I am submitting this entry during a very challenging time for my media organization, ABS-CBN News in Manila. Our broadcast network, which used to be the biggest in the Philippines, was shut down by the government last May when our broadcast franchise expired. For several years, Congress did not act on the bill renewing our franchise, in large part because of President Rodrigo Duterte’s attacks against our network. Since he assumed power, the president had repeatedly said he would not get our franchise approved and he would shut the network down. And he made good on his word.
Our national free-to-air channel, regional channels, and AM radio stations were forced off the air. Thousands of our colleagues lost their jobs. All this happened in the midst of the pandemic, when movement was limited and the economy was in a slump. But those of us who were left in the newsroom did not back down from demanding transparency and accountability from the government through our stories in general, and data-driven stories in particular, especially on the coronavirus issue.
You see, before we could even think about data crunching, analysis, and visualization in the Philippines, we have to contend with the more fundamental challenges of limited access to information, a shortage of accurate and timely data, and the sheer lack of open data.
The biggest task for us has been, and still is, relentlessly putting pressure on government to make accurate and complete data readily available. The other challenge is how to make these understandable to the varied audiences of ABS-CBN.
While we still cannot air on free TV, our flagship newscast airs on cable and satellite TV, and on our digital platforms. Since the shutdown, the subscribers of our news channel on You Tube grew exponentially, and now has more than 11 million subscribers.
We always strive for a multi-platform presentation of our data stories and projects. The portfolio we submitted for this entry involves a collaboration with different teams: the Investigative and Research Group (my team), a reporter, in this case Kristine Sabillo, and our News Digital Group’s multimedia team.
The biggest challenge for us has always been rendering data-driven reports for TV, for the primetime newscast, because it is a very limiting platform. It’s a constant struggle how to make our TV audience appreciate data and see how data could make sense of the issues and policies that affect their lives.
Since our team has been created, we’ve been relentlessly pushing for creative ways to present data on TV, for a mass audience, and we think we’ve attained relative success in it, judging by the very high engagement of our data-driven TV reports.
We would like to experiment with more interactive pieces and with a team of data crunchers and developers to produce reports like the fantastic data-driven pieces of Pro Publica, Reuters, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.
But we are still a long way from there. Right now, we are just chipping away, bit by bit, at this regime’s opaque walls, and explaining issues to Filipinos the simplest way we could, through data, armed with the extremely diminished manpower and resources that we have.
Despite all this adversity—our network’s shutdown and reduced resources amid the pandemic—we kept on challenging the accuracy of government’s coronavirus data, and we have been the only media organization consistently doing this. In fact, other news outlets have been quoting our analysis in their reports.
Because of this, ABS-CBN News, particularly the Investigative and Research Group, and News Digital Group, should be considered for the SIGMA Award.
Description of portfolio:
I am submitting this portfolio of data-driven stories on COVID-19 because it narrates our continuing effort to pressure government to be more transparent and accountable in addressing the crisis. These document our relentless challenging of government data (or lack of it) and how this forced government to improve the accuracy, timeliness, and relevance of its data. But a lot of gaps still need to be addressed.
Since the first confirmed cases in February, we have been demanding more accurate data from government. In March however, the health department (DOH) ceased publishing coronavirus case information, directing people to its website instead, which contained only aggregate data and a lot of inaccuracies.
We requested more information from DOH, and for them to publish in open data format. Only after a lot of follow-up letters, calls, and reports did DOH start publishing a database of COVID-19 cases. But our constant monitoring and analysis of the data revealed a lot of gaps and inconsistencies.
In March, our analysis showed how majority of COVID-19 deaths were confirmed positive for the disease on the day of death or after. We did another analysis in April, and again in June, with progressively worse findings.
In reaction to our consistent coverage of such gaps, DOH official Rosario Vergeire promised several times that they were addressing the “backlogs” and “delays.” Our coverage eventually pressured government to improve its data.
We also called out DOH whenever it stopped publishing certain data fields, like the date of laboratory confirmation and when patients were counted in the recoveries and death tally. We then found other ways of analyzing the data using the remaining data fields.
In August, we revealed DOH’s removal of over 4,000 cases from the coronavirus case tally in only 2.5 months because these were “duplicates” or COVID-negative. DOH also revised the recoveries tally because 309 patients it initially tagged as recovered turned out to be dead.
After this story came out, Vergeire said DOH “strongly reminded” local officials “of the need to immediately report deaths” and recoveries, and that DOH is creating a data management unit.
In October, just when we thought DOH was getting its act together, our analysis revealed nearly 16,000 cases that were only included in the tally a month or more after exhibiting symptoms. Our findings showed that it took the government an average of 68 days to include such patients in the official tally.
After this story came out, Vergeire admitted that there was “a gap in the system” that was “being fixed.”
We also dissected COVID-19 loan documents and laid out in simple terms what they imply for Filipinos. We intend this to be a baseline for monitoring later how the money will be spent. We also drilled down COVID-19 data to the province and city level.
We are the only media outlet that continues to analyze COVID-19 infections among healthcare workers, pointing out reporting delays in this sector.
We render our stories multi-platform. The story versions for TV and radio are rendered in a simpler way to make TV audiences appreciate what the data mean in their life.
Our stories, analyses, and data visualization were cited by other media outlets. In August, WHO quoted heavily from our analysis in its COVID-19 Situation Report.
Our data-driven reports also had high engagement on social media. The stories that we included in this entry alone had approximately 121,000 reactions, 14,000 comments, and 20,000 shares altogether—and that’s only on Facebook.
People also expressed their appreciation of our analyses and data-driven reportage, saying that these have shed light on the government’s shortcomings in addressing the crisis.