What’s with seven years, DepEd?

Some campus journalists are luckier than others, apparently. 

The guidelines released by the Department of Education for this year’s National Schools Press Conference stirred quite a kerfuffle among the community of student journalists when it included two exclusionary, elitist, and alienating provisions: only those with seven years of experience and a “consistent” win streak across division, regional, and national schools press conferences are eligible. 

Seven years. 

It’s almost a utopian idea. But unfortunately, most campus journalists who work in our time have started their sojourn into the field in their high school years, automatically disqualifying them from NSPC. For a journalist to qualify, their launching pad must be from elementary; the entire stretch of junior to senior high school would amount to a mere six years of experience, that is, if a journalist had religiously started their venture on high school’s first year.

That simply isn’t the case for most of us.

The strident requirement to have had a consistent “win” across three stages of the press conference is also, to say the least, disappointing. Many factors play a role in determining whether a student journalist will win in one stage of the annual press conferences or not — from politics of preparation to budgetary questions, from the student’s personal welfare to a judge’s personal preferences in style, tone, or angle. No journalist has a deterministic method to achieve that. 

But that’s only a scratch on the surface. Dig deeper into the malaise, and one unalterable fact will appear: this is no more than an elitist benchmark on the part of a government office whose supposed rationale behind the yearly hosting of these press conferences is to “hone” a campus journalist’s skills. Hampering any opportunity for aspiring campus journalists to push their capacities to the limit in this arena is a far cry from fostering any development. 

Are DepEd officials insular in the face of the muddled ground of campus journalism? Most students at this time could not even afford to survive through one year of online classes — financially and mentally — and Leonor Briones anticipates them to have enough legroom to scurry through formal practice of the craft? 

It is more than convenient to scream in the face of DepEd officials that this year’s NSPC guidelines ridiculously do not make sense. But it doesn’t — and would not — end there. The mere fact that DepEd institutionalized the elitism pervading the field of campus journalism — with a brazen emphasis on “experience,” certificates, and digital know-how — speaks of a deeper, more systemic problem at hand. 

If making this “seven-year experience” a requisite in the practice of student journalism, at least in the context of NSPC 2021, becomes the norm, how many campus journalists would find themselves disenfranchised — or robbed of any chance gallop in the métier — in the not-so-distant future? Was that even necessary? 

Anyone can run for public office, even if a candidate is found wanting — or has a lot of criminal baggage behind them. But anyone who wants to venture into campus journalism has to go through rigidly institutionalized guidelines? As if that will work in an actual newsroom. 

Ask any veteran journalist worth their salt, and most of them would agree: neither academic certification nor rules, aside from ethical standards, matter in the actual practice of the profession. Only experience — but not one that is dictated upon by bureaucratic means. A certificate from a press conference wouldn’t train an aspiring journalist about the nitty-gritty of fieldwork, the desideratum of parsing through myriad data, or the legal hazards imposed by criminalizing libel.  

Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor of the Washington Post through the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate era; or Neil Sheehan, the New York Times correspondent who was the first to write about American secrets during the Vietnam War; or Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, the late editor-in-chief of Philippine Daily Inquirer (and the face behind the Mr. and Ms. Special Edition magazine, the first among the motley of publications who fought Marcos dubbed as mosquito press) — all of them would not have been given a chance in our time to be journalists merely because of DepEd’s persnickety prescriptions. 

Other cases in point: Hiliosa Hilao made a mark as the editor-in-chief of Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila’s publication, Hasik, even if she did not have a consistent victory across press conferences. So did Antonio Tagamolila, Ditto Sarmiento, and even Lean Alejandro, who once served in the University of the Philippines’ Philippine Collegian. Unfortunately, none of them had even lived long enough to get the hang of navigating through Microsoft Office, social media, or microblogging. 

But all of them left sterling legacies in the field because of one thing: dedication to the area. Dedication to serve the interest of truth, to publish the truth, even if a dictatorship ruled out any free space for democratic discourse. Dedication to serving the people through the service of their pen. It did not require Hilao or Tagamolila to clinch the top prize in the National Schools Press Conference to emerge as truthful, unyielding, and brave crop members. 

Therefore, it’s the perfect time to posit this indispensable question: if it is indeed in DepEd’s best interest to “hone” campus journalists to acquire an “understanding of the importance of journalism,” what’s with the seven-year gatekeeping of students who could be our generation’s Liliosa Hilao or Ditto Sarmiento? 

By asserting that only consistent winners in DepEd-backed campus journalism stints could be enrolled into this year’s NSPC, are these officials sending the message that their actual goal is to cultivate generations of contest journalists, not genuine campus journalists with an equally authentic desire to fulfill the clarion call of our time for truth?

Requiring them to read Vergel O. Santos’ Worse Than Free or All The President’s Men would have been much better provisions in the guidelines than some elitist and unrealistic barometers. Or, better yet, have them watch The Post have a glimpse into how actual newsrooms work — far from the romantic newsroom work that contest journalism portrays. 

Karl Patrick Wilfred M. Suyat

Karl Patrick Wilfred M. Suyat has been a campus journalist and writer for almost seven years, and a political activist for three years. Currently, he sits as a provincial coordinator of the College Editors’ Guild of the Philippines, a member of the Institute for Nationalist Studies, and a contributor for a host of publications. Email Karl at: karl@voxpopuliph.com.

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