The cost of reporting too close to home

While shooting images of the aftermath of Tropical Storm Sendong in Barangay Hinaplanon, Iligan City in the early morning of Dec. 17, photojournalist Richel Umel was at first detached from the scene of muddied cadavers being hauled by army rescuers for identification.

Several moments later, he could not move. His tears flowed uncontrollably at the sight of lines of drowned people and the throng of grieving flood survivors.

“Images of tragic events I went through and witnessed since I was young, especially the wars, flashed on my mind,” Richel related.

His family — they live in nearby Linamon, Lanao del Norte — was spared from the flood. Still, Richel admits that he was “shaken” by the enormity of the disaster.

“At that moment, I could not stand the grief,” he said.

Done with taking photos, Richel, who shoots for a national daily and various wire agencies, motored home to file a story and send images to the news desk.

A 25-year veteran to the news grind, telling stories about death and destruction, including those too close to home, is nothing new to Richel, 52.

From March to April 2000, he embedded with government troops and reported on an Iligan radio station the Lanao del Norte leg of then president Joseph Estrada’s “all-out war against” the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

On August 18, 2008, he made his family evacuate from Linamon, Lanao to Iligan City and then went to cover a battle — the opening salvo of what was to be a year-long war arising from the failed signing of a deal that would have established the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity — raging a kilometer from their old house.

The Moro rebellion has been the subject of many of Richel’s reportage. And while growing up in Lanao del Norte, it has forced his family to undergo evacuation many times.


“Journalists face unusual challenges when covering violent or mass tragedies. They interact with victims dealing with extraordinary grief,” wrote Joe Hight and Frank Smyth in the book Tragedies & Journalists published by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

Hight and Smyth also noted that ethical issues attend journalists’ coverage of disasters like grappling with “the question of whether to provide aid to injured victims or help in the evacuation before emergency responders arrive.”

“Simply doing your job and ignoring the victims’ plight might be considered morally wrong by the public,” the authors said.

Photojournalist Erwin Mascariñas faced this question when he covered the early stages of the flood in Cagayan de Oro in the evening of Dec. 16.

In Barangay Consolacion, Erwin “tried to take several shots but ended up helping pull the rope that led people out of the water together with the rescuers and volunteers.”

“Blisters were all over my hand after helping out in the rescue,” Erwin’s Dec. 17 Facebook status read.

He only later realized that his rented room was under water, so he stayed for a while in a hotel with no dry clothes to use.

“Reporters, photojournalists, engineers, soundmen and field producers often work elbow to elbow with emergency workers. Journalists’ symptoms of traumatic stress are remarkably similar to those of police officers and fire-fighters who work in the immediate aftermath of tragedy,” Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies wrote.

In recognition of this exposure, Tompkins advocated for making available to journalists psychosocial care similar to that afforded to the so-called first responders in disasters.

Survivor guilt

Unlike his fellow Cagayan de Oro journalist Mascariñas, Cong Corrales wasn’t out on the field when waters brought by Tropical Storm Sendong came and washed away over a thousand lives in one night.

He couldn’t. His home, also in Barangay Consolacion, lies at the bank of the Cagayan de Oro River and floodwaters rose to the roofs of single-story abodes at the height of the storm. Cong was trapped on the second floor of his house with other members of his family.

Though rattled by the possibility that the waters would rise higher, he first counted himself lucky that it didn’t.

“The next day I saw 22 bodies being lined up outside the local chapel because there was nowhere else to bring them,” Cong said. “I didn’t feel too good.”

Citing the individual researches of Holen, Simpson, Jenkins and Schiraldi, Emmanuel Hernani, Professor of Psychology at the Cebu Normal University, said feeling relief after surviving a traumatic event is normal among people.

However, Hernani added, many may experience “survivor guilt” for being uninjured when others were killed, for being unable to rescue someone or had to leave someone dying in the disaster.

“This is still trauma and an equally powerful one at that,” he explained.

Specific to the Sendong, the fact that the journalists in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan did not have immediate access to counselling did not help either, Hernani said.

Cong narrated how he got tasked to write a news report about the flood the day after the tragedy and that, on the night of the torrential rains, an editor called him expecting a story.

“I lost my temper when I got the call,” he admitted.

The loss of two colleagues also scarred many in Iligan.

“When I heard that he was among those who died, I felt very angry. Why him?” posed a lady broadcaster in a eulogy for Emmanuel Leonisid “Enie” Alsonado. She worked for Alsonado who was program manager of Radio Mindanao Network’s station in Iligan City, dxIC.

Enie was believed to have suffered from heart attack as he braved the raging flood waters, bringing with him a four-year old son. Enie was able to toss his son up for someone to get him. But he was buried in mud, with only his raised right hand seen by rescuers the morning after.

Enie was buried following a ceremony that drew many people. None could be had for Angelito “Michael” Kundiman whose body, up to now, has yet to be found. Colleagues fondly remember him as soft-spoken and lighthearted.

Kundiman’s wife, Leni, believes he drowned as a floating tree hit and carried him to sea in the evening of Dec. 16.

Finding meaning

Mourning their deaths nevertheless united Iligan’s usually fractious local media community.

In a show of solidarity, radio colleagues from various stations banded together and volunteered to sustain a 16-hour special daily broadcast of dxIC last Dec. 17 to help respond to the disaster.

DxIC was the lone station with power connection after the storm.

Through the special broadcast, dxIC was immediately able to provide listeners with the list of the dead that were brought to the city’s various private funeral parlors to give searching relatives closure.

It also catered to families reporting missing relatives as government agencies were yet unable to do so.

Every day for five days, the special broadcast also channelled feedback from the ground; like which areas still lacked food assistance, and endorsing would-be donors to the appropriate local government department.

Apart from Alsonado and Kundiman, about 40 other journalists in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro were affected by the Sendong.

Jigger Jerusalem and Nef Luczon, interviewed separately, said they had to rely on friends for such basic things as clothes after floodwaters demolished their respective apartments.

“It’s not easy for me to ask for help,” Luzcon admitted.

Jigger and Nef, like Cong, had to immediately report for work after the flood.

Jigger took part in activities that provided aid for reporters affected by the Sendong. Nef, on the other hand, works for a television network that also distributed aid.  (Reported by Ryan D. Rosauro for Pecojon.PH/knr)