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Community News & Features Feb 28, 2014 at 3:44 pm

Journalism in time of Haiyan

By Rachelle Cruz

Cebu Daily News publisher and editor and 2013 Marshall McLuhan Fellow Eileen Mangubat on “Journalism in Time of Haiyan: The Evolving role of the community press in covering natural disasters”

Newspapers aren’t dead. Nor obsolete. The ugly narrative of ‘print media becoming extinct,’ a cacophony of voices trailing publishers and journalists alike down to their last drop of ink is a false prophecy. This hard-hitting investigative journalist can tell you, that in fact, community newspapers are thriving, teeming with local stories, that help rebuild and shape communities, even from the ground up.

Eileen Mangubat, 2013 Marshall McLuhan Fellow, speaks at University of Toronto, Feb. 27.

Eileen Mangubat, 2013 Marshall McLuhan Fellow, speaks at University of Toronto, Feb. 27.  
Photo: Rachelle Cruz

Eileen Mangubat is here in Canada – for the very first time. With almost 30 years of experience as a reporter covering various beats, news editor and now publisher and acting editor in chief of Cebu Daily News in the Philippines, (may I add that she is the first female EIC to lead CDN during its start-up in 1998), Mangubat nabbed the 2013 Marshall McLuhan Prize.

On Wednesday, Feb. 26, she spoke at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto about “Journalism in Time of Haiyan: The Evolving role of the community press in covering natural disasters”. She shared colourful anecdotes of her experience and lessons learned presented in an itemized discussion (enumerated exactly in 10 points) of how small papers can deliver news during calamities, and defined what they can bring to the table — where international media can fail to grasp or fall short.

“Because the community press is closer to the ground, and we can see exactly, we can track, we can make special efforts to find out where the communities are really being helped. We are in a very special position to try to verify and validate where all of this aid has gone, and whether appropriate aid has been channeled to communities that need help,” Mangubat said, as she explained the new challenges of covering the aftermath of Haiyan (Yolanda). After three months since the typhoon hit, they’ve passed the initial damage assessment bit – what’s the damage? Body count? Numbers missing? Now it’s accountability assessment. Point #1 Reality Check!

With international aid pledge pouring from around the globe, including local fundraisers, it seemed like a complex head-scratching task to crunch the figures, and trace where aid was coming from. In an unprecedented move, Mangubat expressed their “watershed” moment, when media rivals, toned down their competitive streak (for now) and got together, to develop an online database. When an outpour of relief is going to one place and not another, this #relieftracker database can tell you where you should be dispersing funds/aid to avoid overlaps. The media, often a target of criticism, sometimes even demonized, can carry its true task and serve the public. True story. That’s one of Mangubat’s points, #7 Partner with Peers. But is it the job of media to be involved in fundraising you might ask? This question was apparently pointed to Mangubat in previous talks, in which she replied, “Any help is welcome because the need is so great but it should be driven by the spirit of service, not corporate ego.” Nor shameless promotion.

Eileen Mangubat with Michael McLuhan, son of Marshall McLuhan after her talk at U of T.  Photo:Rachelle Cruz

Eileen Mangubat with Michael McLuhan, son of Marshall McLuhan after her talk at U of T. Photo:Rachelle Cruz

Nor you should get caught up in your own personal associations and biases that cloud your judgment and question your credibility as a journalist. Mangubat wasn’t afraid to point out the Korina Sanchez-Anderson Cooper controversy that swirled in the media as an example of how one’s credibility can come under fire. Netizens took to Twitter or Facebook to give Sanchez a good whipping. (Google it if your unaware or plain curious). “Journalists tell it as it is. This also means not confusing one’s personal preferences with the work at hand,” Mangubat expressed.

Still, journalists are the soldiers, wearer and bearer of news, good or bad. Her reporters were out in the typhoon while others were being evacuated.

“When everybody is hunkering down and getting into safety, we are sending you to the frontline to be the witnesses of awful occurrences. This is what sets you apart from citizens. You have a public function, you have a service role to play and it does involve a measure of risk, but this is our job,” she explained.

And she doesn’t stop there.

When others are drawing out frontpage stories about the grim realities of disasters, wallowing in the sight of loss and grief, Mangubat contends, “while we cannot directly help, we can energize groups to do good work during and after the disaster “ and #2 Rally the community behind efforts to bring relief/rebuild local efforts to raise help for typhoon survivors.

So Cebu Daily News was also highlighting stories of local initiatives like Gawad Kalinga’s strategy in rebuilding houses made from corrugated GI sheet roofs to bring some semblance of home to displaced families as Christmas drew near. Or wrote about local groups fundraising to build native architecture called “Bahay Kubos” because she believed” by giving them the publicity, it encouraged them to reach out and work harder.” This builds the morale of the people, #8 Cultivates compassion and #9 Keeps Hope Alive. When city officials had “lukewarm” greetings for stranded Tacloban residents occupying their space, Mangubat recounted that the paper focused on the efforts of the village chief taking initiative in setting up an evacuation ground in his brand new sports centre, and in “a way to shame the local city government”. Gutsy.

# 5 Overlooked? Look again. When the president of the Philippines, aka PNoy, visited the Cebu City Medical Centre, after the Bohol earthquake last year, his story went straight to page two! The front page was given to the group of patients decked out on the lawn as the building was declared unsafe to use. “During a natural disaster, we also have the choice to make which groups we want to shine a light on. The media has a choice to give a voice to the voiceless,” she said.

Here’s a pattern: When the party is going right, Mangubat goes left. If no one risks to go and check out the Loboc River Cruise in Bohol, one of the island’s main tourists attractions, Mangubat and her team, two weeks after the earthquake that hit the region, decided to give it a try and plastered the front page story “Back in Business” to draw tourists back again, and boost the ailing of a place whose economic driver largely rests on eco-tourism. It seems, she always reminds her reporters to #3 Find proof of life. Growth? Survival? Perseverance? Go find it. Rumour? Well, #4 Spread (and Zap) it. While new media can create a lot of panic (this time it was a hoax earthquake warning), Mangubat said mainstream media “can be used because of its gravitas, can stop a rumour in its tracks.”

This isn’t a suggestion that local papers have the answers to everything. Mangubat, in a humble frankness, admitted that they too make mistakes. Sure the paper gave an early warning about the upcoming “storm surge”, but nobody understood what it really meant. If only they used the word “Tsunami-like”. Changing the terms used or a slight shift in language might have saved more lives; she regrets this fact. Thus, #6 Demystify the strange, give early warning can only be really effective if the technical, accurate information you have is communicated just as well. And lastly, of course #10 Go local. Put a human face to that disaster. Otherwise, it’ll just be a grim statistic.

Mangubat was recognized by the US Embassy in Manila with the 2003 Benigno S. Aquino Fellowship Award.  Various award-giving bodies including the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the Philippine Press Institute, the Rotary Club of Manila, the Archdiocese of Cebu, and the University of the Philippines Alumni Association, among others, have recognized her as an alumna, reporter, editor, and news manager.