Column: Do all opinions matter?

The Inquirer feedback loop just got fat–or it did, about 15 months ago, some time before this column was published on May 24, 2011.

IN RESPONSE to Monday’s editorial on the designation of Mar Roxas as President Benigno Aquino III’s chief of staff, an online reader wrote, in an angry burst of colloquial Filipino: He hasn’t even started yet, and here you are already taking a shot at him! (I can no longer find the comment online, hence the paraphrase.)

The reader’s anger tests the notion that all opinion is equally valid (“well, that’s my opinion”)—because the reader obviously did not read or understand the editorial. Perhaps he (I think it was a he) was reacting only to the headline: “Marred?” Perhaps the editorial’s attempt to lay the basis for a critique of certain presidential appointments made him think the Roxas appointment was itself being criticized. Or perhaps the excerpting of the constitutional provision mandating a temporary ban on defeated candidates drove him to distraction. (Another possibility, of course, is that the editorial was badly written or incoherently argued.)

But in fact the editorial can be understood as a defense, not so much of the President’s prerogative to appoint anyone of his choice (the gist, as it turns out, of many responses left on the comment thread), but of this particular choice, of Roxas himself: “It is on this basis that Roxas’ entry into the President’s official family should be understood: He has a role to play in fulfilling the campaign promises he and President Aquino made.”

What are we to make of the angry reader’s response? It is easy to dismiss it as an attitude in search of an argument; a person spoiling for a fight often does not have the time or the patience to read the fine print. As far as I can recall, his was the only comment that did not appear to engage the editorial at all. And yet while his particular opinion does not hold water and is equivalent to a bystander heckling a public forum, the fact that he could raise his opinion at all is important. In that sense, every opinion does matter.

* * *

I am led to these considerations because of the redesign and overhaul of the Inquirer website. Inquirer.net (run by a separate editorial staff, under editor in chief Abel Ulanday and managing editor Lynette Luna)* now has a new look and feel. One might say that the premium placed on interactivity, on the reader’s responsiveness, gives the site almost a new density. In other words, the feedback loop just got fat.

Online journalism has always had the potential to be measured by more accurate and more up-to-date metrics than the print newspapers and magazines which rely on periodic audits. What Inquirer.net has done, under the direction of Gary Libby, the Inquirer’s vice president for IT, has been to bring itself up to speed, as far as reader responsiveness is concerned, with online leaders. Before, about the only real-time measurement Inquirer.net readers could consult was the list of Most Read stories (organized per section or “channel”). Today, there are many other ways with which to gauge public interest in the stories the Inquirer publishes.

Here is an example. Five days after “Wrong and wrong-headed on RH,” Raul Pangalangan’s column on the reproductive health debate, saw print, a total of 1,050 people had recommended it, 150 had tweeted it and 1,289 had shared it (I don’t know the specifics, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to find that most had shared it on Facebook).

These are terrific, robust numbers. But the column did not reach the top spot in Opinion’s Most Read list. As of Monday, it ranked “only” eighth.

On Monday, a column by Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ also on the reproductive health debate followed the same pattern. The numbers, if anything, were even more bracing: In less than 24 hours, the online version had 3,008 recommendations, 1,260 tweets, and 4,527 “Shares.”

It would of course be a grave mistake to confuse the subset of online readers for the set of all readers. In many households, one newspaper subscription serves the needs of several readers, not all of whom can drop a comment or recommend a story online. (Or even want to.)

But the fatter feedback loop now allows anyone other ways to measure (some of) the public impact of a particular story. On any given day, the editorial is always on Opinion’s Most Read list; but this could be because readers read it as a matter of habit. They want to know what the Inquirer position is. On certain days, however, or during a particular news cycle, certain stories may enjoy what we can call reader intensity greater than its rank on the Most Read list would suggest. The fact alone that as of 5 p.m. Monday the Bernas column had 3,008 recommendations, while the editorial “Marred?” only had 29, tells us many things: the RH bill issue is truly controversial; a Catholic priest’s forthright argument in favor will naturally attract a wide circulation; a column title like “My stand on the RH bill” can pack ’em in.

Some of those who pushed the Recommend button may have done so under the misimpression that this was Fr. Bernas’ first column on the issue, or indeed that he is the only Jesuit to favor the bill. I read several comments that began, “Finally, a priest has spoken out …” But that, I suppose, is just opinion.

* * *

RIZAL 150 NEWS. On Friday, June 17, the Development Academy of the Philippines will honor Rizal with a unique tribute. After the speeches (speakers include Jose David Lapuz, who will talk on “Rizal, the development and security professional and servant leader”), the Philippine Institute of Environmental Planners will confer on Rizal the title of Environmental Planner, in light of the legacy Rizal left behind in Dapitan City. The licensed surveyor (he was one before he became a doctor) would have approved.

 * My mistake; Lynette is in fact executive editor of Inquirer.net.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics, Readings in Rizal

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