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Faced with tragedy and grim realities, trauma journalists stand their ground

From braving strong typhoons to reporting militant crossfire, a trauma journalist’s job is the relentless pursuit of truth despite the danger.

​​To this day, Jimmy Domingo cannot forget what it was like to witness the violence of land disputes in Negros Occidental on June 4, 2007. As a freelance photojournalist, he was covering farmer-beneficiaries who were putting fences over land rightfully awarded to them when the guards of an influential landlord opened fire. “I was simply taking pictures of them putting [up] fences…and then pinagbabaril sila,” he recalls horridly. “Nakuhanan ko ng pictures ‘yung pinagbabaril sila…pati ako binabaril.

(Guns were fired at them. I was able to take pictures of them being gunned down. Even I was being shot at.)

The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” is a timeless adage that rings true more than ever in the present digital age. It can do all manner of things: entertain, inform, and awaken. Perhaps, it can also encapsulate a scene so monumental that no amount of words could ever be enough to describe the raw and vivid memory ingrained in it.

This is trauma journalism—a field that centers on covering disasters, conflict, and its repercussions. It’s a field that should never be undermined, for journalists risk their lives and wellbeing to provide the public with real-time news on every developing crisis at hand.

A day in the life

For trauma journalists, a regular work day is not something they can easily jot down on a planner. It requires flexibility and preparedness, knowing they might need to pack up and go at a moment’s notice. “Kailangan mabilis ka,” emphasizes Jing Magsaysay, a former journalist for ABS-CBN and CNN Philippines, recounting how they always had a box of necessities containing cameras, a portable stove, and an LPG canister—ready to be picked up as soon as they left for an onsite coverage. “Minsan, doon na kami bumibili ng damit kung sa’n man kami pupunta,” he adds.

(You have to be quick…Sometimes, we even buy clothes on the site where we’re covering.)

But no matter how prepared one is, they will never be ready enough for the trauma to be witnessed upon arrival. Magsaysay recalls covering a Philippine Airlines plane crash at Mt. Ugu, Benguet in 1987, which affected him personally: “I saw death up close [and] it hit me really hard.”

Though journalists are required to soldier on as they record the conflict on the ground, it is difficult to capture the scene entirely, much less ask for statements from those present. When it comes to interviewing or capturing the people affected by the situation, Domingo is adamant in asking for their consent and respecting their privacy. “[During] moments of grief, don’t go near. You can shoot from afar, pero dapat alam nila ‘yung presence [mo] as media,” he states.

(You can shoot from afar, but they must be aware of your presence as a media practitioner.)

Similarly, Magsaysay shares, “The story doesn’t matter; when they’re in pain, leave them alone.” He further says that he follows strict rules regarding privacy and finds the right time for an interview. Even when he was scolded for not acquiring one, he recalls persisting that he would not interview a victim who was in pain.

Breaking the news

In trauma journalism, chances are it’s a narrative of human versus nature. For every story, the challenges imposed by natural disasters manifest in different ways.

Veteran trauma journalists also recall how the primitiveness of technology back in the day could easily put the news on hold. During the 1990 Luzon earthquake, Magsaysay narrates how a six-story school in Nueva Ecija collapsed on itself—“pancaked” as he described—and all the schoolchildren were trapped inside. Once Magsaysay’s team got in the area, they struggled to get the story to the newsroom using microwave transmitters—a dish-like structure on top of cell towers that sends signals to another dish in a different, farther location if the signals were unobstructed. But he shares that the transmitters from Nueva Ecija to the ABS-CBN newsroom in Quezon City didn’t meet—making the signal transmission improbable.

Owing to the advancements in technology today, communication has become more effortless. But Magsaysay adds, “It’s still a problem because there are areas that don’t have cell signals, and…you still have to figure out how you’re going to send the news back or how you’re going to do a live broadcast from the area.”

No matter how much preparation one undergoes for a coverage, the job will always stretch one’s limits. Shortly after the storm surge of Typhoon Yolanda in Tacloban, Magsaysay interviewed a father who tried to cling to his two daughters as the flood water reached the ceiling of their house. “Ang lakas po ng agos, hindi ko po sila mahawakan pareho. Nabitawan ko po ‘yung isang anak kong babae na buntis. Hindi ko na po siya nakita,” Magsaysay recalls him saying. This moment lives on in Magsaysay’s memory as he broke down in tears for the first time on live television.

(The water flow was strong; I couldn’t hold them both. I lost my grip on my pregnant daughter. I never got to see her again.)

Thick-skinned

After a stressful itinerary, Magsaysay recalls there weren’t any other ways to cope with the stress of being a trauma journalist back then. “We would get together every night and talk. We [would] drink beer and talk about the stories of the day,” he recalls. Thankfully, news organizations offer post-traumatic stress disorder counseling for reporters nowadays. But it was a different story during Magsaysay’s prime. “[We didn’t] have the luxury of recuperating. [You had to be tough] for people in the news,” he realizes. “You go back to your job no matter what.”

After 18 years of working for ABS-CBN, Magsaysay decided to leave his job in 2005 due to the stress of being a trauma journalist. Similarly, Domingo has learned to occasionally take a step back, focusing on his time being a lecturer for the University’s Department of Communication. He personally admits to rejecting assignments related to extrajudicial killings. “Ayaw ko makakita ng dugo. ‘Yung trauma, I had a lot already. Actually hanggang ngayon, ‘yung mga nakuha ko since the 80s, nasa isip ko ‘yun.

(I don’t want to look at the blood. I had a lot of trauma already. Until now, I still think about the photographs I took in the 80s.)

Years of grueling coverages have pushed Domingo to ground himself with a life outside his work. When he’s not behind the camera, he’s back home watching good television or hearing Sunday mass with his wife and kids. He even admits to becoming more religious in recent years. “Kailangan may maaatrasan tayo na nakakapagkalma ng buhay,” he says.

(We all need something calming to go back to.)

Despite the sweat, tears, memories, and sleepless nights, the inevitable trials and tribulations aren’t all that comes with being a journalist. There is always a silver lining. For Domingo, it was seeing his photos published, especially when it highlights issues that he advocates for.

A journalist’s advocacy and duty will always lie in unveiling the truth—a product of underrated value. But for Magsaysay, it’s more than that. The job itself is a calling of altruism and service to the people irrespective of who they are. “You’re not doing it for yourself,” Magsaysay remarks, “You’re doing it for other people. [You’re] doing it for the country.”

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