Friday, July 4

On UP's new tuition system

My favorite #BracketAKaNa tweet by far

Quezon Hall has released statistics regarding the Socialized Tuition System, which was used for the first time this year. (The STS, by the way, is responsible for the #BracketAKaNa tweets on your timeline this week.) I thought it was worth dissecting the report.

First of all, a quick summary: UP has had a socialized tuition system since the 1980s. The richer you are, the more you pay. Until this year, the system was called the Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program. The STFAP was the perennial object of complaints: The process was cumbersome, the application form was 14 pages long, and results were often appealed. The STS, on the other hand, is done entirely online. Instead of pages of forms detailing the financial situation of a student’s household, it uses an instrument developed with the help of the Marketing and Opinion Research Society of the Philippines. This instrument includes a series of questions designed to measure an individual’s financial capacity, such as the kind of toilets and the number of phones a household has.

The results are in, and the UP administration sounds triumphant: “More Students Now Benefit from UP’s Socialized Tuition System (STS),” the headline of their news release announces. According to UP, 90% of undergraduate students have applied for tuition discounts under the STS, compared to 40% in the last year the STFAP was in place.

STS Director Richard Gonzalo said this is because the STS is “accessible, fast and efficient,” with wait times cut from 12 months to two weeks. I’m inclined to attribute it to the fact that students were widely encouraged to apply. In fact, some were under the impression that an STS application was a requisite to enrollment. (I cannot find any official announcement to that effect.) I know the only reason I bothered with the STS application process is that I really didn’t have anything better to do at home.

Here’s the bigger news, though: UP said that under the STS, only 48% of applicants were assigned to the two highest income brackets,  compared to 69% before the new program was implemented. Evidently, the administration is proud of the fact that fewer students are considered “rich” under the new system.

Good news, huh? Let’s take a trip back to the first semester of Academic Year 2011-2012. Before then, one could opt not to apply for the STFAP and be automatically classified under Bracket B. The university assumed that your family was earning less than P1 million a year (but more than P500,000). That was the assumption, even if it was not necessarily the case.

Then, in 2011, Quezon Hall required students to submit a document certifying that their household income fell below P1 million. Otherwise, they were assumed to be in the “millionaire’s bracket” and asked to pay the highest tuition rate. According to the Philippine Collegian, before 2011, UP Diliman had 29 Bracket A students. After the Bracket B certification rule kicked in, it had 2,413.

Kul├¬ quotes UP Vice President for Public Affairs Prospero De Vera III as saying that the certification rule’s intention was “to improve the implementation of the STFAP and implement it the way it was designed [to] socialize tuition rates.” UP President Alfredo Pascual was also quoted as saying, “Hindi naman STFAP ang nagpaparami ng Bracket A students. Mas marami lang talagang mayaman na nakakapasok sa UP.

So, to recap. Our administrators believe that UP has many rich students. They feel that the spike in the number of upper-bracket students is an “improvement” in the way the system works, and that with more students in the upper brackets, the tuition system more realistically reflects the makeup of UP’s student body.

In light of this, what do the STS statistics mean? If the new system placed fewer students in the upper brackets, does that make its accuracy questionable? Or, conversely, are we to assume that there has been a sudden exodus of “rich” UP students over the summer break? (Perhaps we can blame #Laboracay.)

This is bothersome because, as people have pointed out on Facebook, and as is obvious to anyone who was asked by the STS form whether they shat over an open hole in the ground, the questionnaire is surprisingly easy to lie to. The STFAP problem of Bracket A students “hiding” behind loopholes could be rearing its ugly head again. Of course, as part of the application, students had to swear (digitally) that they were telling the truth, and were informed that their answers could be subjected to verification, so there’s that.

But then again, maybe we’re wrong. Maybe the STS did reveal the true face of UP’s student community. Maybe, in light of the pie chart in the STS report, President Pascual will have to say he was wrong when he said that more and more rich students are coming to UP. Baka po mali lang talaga yung STFAP, Mr. President, noh?

Unfortunately, it’s hard to know for sure based on the statistics in the report. I, for one, would like to see in more detail how students “jumped” between brackets. We can’t tell for sure how many of the nearly 5,000 students who moved down to Brackets C-E2 used to be Bracket A students, how many used to be in Bracket B, and so forth.

Then there’s the question of how many students who used to be in Bracket D or E now find themselves in Bracket C because the family has a sala set and one mobile phone for each member.

One last note: this news release seems a little premature to me. We still don’t know how many students have appealed to be reassigned to another bracket, and how many of these appeals will be accepted. I think this is an important metric that’s going to be a major indicator of the success of the revamped tuition system. Let’s not count our chickens before they’re hatched.

Sunday, June 15

Disturbed, comforted

This reminds me of Carlos Celdran’s own “Damaso” protest, for which
he, too, was charged and jailed. Photo from Flickr / Thom Watson

By now, you’ve probably heard of Em Mijares, a 19-year-old student who was arrested by authorities for heckling the President during his Independence Day speech in Naga.

There’s really nothing I can say that Marck Rimorin hasn’t already, so I’ll just point you in his direction, the one direction you should be looking:

What Pio Mijares did is still a political act, a political expression, and it speaks volumes about the kind of political action you can expect from those who share his beliefs. Yet the treatment of him speaks something about the kind of politics that this administration subscribes to. The latter is far more damning than the former.

I completely agree with the entirety of Marck’s piece. I think there was no need to cuff and charge him; dragging him out of the venue was more than “consequence” enough for his actions.

Let me just repeat here what I said on Twitter Saturday night about this whole thing.

Many have said that Mijares should have been ready for the consequences of his actions. I interpret this to mean that they believe Mijares was disturbing the peace, causing scandal and alarm, and so he should have been prepared to face charges of disturbing public order and causing scandal and alarm.

Have they considered the possibility that there might be others, Filipinos just like them, who were comforted and not disturbed by the actions of Mijares? When we say that he disturbed the public order, as many believe, it must be asked: whose order was disturbed? To which “public” did he cause offense?

Had Mijares screamed instead, “I LOVE YOU, PNOY!”, would we have been similarly disturbed? Scandalized? Alarmed? And would have he been treated as harshly as he was?

As I have already said on Twitter, it could very well be that the authorities had enough cause to charge Mijares—not that he is guilty, just that there was enough cause to charge him. The issue here is not legality. The issue, as Marck said, is politics: this was a political act, and those who have come down on the side of the arresting authorities have revealed their politics.

Malaca├▒ang has been quick to disown the issue. Abigail Valte said that it was the local PNP, not the Presidential Security Group, that filed the charges. The Palace doesn’t want to “interfere with the decision of local authorities.”

What a load of bull. First of all, it is not improper in the sense that it is well within the President’s power as Commander in Chief. Second, by ordering the PNP to drop the charges against Mijares, the President has the opportunity to prove that his administration respects free speech—even the dissenting kind—not only in word but also in deed.

Sure, there is nothing wrong with leaving the matter to local authorities. That would be a perfectly legal way to handle the matter. The thing is, it’s also the spineless thing to do.

Meanwhile, ordering the charges dropped in the spirit of free speech—and, I keep repeating this because it’s so important to the issue, of dissenting speech—would be an act of conviction, much like the one for which Mijares has been charged.

Wednesday, June 11

Of commemoration and the Constitution



Every time the Iglesia Ni Cristo comes up in the news, as it has with increasing frequency over the past several months, I resist the urge to discuss it on this blog. For one, I find that those who are vocal about their opinion on the INC are pretty immoveable in their belief. But, for another, as a lay member of the Church, I am in no position or capacity to speak on behalf of the Church Administration. I always include this disclaimer any time I mention the Church on this blog.

Anyway, the reason I break my silence now is this column by Emil Jurado, which appeared today on the Manila Standard Today. In it, he raises a fuss over commemorative stamps recently issued by the Philippine Postal Corporation in anticipation of the Church’s Centennial in July. He says:

I am bringing this up not because I am a Catholic, but because the provision which clearly mandates separation of church and the state is clear enough. The word “shall” is mandatory, and such issuance of a commemorative stamp by a government agency like the Philippine Postal Corp. is patently unconstitutional. Whoever in the Philippine Postal Corp. who authorized it should be charged for violating a constitutional mandate.

A Letter to the Editor published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer about a week ago said just about the same thing:

The INC is unquestionably a religious sect, church or sectarian institution. As I see it, the issuance of the stamps in question is assailable on constitutional grounds insofar as it entails the appropriation and payment of public money that redound to the benefit and support of the INC. It is evidently the purpose of the stamp issue to focus attention on the INC religion. The publicity engendered and the resulting propaganda received by the INC are quite obvious.

It’s worth asking whether the courts have had an opportunity to issue judgment on this matter. And they have—in Aglipay vs. Ruiz. The head of the Philippine Independent Church, Gregorio Aglipay, sought to prevent the then-Bureau of Posts from issuing stamps to commemorate a significant religious event. Only, it wasn’t an anniversary of the Iglesia Ni Cristo (the Church had been registered with the Philippine government for all of 23 years at the time this decision was signed). It was the 33rd International Eucharistic Congress, an important event in the Roman Catholic Church that was held in Manila.

The Supreme Court held that even though the stamp was “inseparably linked with an event of a religious character,” it did not violate the Constitution because the aim of the government in issuing it was not to advance Catholic propaganda. The Court added that any advantage the Catholic Church might have gained out of the issuance of the stamps would be merely incidental to the government’s goal, which was to attract attention to the Philippines.

I will concede, of course, that it can be argued that the Aglipay decision is not applicable to the INC Centennial stamps. I personally think that it is—the revenue alone would be to the advantage of the government, the stamps being classified as commemorative postage. Others, however, might rationally argue that unlike the stamps in question in the Aglipay decision, the INC Centennial stamps do not explicitly promote the Philippines. I will let the legal issue be. After all, IANAL—I Am Not A Lawyer.

There is something that is more peculiar to me about all this ruckus, however. Has it crossed the mind of critics who think like Jurado that their objections might apply to other religions, too?

PhilPost has already issued several commemorative stamps about Catholic events such as the canonization of Pedro Calungsod, the 50th anniversary of the Catholic Diocese of Malolos, and the 300th anniversary of the death of Mother Francisca Del Espiritu Santo de Fuentes.

These, of course, are understandable—Pedro Calungsod is the second Filipino saint (despite the stamp in his honor featuring a map not of the Philippines, but of Marianas Island), Mother Francisca Del Espiritu Santo de Fuentes was the “first Prioress of the Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in the Philippines,” according to the PhilPost website, and Malolos, is...well, it’s located in the Philippines.

But what of the stamp to commemorate the beatification of Pope John Paul II in 2011, and of the special 3D holographic stamp to commemorate his and Good Pope John’s canonization this year? We can make the argument that Pope John Paul II was a frequent visitor of the Philippines, but even that is a bit of a stretch.

(All the stamps I linked to in the two preceding paragraphs, by the way, I found in one of the comments in the PDI Letter to the Editor I quoted above.)

I don’t see anyone, not even Emil Jurado, complaining about these stamps. Not that anyone should. So why all the specific hate on the INC? Why does it seem like every time the INC lifts a finger in the public sphere, critics find something to bellow about?

To me, the most important takeaway from the Aglipay decision is this: “what is guaranteed by our Constitution is religious liberty, not mere religious toleration.” The mere recognition of a religion does not, by itself, constitute a violation of the separation of Church and State. If it did, we would all be working on Christmas Day and Lent. What violates the principle of religious liberty is when the state affords one religion benefits or concessions while unreasonably denying them to another.

Issuing stamps to commemorate the Centennial of the INC—a homegrown Church that is now present all over the world—is not narrow-minded. Condemning the act, just because it is the INC that apparently “benefits” from it, is.

Photograph of the INC Centennial stamp from PHLPost website

Friday, February 28

Your next USC

Scene from this year’s mudslinging debate.

The last time I published a post, Diliman was gearing up for this year’s elections. As I write this, the polls have closed and the votes have been counted. We now know who will make up next year’s University Student Council.

In my last post, I said that this year’s elections would be a referendum on the performance of KAISA, which was the majority in this year’s council. The students have spoken: only one KAISA councilor bet made it to the top 12, and only two colleges have KAISA candidates for college representatives-elect. On the campaign trail, the party was frequently asked what had happened to their promise of One Strong UP.

Age-old debates continued to rage. Is STAND UP’s militant brand of activism still relevant in today’s world, and considering the evolving makeup of the student body of UP? Should the socialized tuition system of the university—recently revised and renamed STS—be scrapped or reformed?

ALYANSA’s victory this cycle is decisive. Both their standard bearers, as well as seven councilors, will serve in next year’s council. Evidently, despite recent controversy surrounding the party and the stance it took regarding the General Assembly of Student Councils, Diliman is willing to get behind the “new USC” that it offers.

One will note with surprise that the top two councilor spots were taken by independents—Jethro David, whose advocacy is Natural Disaster Risk Reduction and Management, and Raymond Rodis, who advocates a more personal and approachable USC. Did the specificity of their platforms appeal to UP, or did the student body long for the refreshing sight of independent candidates amid the din of inter-party mudslinging? Maybe it was a little bit of both.

The most bothersome statistic from this year’s elections: less than half—48.07%—of eligible voters went to the polls. Most of Diliman either doesn’t care about local politics, or is so jaded by it that they didn’t think it was worth their while to take five minutes to line up and vote, if only to register their discontent by clicking “Abstain” on all positions. Neither possibility is good.

This cycle, like the others before it, surprised me. I never expected there to be so many UP students passionate enough about university and national issues to buy two weeks’ worth of a monochrome wardrobe, and I’ve never understood why they always wait until February to come crawling out of the woodwork and try to outdo each other’s nationalism and passion for service.

Tomorrow, there’ll be no more smiling faces in AS, no more impassioned speeches during room-to-room campaigns, and much less will be said about which councilors have what kinds of USC GA attendance records. But I sure hope that the last two weeks are only the start, and not the quick end, of these flaming passions.

• • •

Congratulations are in order for Tinig Ng Plaridel, the official student publication of the UP College of Mass Communication. They provided terrific coverage of this year’s elections.

Wednesday, February 5

Election season once again

Infographic by Tinig Ng Plaridel. For fair and accountable reporting
on the USC elections, check out their special section, Botong Isko.

It’s University Student Council election season once again in UP Diliman, that time of the academic year when social awareness and the many different brands of “activism” become fashionable. It usually doesn’t last very long: once the campaigns, dorm tours, debates and mudslinging wrap up and the elections are held, things return to normal overnight.

All the same, I’m not complaining. I’d like to believe most UP students keep abreast of matters of national importance and contribute to the public debate, if only during tambay hours and jeepney rides with friends home.

The single most important local issue that will dominate this cycle is the university’s socialized tuition scheme, which was recently modified by the system’s Board of Regents. This latest change includes adjusted thresholds for brackets and a new “super-rich” tier, for which tuition will be at P2,000-P2,500 per unit. That’s P500-P1,000 more than the current highest rate.

The proposed STFAP revisions speak to a bigger question about the public character of UP. Since the socialized tuition system was first implemented in 1989, critics have painted it as UP’s way of skirting its duty to provide free quality tertiary education to those who deserve it. Others argue that the STFAP makes education in UP more accessible to some at the expense of others who can afford the added burden anyway. They say that this, along with other measures such as renting out idle property, allows UP to continue to fulfill its mandate while remaining financially viable.

Yolanda will also be high on the minds of this year’s candidates. When it struck Visayas last year, various student groups quickly organized extensive relief operations. Kabataan Partylist, which is allied with the political party STAND-UP, organized the Tulong Kabataan volunteer network; the USC, dominated this year by KAISA, led the #IskoOperation relief drive. But the biggest question is how the different parties have responded to the plight of UP’s campuses in Tacloban and Palo, and what representations they have made with university officials regarding students from the Visayas campuses who have been transferred to other units, including Diliman.

We can also expect the discussion to include the controversy surrounding Congressional pork barrel, especially since the Supreme Court recently heard arguments on the Disbursement Acceleration Program, which critics have referred to as the President’s own pork barrel. Some quarters argue that discretionary funds are an indispensable for effective governance, while others charge that both the DAP and the PDAF are simply corruption magnets and should be abolished altogether. The SC is also poised to soon release its decision on the fate of the Reproductive Health Law, which was another point of minor contention around this time a couple of years ago.

This year’s elections will also be a referendum on how well the USC and the ruling party have performed over the course of the academic year. Last year, KAISA ran and won on the platform of “One Strong UP,” vowing to unite all of the university’s competing ideologies and leanings toward one common goal. The results of the elections will reveal whether UP students think that strategy has worked.

Furthermore, this year’s USC suffered a blow to its morale when it impeached Education and Research Committee Head Lemuel Magaling. The charges included absences and tardiness, as well as the allegedly unauthorized use of the USC logo for a video produced by STAND-UP, to which Magaling belongs. The Council was accused of politicking because of this, although all charges were later dropped and Magaling reinstated.

These are the issues that the student body will weigh when it casts its vote on February 27, and this is the landscape that the elected USC will face when it assumes office in June. Drastic changes are underway for both UP and the nation. In the end, UP’s student body must choose leaders who can best fulfill the university’s enduring duty: to serve the People.

Friday, January 31

Intellectual RH debate



You have to hand it to the reproductive-health extremists. What they lack in logic, they make up for in sheer vitriol.

Their latest victim is the recently concluded Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights (APCRHSR) at the Philippine International Convention Center. The same people who made the most noise in the days of the RH Bill debate filed a petition before a Pasay City court to prevent the event from pushing through.

The petition was filed on the eve of the opening of the APCRHSR; it was subsequently denied by the court, and the conference began and ended without a hitch. But the bigger point is loud and clear: if you think they’ll stop at anything to get their point across, you’re wrong.

Now, there’s a separate question of what their point is, and the answer to it is not immediately clear. During the RH debate, our best guess was that they thought our laws should be based on the Bible. And not just any Bible, but the version/s they had in their hands. And not just the Bibles in their hands, but only specific verses in it. And not just specific verses, but the Catholic Church’s specific interpretation of these verses. Of course, the language of their argument was nowhere as overt, and was instead comfortably coated in euphemistic references to a pro-life Constitution whose preamble implores the aid of Almighty God.

In this specific petition, the camp seems to be making the case that the idea—not the act, but the idea—of abortion is so abhorrent that the mere mention of the word is a violation of the Constitution. At this rate, the group should also file petitions for an injunction against dictionaries sold in the Philippines that include an entry for “abortion.”

The other extreme isn’t much better, either. Rabid pro-RH proselytizers think of the law as a magic bullet for all of the country’s problems. To them, anyone who opposes the law is a Bible-wielding bigoted old lady who is bothered by the mere idea of a condom. Some arguments, for example, went overboard in their defense of the RH Bill, changing the debate from a consideration of the merits and demerits of the proposed law into a nonstop bashing of religion in general.

In perpetually trying to outshout each other, these two extremes may have dominated the Reproductive Health Bill debate, but I am of the hope that they actually make up a very noisy minority. In the process, they drown out what we really need right now—an honest, respectful, and intellectual RH debate based on straight facts and sober logic. There are a great many of us who are wary of, if not outright opposed to, the RH Bill for reasons not explained in the Bible. In the same way, there are many who favor the passage of the law, but not because they believe our problems are caused solely by poor people who can’t stop breeding.

When the RH Law was still a bill, the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives expressed opposition to the fact that it was being peddled as a population control measure. The problem, they said, was not that there are too many of us, but that we aren’t getting enough of what we need. (The Makabayan bloc eventually voted in favor of the bill while maintaining their reservations.) Population scientists have also warned against the effects of negative population growth. Countries with an old population lack a robust workforce, which is crucial to economic development. A strong workforce is what our country needs, not a smaller one.

You know what these arguments represent? A reasonable opposition, which is something we sorely lacked when the RH Bill was still pending in Congress. Now that the RH Law is nearing implementation (unless, of course, the Supreme Court goes into an irrational fit), we need to watch it even more closely, and discuss it more soberly.

In the Senate and the Lower House, we were discussing in the language of hypotheticals; when the SC lifts its TRO, we will be dealing with real effects and real taxpayer pesos in expenditures. Now is the time for vigilance.

Photo from Flickr / Jason Licerio

Monday, January 20

Reading the news in general

Flickr / gramicidin

Last week, I talked about the news that Kim Jong Un’s uncle had been fed to starving dogs as punishment for his alleged treason. The report, as we know, turned out to be nothing more than a piece of fanciful fiction. Ridiculous though it may seem in retrospect, few people had trouble believing it when it broke on the major news networks.

Today, when you ask a Journalism major to define the discipline, chances are he or she will rattle off a few choice phrases from “The Elements of Journalism” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. It’s subtitled “What the newspeople should know and the public should expect.” I like that because it underscores the fact that the discipline of journalism is a two-way street. I read the book for my Journalism 101 course, but really, it is as relevant to the average news consumer as to the freshman Journalism major.

Kovach and Rosenstiel define journalism is a discipline of verification, and the first litmus test of a credible report is independent corroboration. Ask yourself: does the report prove that the allegations have been separately confirmed by two or more people? Or, even better, is the story based on documentary evidence? Pieces of paper lie far less frequently than people.

Where are you getting your news from? Generally speaking, you can trust the Philippine Daily Inquirer to be careful in vetting the reports that come across their wires; a WordPress.com blog run by a pseudonymous solo reporter, not so much. (Take note, of course, that a news report isn’t credible solely because a mainstream outlet published it. Case in point: the Kim Jong Un starving dogs story.)

Thankfully, there is a solution to the problem of factual accuracy in reporting, and it’s built into the discipline. When Newspaper A comes out with a report that is later proven incorrect by Newspaper B, the former’s credibility with its audience is injured, and the latter’s, bolstered. Thus, news outlets have every incentive to make sure they get their facts straight, and to police each other’s reports. It’s through this mechanism that the truth almost always finds its way to the surface.

Newsreaders, however, have more to be vigilant about than just the accuracy of the facts in news reportage. The duty of journalism, after all, is not merely to repeat facts, but to present the truth. I’ve always liked my Journalism professor’s simple but clear explanation: it’s a fact that Gloria Arroyo was proclaimed winner of the 2004 Presidential elections, but the truth is that the polls were riddled with accusations of irregularities.

This leads me to my next protip: for potentially controversial stories, read multiple sources. The more you do this, the more you’ll learn just how powerful the journalist’s job of angling a story is. Let’s turn to a recent news item, the recently released Pulse Asia survey, for a demonstration.

I googled “latest aquino ratings pulse asia” and got a bunch of headlines from different news sites. Inquirer.net’s story was “Aquino approval rating dips in new poll.” It’s simple enough, and it doesn’t sound like any special treatment was given to its angle. Rappler’s was “Aquino ratings drop in Luzon;” still fairly straightforward, while focusing on one particular aspect of the survey. Manila Standard Today’s story was headlined: “Binay tops Aquino in survey trust ratings.” This is true, as well, and is particularly interesting because it tells us more about the political landscape. The President and the Vice President are not party-mates; Binay is almost sure to make a run for the top post in 2016. GMA News Online had a similar headline: “More Pinoys approved, trusted VP Binay than PNoy in Q4 of 2013 – Pulse Asia.” And ANC led with another angle: “PNoy's ratings remain high despite 'Yolanda' - Pulse Asia.”

A same story can be spun a thousand different ways. Stories on trust ratings, which come out every so often (and, in the Philippines, from at least two different polling outfits), may be relatively benign, but see what you’ll find when you google more controversial stories like the pork barrel scam. For kicks, I would also suggest googling coverage of militant protest actions to see how they’re treated by the media.

There’s also the very interesting question of why these angles differ the way they do. Sometimes, it’s merely a question of the most interesting, attention-catching, quirkiest way to lead a story. Other times, the reporter may be beholden to a certain person or office. Or, the owners of a newspaper may slightly nudge its editors, who may then soften stinging angles so as not to offend powers that be.

Reporting the news is tough work, so read it the way it deserves to be read.

Monday, January 13

Reading news about General Kim

Photo from rodong.rep.kp

When a dog bites a man, it’s not news. But when a man bites a dog, that’s news. Unless, of course, you’re talking about coverage of North Korea.

Late in December, news outlets worldwide picked up a story saying that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un personally witnessed his uncle, whom he had convicted of treason, get fed to a pack of starved dogs.

The story has since been debunked (see the Washington Post and this Reuters wire report). Hongkong-based Wen Wei Po was the first to push the story despite its lone source being a satirical post on a Chinese social media site. The report got carried by the Straits Times, then by other Western media outlets, mainly because Wen Wei Po is seen as a “pro-Beijing” publication. Apparently, editors had sufficient reason to believe the story was backed by sources from within the political machinery of China, which is seen as the most reliable among North Korea’s few remaining friends.

But why did this tale get so much traction in the first place? It’s easy to blame the confusion on the secretiveness of North Korea, which is possibly the world’s last remaining black hole of information. We don’t know exactly what goes on in there. The state is notoriously closed to outside scrutiny. What little news that makes it out of the hermit state does so either through Chinese sources, the South Korean intelligence agency, or pro-DPRK propaganda from the Korean Central News Agency.

It isn’t entirely their fault, however. This sort of thing happens all the time online. Sharing a link with an attention-grabbing headline on Facebook, after all, is much easier than taking the time to read the story to scrutinize its credibility. News websites are not pressured to see if a story checks out before pushing it, either. A factual error is much easier to fix online than on a national daily’s print edition or a network’s primetime newscast.

It happened when a news story spread about Pope Francis supposedly declaring that there is no Hell. A quick Google search would reveal that there is no such thing as the “Third Vatican Council,” during which the Pope purportedly made the declaration. It happened in June 2012, when Ricky Lo reported that Manny Pangilinan had “virtually confirmed” a merger between TV5 and GMA7, without including a direct quote to support the news. Pangilinan refuted the story. And it happened in August 2012 as authorities pursued a search-and-rescue operation for then-Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, whose plane had crashed in the waters off Masbate. Someone tweeted that she had spoken to Robredo’s daughter, who allegedly told her the Secretary was “alive and well.” A hundred retweets later, the information sadly turned out to be false.

It’s a good habit to read the news, but it’s an even better habit to read it critically. In my next column, I’ll talk about journalism as a discipline of verification and try to teach you how to read the news as diligently as journalists report it.