In the void of ABS-CBN’s franchise: The network’s role in disaster reporting

·Contributor
·13 min read
MANILA, PHILIPPINES - JULY 18: ABS-CBN enraged employees and supporters take to the streets to voice their opposition of the government's move to close down the country's largest television network on July 18, 2020 in Manila, Philippines. ABS-CBN, the country's largest broadcast company and one of the top critics of president Duterte was denied a renewal of its franchise by the congress House Committee on Legislative Franchises, voting 70-11. According to the company, more than 11,000 employees will be affected and millions of Filipinos will lose their source of news and entertainment just when people need crucial and timely information as the nation deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Jes Aznar/Getty Images)
MANILA, PHILIPPINES - JULY 18: ABS-CBN enraged employees and supporters take to the streets to voice their opposition of the government's move to close down the country's largest television network on July 18, 2020 in Manila, Philippines. ABS-CBN, the country's largest broadcast company and one of the top critics of president Duterte was denied a renewal of its franchise by the congress House Committee on Legislative Franchises, voting 70-11. According to the company, more than 11,000 employees will be affected and millions of Filipinos will lose their source of news and entertainment just when people need crucial and timely information as the nation deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Jes Aznar/Getty Images)

Former President Rodrigo Duterte admitted to having a hand in shutting ABS-CBN’s franchise down (despite former speaker Harry Roque claiming that he was neutral). Not only did it cost thousands of Filipinos their jobs, but also a reliable source of information for viewers across the Philippines.

The media giant first ceased broadcasts on the National Telecommunications Commission’s (NTC) orders last May 5, 2020. Little by little, the national government coffined their franchise on debunked allegations of tax evasion and foreign ownership. The final nail came on July 10 that year, when the majority of the House of Representatives (HoR) dismissed the network’s bid for a 25-year franchise.

With 21 of their regional networks closing on August 28, residents (especially in far-flung areas) were effectively put in the dark when it came to natural disasters. There exists an “information gap,” as Associate Prof. Danilo Arao of UP Diliman’s (UPD) Department of Journalism would say.

Two years later, look no further than when netizens felt the network’s absence in covering Super Typhoons Rolly in 2020 and Odette in 2021, and Typhoon Ulysses also in 2020. With limited platforms for updates, the heat is on other newsgroups and government agencies among others to keep the public on the loop.

But are they enough to fill in the gap?

When it rains

An employee of Philippine broadcast network ABS-CBN cries after the House of Representatives denied the renewal of the media giants franchise in Quezon City, Philippines on July 10, 2020. A cease and desist order against ABS-CBN was issued on May 5 resulting to the halted operations the networks nationwide television and radio broadcasting. (Photo by Lisa Marie David/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
An employee of Philippine broadcast network ABS-CBN cries after the House of Representatives denied the renewal of the media giants franchise in Quezon City, Philippines on July 10, 2020. A cease and desist order against ABS-CBN was issued on May 5 resulting to the halted operations the networks nationwide television and radio broadcasting. (Photo by Lisa Marie David/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

For National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) Vice-Chair Kath Cortez, the strength of ABS-CBN’s regional network group (RNG) lies in their reach. Thanks to resources such as broadcast vans, hotline services, and satellite phones, their personnel were able to report from and reach-out to people in heavily affected areas. These also made rescue missions much easier for authorities.

Mabilis nakakapagtapon ng balita, mas mapapabilis yung rescue because may naaabot ang RNGs [sic] na sila lang yung nakakapunta doon at sila yung mabilis na nakakapagtapon ng balita, so mas mabilis yung galaw. Kahit nga yung sa level of evacuation natin, malawak yung saklaw ng RNG sa TV mas madami yung nag-e-evacuate dati dahil mas naiintindihan nila. Ganon sya para sa akin,” Cortez told Yahoo Philippines in a virtual interview.

(Rescues were much easier because RNG were able to give quick updates from areas that only they can access. The RNG were also able to reach different viewers ,regardless of their level of education, which made evacuation efforts much smoother. That’s how it is for me.)

However, Cortez, who is based in Davao City, emphasized that disaster reporting must also involve preparing communities for earthquakes, landslides, typhoons, and the like, and not just writing about them “when the need arises” (e.g. emergency announcements, etc.).

Dahil wala yung mga media outlet na dating present para magbigay ng babala, mas kumipot tuloy [...] mas limited pa yung access sa information so marami talagang namatay, so for example, Typhoon Odette na wala talagang ABS-CBN sa lugar. Ako marami akong nakausap dahil nagcover ako. Marami talaga akong nakausap na hindi nila kasi naintindihan kung gaano kalakas yung sinasabi ng gobyerno,” Cortez recalled.

(Because some media outlets were no longer around to break the news, the public’s access to information shrunk, became limited, so a lot of people died. Look at what happened with Typhoon Odette, when there was no ABS-CBN personnel to cover. I chatted with a lot of people because I covered it, and I saw how many were not able to understand how strong the storm was, based on what the government said [at the time].)

Cortez’s sentiments are somewhat reflected in a 2015 study by Robert James De Roque and Czer Mari Esquejo. In comparing how the network, their rival Global Media Arts (GMA) Network, Inc., Inquirer.net, and Interaksyon.com covered 2013’s Super Typhoon Yolanda (internationally known as Haiyan), ABS-CBN provided additional context and multiple sources for their stories. This is despite the four news sites needing to add more pre-disaster articles than post-disaster ones, as well as to laymanize technical weather-related jargon.

When asked about the importance of covering disasters, Assistant Prof. Aileen “Ai” Macalintal placed journalism in the context of community development. Here, journalists can report on topics relevant to communities and not simply on death tolls and other statistics, and that “there’s also a tendency to look at the solutions na (that’s) based on community needs, based on community demands.”

“If you’re embedded in the community like Ms. Kath, alam niya yung pulso ng community so alam niya, halimbawa, na, we are not really interested in sustainable bonds for instance, sustainable finance, how much the World Bank [WB] is lending to the Philippines [...]. Ang mas interes nila syempre [ay] how do we organize ourselves in such a way that this doesn’t happen again,” Macalintal explained.

(If you’re embedded in the community like Ms. Kath, you’d know what the community is like. For example, you’d know that some are not really interested in sustainable bonds, for instance, sustainable finance, how much the World Bank [WB] is lending to the Philippines [...]. They’re more interested in knowing how they can organize themselves in such a way that this doesn’t happen again.)

Macalintal, who teaches in the College of Development Communication (CDC) in UP Los Baños (UPLB), added that the presence of local media arms provide an alternate perspective regarding the effects of disasters.

“For example, when a typhoon sa atin [strikes] in Siargao [or] Bohol, siyempre kaming mga taga-Manila, [ang masasabi namin ay] ‘oh no, hindi na naming mabibisita yung mga surf spots. Oh no, wala na yung mga ganyang mga favorite resort ko,” pero if someone’s on the ground, syempre ang concern nila [ay kung] nakakain na ba yung mga tao, ano kayang gagawin natin,” Macalintal continued.

(For example, when a typhoon strikes Siargao [or] Bohol, of course most people from Manila would often say ‘oh no, we can’t visit our surf spots. Oh no, our favorite resort is gone,’ but if someone's on the ground, their concern would be on seeing if the people have eaten and what they can do from then on.)

Although seen more as a mainstream network, ABS-CBN showed flashes of this approach, Cortez said. Specifically, instead of simply relying on political leaders’ statements, the network also gives airtime to affected residents.

Picking-up the pieces

Ron Cruz, anchor of ANC, a subsidiary of ABS-CBN, is seen during an afternoon newscast at its studio at the station headquarters in Manila on May 6, 2020. The shutting down of the Philippines' top broadcaster ABS-CBN crosses a dangerous line in eroding the nation's democracy and sends a warning to those who risk angering President Rodrigo Duterte, watchdogs said. (Photo by TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images)
Ron Cruz, anchor of ANC, a subsidiary of ABS-CBN, is seen during an afternoon newscast at its studio at the station headquarters in Manila on May 6, 2020. The shutting down of the Philippines' top broadcaster ABS-CBN crosses a dangerous line in eroding the nation's democracy and sends a warning to those who risk angering President Rodrigo Duterte, watchdogs said. (Photo by TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images)

Because there are not enough journalists trained to cover environmental issues, Cortez believes that other news teams are not as prepared or well-equipped. She highlighted how local media outlets do not assign journalists to specific beats and instead rely on a “jack of all trades” approach that has them cover multiple issues.

Using mining as an example, Cortez recalled that “... sabi ko don sa isang kasama ko [while covering an anti-mining protest in South Cotabato this May 2022] ‘baka yung lacking sa atin is that [...] kulang tayo dun sa effort na to highlight din ano yung kailangang maintindihan ng tao kapag nagkaroon ng mina.’ So magkakaroon lang ng greater understanding, deeper understanding yung audience, yung mga tao sa community if they know why.”

(... I told a colleague that ‘maybe what’s lacking on our end is the effort to highlight what the people need to know when mining happens.’ I believe that audiences, members of a community will have greater, deeper understanding if they know why.)

Cortez added that high travel costs, security concerns, and insufficient support from publications hold journalists back from reporting environmental issues. These issues bring to mind what photographer Ezra Acayan shared through Twitter in his attempt to the aftermath of Typhoon Ulysses in Cagayan, wherein he explained that strict COVID-19 quarantine protocols held media back from providing timely updates.

On the second point, Cortez said that “mas maraming harassment, mas mamamatay ka kung ganyan ang focus mo, because of course binabangga mo yung malalaking transnational corporations, logging corporations, and ang kaakibat niyan ay meron silang military. Meron silang security guards, so kapag you invested sa pag-alam kung bakit nangyayari ito, security wise mahirap ‘yan, so kailangan talagang pagdesisyunan mong maigi kung kaya ba.”

([Journalists] have a higher chance of being harassed or even killed if they’d focus on the environment, because of course you are challenging the big transnational and logging corporations, and that would also mean their personal military. They have their security guards, so if you plan on investing on knowing why this is happening, security wise it’d be dangerous, so you need to decide carefully if you can do it.)

Two separate incidents verify Cortez and Macalintal’s fears. In 2011, broadcaster and vocal anti-mining activist Gerry Ortega was shot dead in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, with the mastermind reportedly being ex-Palawan Governor Joel Reyes. In April 25, 2022, Alyansa Tigil Mina (ATM) reported that environmentalist Mark Saludes was harassed by an officer in civilian clothing while the former was covering a fishers’ protest in the province of Cagayan.

Unlike in community development journalism, Macalintal added that mainstream networks may have other agendas in mind. She explained that “media outlets kasi, meron silang (they have) opportunities [that are] more on [...] capital, more manpower to cover [other topics], so meron silang profit-oriented and sometimes politically motivated agenda settings in coverage and in frequency.”

One other advantage that ABS-CBN, "with all the resources and trainings [they had], kaya nilang mag-experiment (they can experiment) with different types of journalism." These include citizen and mobile journalism, which let media practitioners to coordinate with concerned netizens and other experts in covering a specific topic.

What big words you got there

Meteorologists from the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) monitor and plot the direction of super typhoon Maysak at PAGASA headquarters in suburban Manila on April 1, 2015. The typhoon has already ravaged the Pacific islands and is expected to hit the Philippines this weekend. Government weather forecasters are hoping it will weaken before it slams into the northern part of the archipelago which is already frequently battered by typhoons. (Photo: JAY DIRECTO/AFP via Getty Images)
Meteorologists from the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) monitor and plot the direction of super typhoon Maysak at PAGASA headquarters in suburban Manila on April 1, 2015. The typhoon has already ravaged the Pacific islands and is expected to hit the Philippines this weekend. Government weather forecasters are hoping it will weaken before it slams into the northern part of the archipelago which is already frequently battered by typhoons. (Photo: JAY DIRECTO/AFP via Getty Images)

Through Republic Act (RA) No. 10639, otherwise known as the Free Mobile Disaster Alerts Act. Here, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) and telecommunication companies draft and send text messages to phone users upon receiving word from the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) and Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS).

When asked if updates such as these are enough or if government agencies could bridge the gap, right now, Macalintal doesn’t think so. She related this to when she was invited to host a seminar with PAGASA last 2021.

“They’re aware na (that) they are challenged in reporting, but they are not equipped as journalist[s] because we are trained to, you know, tell stories. We are trained to report data pero ayun nga (but really) there’s a huge gap in data reporting for them, and they are yet to realize this,” Macalintal explained, noting how the agency seemed more comfortable in using than laymanizing jargon.

She, however, emphasized that there is still room for agencies like PAGASA to grow, suggesting that they can engage more with the academe and community journalists “to help each other out.”

“I’m not sure how many thousands of lives will have to take for them to realize na they really have a huge [role] and responsibility and there’s a big opportunity up there. Siyempre, yung ibang (of course, the other) PAG-ASA people, they imbed in mainstream outlets. May mga representative sila, pero (they have representatives, but) I think we can work together kasi very open naman sila to that (because they are open to that),” she continued.

Related to this, the downsizing of Project Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards (NOAH) by the national government in 2017 was also deemed a problem for disaster reporting. The disaster prevention and mitigation initiative, originally spearheaded by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), provided hazard maps that highlight areas that are vulnerable to storms and landslides among other disasters.

Though the University of the Philippines (UP) adopted the project just before the administration pulled funding, Project NOAH director and UP Prof. Mahar Lagmay said that this cost the nation access to accurate and timely disaster updates.

In contrast to what government agencies can produce now, Cortez explained the value of ABS-CBN’s disaster infomercials, citing some that provided earthquake and fire survival tips as an example. Unlike ABS-CBN, who already had enough resources to maximize air times for infomercials, most radio stations would instead broadcast commercials or political advertisements for profit.

She that “‘yung ganong klaseng styling, para mas maintindihan ng mga tao, effective ‘yun kasi kahit ilang seconds lang ‘yun nakita ng mga tao, naintindihan nila and meron na silang idea [on] how to survive.

(This style of reporting, which focuses on audiences understanding these concepts, is effective. Even if audiences only see a few seconds of it, they’d get an idea on how to survive [an earthquake or a blaze].)

She also noted that language is also an issue. As an example, she explained that there are English terms that cannot be translated to Bisaya. An issue that may confuse readers.

“How can you ensure na naiintindihan ng tao yung sinasabi ng mga expert (what the experts are saying) [...] the language that they are using, sila-sila lang yung nakakaintindi (they’re the only ones who understand them),” Cortez said.

Besides again emphasizing the need for experts and government officials to provide context and not just bare updates, Cortez said that ABS-CBN’s regional networks had the advantage of providing updates in the language their key audiences would understand.

(NOTE: This article is the first of two parts. Read the conclusion here.)

Reuben Pio Martinez is a news writer who covers stories on various communities and scientific matters. He regularly tunes in to local happenings. The views expressed are his own.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting