President Cory Aquino. After all, humility to her was not just an accessory. She lived it.