Covering the news in time of pandemic: From being on the scene to cyberspace

Published November 25, 2020, 8:11 AM

by Aaron Recuenco 

  • The author, a senior reporter of Manila Bulletin, has covered many disasters – floods, super typhoons, erupting volcanoes.
  • He writes about how the new normal has changed the pace of news gathering.
  • Now, a swab test is required before entering a venue for face-to-face events.
  • Face-to-face interviews are not allowed in most beats.
  • Meeting sources of news is in a zoom press conference or through an email.
  • Only 10 months ago, he stayed with evacuees in an evacuation center while Taal Volcano spewed thick clouds of ashes.
  • While covering the Mayon Volcano eruption years ago, his stories from conversations with the locals guided government agencies to respond to the new requirements of the evacuees.
  • After two weeks in Tacloban right after super typhoon Yolanda had caused much damage and loss of lives, a film producer asked to film his story on a family who survived by clinging to a tree while the floodwater rose and the howling winds and water current carried everything out to the sea.

Only 10 months ago, in January, reporters walked through thick mud and dense ash fall, their faces covered with masks, to get closer to the stories of people being evacuated to safer ground while Taal Volcano spewed thick smoke into the air.

Many of them slept in cramped vehicles, waiting for the volcano to erupt. They visited evacuation centers and talked to emotional evacuees who had left all their properties behind in the areas now declared as danger zones.

The journalists were at the scene of the story.

In less than a year, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) changed the nature of covering the news.

After the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic, and government imposed strict lockdowns and stay-at-home advisories, news gathering took another face.

Reporting from the field became working from home, and getting close to the stories meant going deep into cyberspace, where social media, websites, and blogs provided information for the news.


And yet news about the pandemic, government action to stop the spread of the virus, the development of the vaccine, construction of quarantine facilities — and other relevant information flooded various media platforms — online, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, television, radio and print.

Times indeed have changed.

I remember that I found my first big story on a hill of garbage at Payatas Dumpsite in Quezon City. On July 10, 2000, a large wall of garbage had collapsed, burying many shanties, and killing 232 people! It was a tragedy that kept me disturbed for many months.

A week later, I was still on the story. As I watched rescuers retrieving a cadaver, I saw some body parts disintegrate while being pulled out of the rubble. It was a horrible sight and the stench was so bad, it kept the relatives at a distance.

I had to run to find a place to throw up. I did not want to offend the family whose members I interviewed a day before.

That experience traumatized me. I could not eat for two days. It took veteran reporters many weeks to get me to think of something else.

But that incident prepared me for on-the-scene reporting. After that, I could take covering murder and natural calamities without getting upset. It had become part of the job.

Covering tragedies and disasters like the Payatas “trashslide” wherein more than 200 people died and hundreds more went missing is the part of Journalism that I learned only in the coverage. Experience is indeed the best teacher as I also learned how to deal with emotions during interviews, facing the pressure of a deadline, and the demand to come up with the best story angle and the words that would capture the impact of the tragedy.

Here comes Mayon

Nine years later, I was sent to cover the eruption of Mayon Volcano. Perhaps it was because I am a Bicolano and could speak the dialect, I was a natural choice to be sent there.

The familiarity of the terrain, as they say, made it easier for me to go and predict where the stories were, sometimes with the help of college friends and acquaintances.

Speaking the same dialect was also a good opportunity to snoop around for stories especially in affected communities and evacuation centers.

Lava flows from the crater of Mayon volcano in Legazpi, Albay.
(Charism Sayat/AFP/Getty Images / MANILA BULLETIN)

For instance, I was reviewing my notes while preparing my story in an evacuation center in Guinobatan town in Albay when I overheard a woman saying that the nearby store owner no longer allowed the barter of canned goods or noodles in exchange for sanitary napkins.

That became my story the next day, and also became the point of discussion among representatives of government agencies who provided the basic needs of the evacuees.

Meanwhile, aside from attending regular press briefings for updates on the operations and technical meetings where experts discussed the situation of the volcanoes, we also needed to where the action was.

The best part was that I was rewarded with firsthand knowledge on the basics of survival in times of disasters that includes adapting to the life in the evacuation centers, and initiatives to maintain privacy during forced evacuation.

In some towns in the first district of Albay, evacuees built temporary shanties near the evacuation centers to provide an escape from the congestion and maintain some privacy.

And there were couples who chose some private moments by going home for a short period under flimsy excuses. And because I spoke the dialect, I could understand the funny stories the evacuees related as an observation of couples going home too often and what excuses they cook up. Those were the stories that regaled me as I spent Chirstmas and New Year’s Day away from my family – all because of the call of duty.

Meanwhile, my story about how couples overused the excuse of feeding their pigs to have some private time in their houses kilometers away became one of the motivations for agencies to arrange private spaces for couples.

And then came ‘Yolanda’

In 2013, two days after supertyphoon Yolanda wrought death and destruction in Leyte province, Ellson Quismorio and I were assigned to Tacloban City to get the story from ground zero. We boarded a humanitarian flight from Manila, carrying two bags each – a bag loaded with food and water for a week and another for clothes.


We arrived in Tacloban City in the afternoon with no idea where to spend the night. While we discussed our options – a 30-minute walk to the downtown area, or a night at the airport — a vehicle of a television crew passed, a reporter recognized me and offered us a ride to the city.

Again, with no idea where to go after we were dropped at the city proper, we walked aimlessly around until I noticed a large streamer stating that the area is the headquarters of the Albay humanitarian mission. Since I am from Bicol and I spoke the dialect, they agreed to let us stay for the night.

But it was just the beginning of a two-week ordeal for us.

With no tent, vehicle or even a motel or a house to rent for the duration of our stay, we faced problems for our basic needs like water and a bathroom. For five days, wet tissues gave us a bath.

Team Albay adopted us for five days and we were grateful just to have a place to sleep and to eat. But we had to be drunk to be able to get some sleep every night to “escape” from the mosquitoes and the stench of the dead bodies piled nearby where it waited to be transferred to the mass graves.

On the sixth day, a group of reporters invited us to join them in a damaged budget hotel. There was a heavy downpour that night and it gave us a long overdue bath!

Despite the very difficult situation of that coverage, which included unfamiliarity of the area and the language, Ellson and I managed to send stories every day.


The stories made me feel like a celebrity a few weeks after the coverage when an independent film producer expressed interest to make a movie of my story about a group of local residents who survived the strong winds and storm surge by clinging to a large tree and standing on a case of beer which got stuck in the pile of debris.

The “Yolanda” coverage gave me many lessons and some expertise in disaster response as I had the opportunity to have access to the crafting and implementation of relief and response system.

But it also exposed me to the sad sight of evacuees victimized by the typhoon and then, by politics and an inefficient delivery of basic services. Today, seven years later, government is yet to complete the promise of decent housing for the victims—a promise which a number of evacuees I had interviewed held on to, to make themselves believe that life would be better.

Disaster vs pandemic coverage

As a veteran of covering natural calamities, related assignments became easier to cover after learning lessons from past experiences.

Through it all, I have developed a tried-and-tested formula—where to go, who to talk to for interesting stories and news updates, and how to write the stories to turn the scenes of distress and destruction into words that would give the readers images of what was happening on the scene.


But the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns changed the coverage landscape.

If the pandemic were not here, I would have been in Bicol, in the usual typhoon disaster coverage amid the onslaught of tropical storm ‘Quinta’ and typhoons ‘Rolly’ and ‘Ulysses’.

I would have fearlessly and whole-heartedly accepted the assignment, even if the deployment would start days before the typhoon. In 2014, when typhoon ‘Ruby’ pounded Samar, we reporters joined the evacuees inside the Provincial Capitol and then waded through the flood and debris the next morning, to check on the situation that would be in our stories.

New normal coverage

The days after the easing of quarantine restrictions, a new normal coverage now includes a tedious process.

At Camp Crame where I am assigned, a medical clearance and negative coronavirus test results are some of the requirements before one is allowed entry to the press center.

Face-to-face interviews are not allowed as part of the safety and health protocols.


Press briefings under the new normal coverage are live streaming and video conferences—which are sometimes interrupted by poor internet connection.

From no-fear to fearful

Despite my many assignments to cover dangerous situations like volcanic eruptions and typhoons, I would now have second thoughts if sent out today to cover a face-to-face event. It is not only the fear of getting infected by the virus that will keep me away, it is also because I have a family to protect.

Meanwhile, I am like most reporters who use my mobile phone to monitor social media, to contact netizens who posted something out of the ordinary, and to “attend” virtual press briefings, webinars, and zoom meetings – always praying that we will wake up one morning to go out to cover an event with a crowd, under clear blue skies – without face masks and face shields.