“Cite your sources.” High school and college teachers would repeat this over and over and over again to students writing essays or research papers until they get it right.
But many elected officials in the Philippines, including those who have been serving in government for decades still fail to get this very basic concept right. And I don’t understand why.
This concept, also known as attribution, is meant to accomplish two things: First, to avoid plagiarism. Second, so we know that the information provided is credible.
For public personalities, especially government officials and journalists, the second reason is the most important one.
When an unreliable piece of information enters the public discourse as fact through influential personalities like government officials and journalists, it gives legitimacy to information with little or no truth value.
Take for example the latest pronouncement by the President that Cebu has the highest rate of drug use.
He said during the March 9 Philippine Councilors League event: “Cebu has the highest rate of [drugs] – hindi nila alam ‘to, for the first time sinasabi ko. Mag-abot siguro ng… Sabi ng nandiyan sa loob… But I think it’s about 60, 70. Mahirap tanggalin ang pera.”
This statement is just pregnant with questions: 60 to 70 percent of what? Everyone? Why wouldn’t Cebu know this?
Let’s assume that he meant 60 to 70 percent of the entire province. So this means, essentially, that if you take 10 of your friends who live in Cebu, at least six or seven of them would be drug users. Is this true for you?
And when you make an announcement like this, the responsible thing to do is to tell the people where these data came from. “Sabi ng nandiyan sa loob (Someone inside said)” is not enough.
Why would the Dangerous Drugs Board, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and the local Cebu Provincial Anti-Drug Abuse Office (CPDAO) not know something as alarming as drug use rates this high?
Neither PDEA Region 7 Director Yogi Filemon Ruiz nor Police Regional Director Noli Taliño knew where that information came from.
But in the past, the answer on where information similar to this comes from usually goes like this: “The President has access to intelligence sources that we may not have.”
This might be true. But it would be helpful that if a public official were to announce something like this, to at least describe the source of the information, even without naming the exact source.
When journalists use anonymous sources, for example, they would do their best to describe the kind of source it came from. The attribution might look something like this: “According to reliable sources in the Air Force, who didn’t want to be named due to safety concerns etc…”
And journalists know the danger of using anonymous sources, so they would only use it as the basis of their stories sparingly, especially if the story risks the sources’ safety. Is data that should be readily available one of these dangerous situations? Why couldn’t the president or any of his men say where his information came from?
In a Cebu Daily News report, however, Ruiz “surmised” that the data came from old records from last July.
Even Cebu Governor Hilario Davide III wanted to know where the data came from. “I cannot also say for certain nga iyahang (Duterte’s) figures (are) correct or unsa ba, (but) who fed the President that data? Kay I don’t believe Cebu lang tingali. Metro Manila diay? Ubang areas? Like Metropolitan areas?” he said.
After this announcement was made, many netizens on Facebook reacted to this “revelation” as if it were gospel truth.
“Cebu is number 1 again!( in drugs…)” one Facebook post read.
Ruiz said that the unattributed information from the President was “a challenge for us to double our efforts in our campaign against illegal drugs.”
The March 12 editorial of Cebu Daily News concluded that, “If anything, the President’s claims should not only serve as a challenge to law enforcement agencies but to civil society and the communities to double their efforts to encourage their constituents to totally reject and report illegal drug activities in their areas.”
But that the police and other law enforcement agencies should do their job in combating illegal drugs is already a given.
These conclusions miss a more important point: Data matters.
It matters, especially, when the front page is covered with stories of drug busts, shootings, rapes and murders, because it drives a sense of fear that their community is unsafe. But that might not be the most accurate picture of the crime situation if put into context of the population size and economic landscape of the community.
But any journalist and academic will tell you that obtaining accurate, well-researched, updated and thorough data in this country is no easy task.
Given this administration’s insistence that its campaign against illegal drugs is a national priority, it surely must have the facts, figures and analysis to back it up, right?
Because national policy, surely, is not based on a few crime stories on the front page of the local dailies, yes?
So please, cite your (reliable) sources. Tell those pesky journalists, annoying human rights advocates and snarky opinion columnists where you got your data.
If everything checks out, then we’ll all be quiet and everyone can go home.