I remember the first time I saw a dead body during coverage.
An early-morning police chase with suspected carjackers had ended in a fatal gunfight. We reached a bullet-riddled car and two bloody corpses sprawled on a back road.
Probably preoccupied with editing the video in time to air, I do not recall wanting to throw up. Maybe I wasn’t affected.
Invariably, media people count among doctors, nurses, and law enforcers.
We tread long or unholy hours, go to work when everyone’s home for a holiday, and every so often stare death and tragedy in the face. We become reluctant bearers of bad news yet need to keep emotionally detached while at it.
The adrenaline and quick succession of coverages might lessen the nausea. But how do you deal with people affected closest by crashes or murders without being jolted by their grim reality?
Traffic slowed our team near the Batangas City exit of the Southern Tagalog Arterial Road or STAR tollway.
At the end of a lane of police cars, ambulances and media vehicles, we saw a jeepney literally sawed roof from bottom. A car and a bus had tumbled off the curb.
While the stranded bus passengers awaited rescue, it was too late for 7 of the jeep’s riders. All had the same family name, 2 were children, some still strewn with the wreckage, the rest covered in cardboard.
We came for the New Year’s return rush, not this.
The crash was tragic enough; that it happened just after the New Year and after a family reunion made it more heart-rending.
We moved the next day to the Festijo home up a hillside area of the city. The house was again welcoming a family reunion, a dimmer one.
How do you approach a family in grief? Much less ask a favor from them?
There are no formulas, or at least none taught me. You simply play by ear and keep earnest.
“Sa ABS-CBN po kami (We’re with ABS-CBN),” I introduced myself to the lady who seemed to be the host. “Condolences po.”
Could we park our two big vans at the nearby grass lot, I asked. May we also have our live camera and reporter stand facing their house?
The woman, a sister of the 3 who died, consented. Set up where you’re comfortable, so long as you don’t bother anyone, she said. I could only mumble my thanks.
Her mother, who stood beside, asked, “Kumain na ba kayo (Have you eaten)?” while pointing to platters of rice and stewed fish. We were all hungry, but I politely declined.
For people at one of their most sensitive moments, their generosity to uninvited guests like us can overwhelm.
More than one media person has said it: the hardest events to cover are wakes.
Our ENG van and GMA 7’s waited at the parking lot of St. Peter Chapel along Quezon Avenue, this time two weeks later.
A series of carjacking incidents had claimed its most high-profile victim–Emerson Lozano, son of Marcos lawyer Oliver Lozano. His burnt body was discovered in Pampanga that morning and brought here.
The funeral home kept us out until the family said we could come in. When the door opened, a handful of cameramen quickly filled the small room where Lozano’s casket lay.
They all looked and waited for emotions and reactions, which by then were already subdued. Lenses turned and lights flashed at any hug, caress or tear.
At the center of it all was the drawn, stoic composure of the older Lozano, whose prominence, along with the grisly circumstances of his son’s death, gave identity to this case.
If anyone knew why we still pressed to cover them, Lozano would. After all, he kept in the public eye with his consistent filing of impeachment cases against former President Arroyo. It was he who allowed the media into the room.
Our reporter Jorge Cariño called me through the horde of photographers facing the mourners to introduce me to “Manong Ollie.”
“Thank you so much,” he said, greeting my condolences.
Attorney Lozano had already agreed to be interviewed live on TV Patrol, and I asked if we could set up our camera and lights at the back end of the room. Just so he need not go outside later. Sir Jorge would report live from outside.
Manong Ollie found no problem with it.
For the many sides and stories that need telling, the most disturbing ones often need to be told the most.
But the telling goes up to a certain extent.
Soon after the interview, we packed up the setup inside the room. At the same time, Emerson Lozano’s widow had begun to object that the photogs there would not let up.
One asked the older Lozano if he could shoot a picture of the family by the casket.
Manong Ollie said he did not want “staged” photos. And apparently, the immediate widowed family still wanted the privacy their patriarch no longer enjoyed.
Someone had to know when to tone down and give them space to mourn.
Our late-night reporter Gretchen Malalad arrived to the tension. She was among the first to cover Lozano’s disappearance, and she wondered now how to again approach the family.
“Minimizing harm” is one of the hardest points to learn and practice in the journalists’ code of ethics.
It’s the common factor to many issues against media–they’re supposedly insensitive to the people they cover or get too absorbed in the heat of coverage to mind.
Encountering gore, and most especially grief, sobers us to remember that while we are journalists first, we are human too.