Sitting down with veteran journalist and ‘Newsroom’ anchor Ruth Cabal

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The journalist discusses what she’s learned over her lengthy career, her memorable experiences in the field, and what it means to be a journalist in these changing times. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — As a veteran journalist who has been in the industry for nearly two decades, Ruth Cabal has gathered a bevy of experiences and observations, from the evolution of the industry to seeing firsthand some of the most controversial issues in the past 20 or so years.

She’s covered the United Nations Security Council Summit in New York attended by then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and other world leaders like U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the 2013 papal conclave at the Vatican, and the aftermath of typhoon Yolanda, along with a spate of dangerous political stories.

Cabal started out as a news writer for the Philippine Collegian, the official student publication of UP Diliman, entered the workforce as a radio news writer, forayed into television broadcasting through ABC Channel 5, and spent nearly 15 years at GMA 7’s News and Public Affairs division as a reporter and then a senior correspondent.

You could say that journalism is in her blood — after GMA, she took a brief stint as a political media consultant believing that the government job could be another form of public service, but in less than a year, she found the call of the beat much stronger than anything else.

“It was also media related, so kahit papaano it was connected to my previous job,” says Cabal. “But then I found myself being limited with what I can do. Iba pa rin ‘yung calling ng media na, whenever there's a typhoon I'm thinking na I should be out there covering that, or ako ‘yung dapat nasa baha, or if there's like a big political controversy, parang nangangati ako na I wanted to do this angle for this story … I really wanted to be involved.”

Upon leaving her post in government, she joined CNN Philippines in 2016 as a senior correspondent, then later took the helm of “Newsroom Ngayon,” the Filipino language newscast that airs at 10 a.m. on weekdays, while continuing to do field reports.

“I missed the daily fieldwork,” she continues. “Going out in the field, not knowing what to expect, and then at the end of the day, parang matutuwa ka na you were able to do your job to report, and alam mong you were there to inform the public and give them a piece of that story and make them feel a part of that story.”

Photo-5.jpg “Iba pa rin ‘yung calling ng media,” says Cabal of her return to reporting after a brief stint in government. “I really wanted to be involved.” Photo by JL JAVIER

As she takes the reins of the 9 o’clock edition of “Newsroom,” we sit down with her to discuss what she’s learned over her lengthy career, her most memorable experiences in the field, and what it means to be a journalist in these changing times. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

You’ve been a journalist for almost two decades and as you’ve said, you’ve always had this yearning for covering difficult stories. What are some of the stories that really challenged you?

My forte kasi is really political stories. Of course, I can do ‘yung mga bagyo, ‘yung mga sunog, ‘yung mga crimes, because every reporter starts with that. But then kaya ako na-cha-challenge sa political stories is because it's almost always complex issues na you have to bring to the public para maintindihan nila.

Parang kanina lang, kausap ko ‘yung producer ko for the newscast tapos sinasabi niya na issue ngayon ‘yung sa budget deliberations in Congress. Sabi ko, okay, complicated masyado ‘yung issue. Si Aling Mameng ba na nasa tindahan, will she care about that issue? Hindi eh. Pero she will care about the rising prices of sardinas or noodles.

When I asked for stories that really tested your idea of why you do what you do, you mentioned reporting on corruption scandals, COA audit reports, and finding government programs for families affected by the war on drugs. A lot of these issues are multi-faceted and complex, and might not always be easily understandable to the people that you want to reach out to. How do you make them more digestible to the everyday viewer?

First of all, you have to learn the issues yourself. [There is] this concept that if you want to be a reporter it's glamorous, you appear on T.V., you put on makeup and stand in front of the camera, you project ... pero hindi, eh. If you don't know what you're talking about, if you don't know the issues, hindi ka credible. You can't deliver your message as clear as you can kung ikaw mismo hindi mo naiintindihan. I always make sure na I do my research and then I write down my questions before I go out into the field or before I interview people.

Si Ma'am Jessica Soho is, of course, I consider her a mentor from GMA. Ito ‘yung isang natutunan ko sa kanya: ‘yung thinking niya is ‘yung thinking ng masa talaga. Na parang ito itatanong sayo ni Totoy o ni Isko. Na “Bakit po ba tumataas ang presyo ng [bilihin]? Ano kinalaman ng inflation diyan?” ‘Yung nasa isip niya ‘yung iisipin talaga ng common tao. Laging talagang ipapaabot niya sa tao ‘yung storya.

Dito naman sa CNN ... siguro ang balanse na natutunan ko is … we want naman to bring the discussion [of issues] to a higher level. So we always make sure na we have mga experts or authorities on the field who can answer the questions. Kaya tayo laging may mga newsmakers, lagi tayong may mga interviews ... it's not just simply reporting na ito ‘yung nangyari. We go beyond that and give context to the stories, or add more information that could be relevant.  And of course, we also fact check. Hindi lang siya dapat about the masa because it's always a general issue na it concerns everybody … so kailangan balansehin lang din natin lagi.

RC row Asked about the effect of social media on the landscape of journalism, Cabal says, “Whether nandiyan ‘yung fake news, whether nandiyan ‘yung technology, nandun ‘yung trabaho mo and responsibility mo to always verify information, to always edit your work, to always make sure na ma-attribute mo sa accurate sources ‘yung storya mo. So whether or not may fake news diyan, gagawin namin ‘yung responsibilidad namin.” Photo by JL JAVIER

You also mentioned that you’ve seen how the evolution of technology over the past 20 or so years has changed the way journalists work. How has technology and social media changed the landscape of journalism?

It's very easy to get information. But at the same time, it's very dangerous also dahil mahirap magsala ng information. Especially now, in the age of fake news — which is an irony because news should not be fake to begin with. So challenging siya kasi you're getting information from a lot of sources, eh.

[When I talk to students,] every time they ask me about fake news, ang sinasabi ko is … matagal na ‘yang fake news. You have propaganda during elections and stuff like that. Pero… kung tunay kang journalist, nothing really changes, eh. Because whether nandiyan ‘yung fake news, whether nandiyan ‘yung technology, nandun ‘yung trabaho mo and responsibility mo to always verify information, to always edit your work, to always make sure na ma-attribute mo sa accurate sources ‘yung storya mo. So whether or not may fake news diyan, gagawin namin ‘yung responsibilidad namin. So nothing changes.

Going back to your time as a reporter, throughout the span of your career, what would you say were some of the most memorable assignments you had?

Isa sa mga talagang siguro nakakatakot and at the same time the most memorable was, if you go back to the Hello Garci scandal, there was a time na si COMELEC Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano was hiding sa Mindanao. That was the first time na na-experience kong i-blindfold ako going to his supposed hideout. So nakasakay ka sa kotse, tapos nakahiwalay ka sa cameraman mo ... And then I thought, what am I doing? I’m risking not just my life, but ‘yung lives ng ... cameraman ko, ‘yung assistant cameraman, ko may mga anak [sila] tapos hindi ko man lang inisip.

The Bohol earthquake [as well], nung mismong araw na magnitude 7.2, nag-rent ng private plane ang GMA para lang makapunta kami sa Bohol and grabe ‘yung mga aftershocks.

How do you deal with those situations? Like when you were blindfolded? I'm sure it's traumatic. How does one get the courage to go back or to say that you want to keep doing this job?

Syempre kasi you came out of it alive eh. So parang, sige pa, go ka pa rin eh. [Laughs] Pero ‘yun lang, ma-rerealize mo din na parang, “What did I get myself into? Even my crew.” So may realization ka rin na, ‘yung lagi nilang sinasabi na no story is worth your life. Hindi ka pwedeng sugod nang sugod. You have to balance out ‘yung safety mo and your team’s. Siguro mga five years pa lang ata ako as a reporter nun, so talagang gustong gusto mo talaga [na] maka-exclusive ka, pero ma-re-realize mo na hindi dapat ganun eh. Hindi ka dapat reckless na papasok ka sa ganun.

But eventually kasi, ‘yung love mo rin for the job, nandun eh. So hindi ka rin ma-di-discourage. Matututo ka lang na parang, hindi ko na pwedeng gawin ‘to ulit. So I'll be more careful next time but still pursue stories as aggressively as I can.

Photo-17.jpg “Importante din na ikaw, as a reporter or as an anchor, na-po-process mo ‘yung information na ibibigay mo sa kanila, na you don't give them useless or senseless information,” says Cabal. “Kaya nga nag re-report ka kasi gusto mo silang ma-empower, diba? Gusto mo silang makialam sa nangyayari sa paligid nila.” Photo by JL JAVIER

You mentioned how you had a hand in producing the lineup for the day as an anchor on “Newsroom Ngayon.” How did you decide which stories were really important?

‘Yung 10 o’clock kasi, nandun lagi ‘yung transition, ‘yung mga pumapasok na bagong [developments]. Minsan ‘yung morning show and then yung 8 o’clock news, ‘yun pa ‘yung mga storya na galing sa kagabi. Kaya lagi kong sinasabi rin sa [team], dapat ‘pag dating natin ng 10 a.m., the story is already moving forward.

Now that you're moving to the 9 p.m. slot, will there any be changes in that approach?

Ganun din actually … Since nandiyan na sayo ‘yung detalye, again, it's about moving the story forward. Ano na ba ‘yung susunod?

Ang sinasabi ko rin nga, by the time na dumating ‘yung 9 o’ clock, sana mas may newsmakers tayo who can better explain issues, and sana mas marami tayong reactions from those concerned doon sa mga storya. And sana by that time, mas mako-contextualize mo ‘yung issues. Kasi mas may oras ka na ma-analyze mo na ‘yung nangyari during the day, eh. So again, it's moving the story forward sa gabi and it’s interviewing more newsmakers to clarify or to give more information about the day’s events.

I'd like it to be more interactive also, sana mas malalaman namin ‘yung reaction ng audience about the issues, and from there, think about what stories to do next. Ano pa bang klase ng information ang kailangan nila?

What would you say have you learned here at CNN Philippines so far?

Just like ‘yung natutunan ko rin over the nearly two decades that I've been a reporter, importante pa rin kasi na you go out on the field and you directly talk to the people kung ano ‘yung issues na nag ma-matter sa kanila. And at the same time, importante din na ikaw, as a reporter or as an anchor, na-po-process mo ‘yung information na ibibigay mo sa kanila, na you don't give them useless or senseless information. Kaya nga nag re-report ka kasi gusto mo silang ma-empower, diba? Gusto mo silang makialam sa nangyayari sa paligid nila.

Siguro all the more na natutunan ko is it's important for us to make sure na we ourselves understand the issues and then we pass on the information to the audience in the most accurate way possible, in the most comprehensive way possible.

[Another thing na lagi din] binibilin ni Armie [Jarin-Bennett, CNN Philippines president]: It's more than just about getting both sides of the story. Yeah, you have to be objective to get both sides of the story. But sometimes kasi, it's not about being neutral lang, eh. Parang, what if the truth is really something negative, and you have to report more on that than the positive angle. It's the truth and that’s what should come out.

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CNN Philippines’ “Newsroom” airs at 9 p.m.