Reflecting on the Coverage of Manila Hostage Drama

Mak Yin-ting - Chief Editor, The Journalist

“I felt most guilty when I had to question the relatives of the victims or the victims themselves. I learnt that they didn’t want to face the camera or questions that might stir up emotions again. However, it is our job to ask the questions because there were lots of questions left unanswered.” Maisy Lo, senior reporter of Ming Pao Daily News, brought up this disturbing encounter when asked about it even three weeks after the terrifying episode.

As a journalist of more than seven years and have covered spot news for a while, Maisy could not get away from this mental block easily. It is no wonder, then, that Chu Sik-kwan, senior reporter of Radio Television Hong Kong, who had never covered spot news of such gravity, to be haunted by the experience of trying to interview Mrs. Leung, whose husband and two daughters died in that hostage saga.

She recalled the awkwardness of asking for an interview and the gulf between two of them when she identified herself as a reporter, and not just a Hong Kong citizen who came to comfort her. Chu had brought along a bouquet of flowers to the hospital, looking like a visitor rather than a reporter.

“I don’t want to hide my identity as a reporter. I must be frank.” She failed to get the interview because Mrs Leung did not want to recall the sad memory. However, Chu had no regrets about that because she had done her job in asking for an interview and it was up to Mrs Leung to decide whether she wanted to be interviewed. However, even the small step to ask for the interview haunted her even after she returned to Hong Kong.

Care is the Key to Unlocking the Grieving Heart

While reporters may be reluctant to question those victims and their relatives, the latter also want to get rid of reporters. According to Dr. Eugenie Leung, Clinical Psychologist as well as Director of Counselling and Person Enrichment Centre of Development and Resources for Students, the University of Hong Kong, victims don’t want to be chased and confronted by a horde of reporters competing with each other to ask about their tragedy. It is especially so when a dozen microphones are thrust into their face. They feel disturbed, scared and inpatient. Therefore, they choose to walk away without answering any question.

Dr. Leung’s experience also prompts her to suggest that reporters interview victims in a calm, peaceful and non-hasty environment. Moreover, reporters should not compete to throw questions. She believes that the environment for an interview in such circumstances is more important than the content of the questions themselves.

However, such an ideal environment may be impossible to create in a “spot news” situation. And so the question itself becomes extremely important. Dr. Eugenie Leung says care is the key to opening the heart of the victims and an open-ended question is the key to opening their mouths. “Do you want to say something?” may be a good example.

As a matter of fact, this was exactly the approach employed by Ken Lui, senior reporter of Apple Daily News. He interviewed Lee Ying-Chuen, one of the survivors, only after a preliminary discussion with the interviewee on what she wanted to talk and what not, and whether photographing was acceptable to her.

Some open-ended questions may be counterproductive. Dr. Leung gives an example: “How do you feel now?” Such a question will be regarded as nonsensical because the victim’s feeling would be too obvious to ask.

Response to a question like “How can I help?” may be varied. Some mumbling to Dr Leung that the question implies they are inferior and need help. Eugenie Leung does not see eye to eye with that feeling and said that not everyone feels in this way.

No Salt over the Wound

However, open-ended questions, which usually need more time to get news, may not be suitable in such a hasty encounter. That is why reporters tend to use close-ended or leading questions on such occasions. One of the examples is “Are you upset?” Special care must be employed when asking leading question so as not to hurt the interviewee. Of course, there is no rigid line to follow. However, it will be crossing line to ask Mrs Leung, for instance: “Do you feel like you’ve returned from the dead?” Such an inconsiderate question had spread swiftly among reporters covering the hostage held saga.

Frankly, there were not much interviewing chances of victims and their relatives this time. According to Ken Lui, relatives were companied by Hong Kong government officials all the way long. Even when he met them in the lobby of the hotel or hospital, the environment just not right for interview. In some occasions, reporters just forgone the chance to ask questions in light of not disturbing the victims too much.

A better balance had been strike by some Philippines medical staffs. They allowed reporters interviewing the little girl who lost her parent but reminded reporter not to ask or mention anything about her parent because she was yet to know the cruel fact. The reporters get the information from her and she had a chance to release her feeling by speaking out.

Get the Job Done is Paramount

Compare to those reporters with around ten years’ experience, Lam Sair Ping, Senior Reporter of Apple Daily News, may be too experience to feel the hurdle. As a reporter serves the industry for almost thirty years, he felt shock of the unexpected bloody result. But that’s it. What occupied his mind was how to get the news and raced with the government officials. He knew that after the arrival of the officials, the regulations posed would make it more difficult to get newsworthy news. His experience turned out to be right, again.

He stressed more on skill on calculating the cost and the effect of every step. Therefore, he would not quarrel with others just for face or other immaterial feeling. He only does things that help him get the assignment done and sometimes work like a guerrilla.

That is the character of spot news reporter. They accustomed to get information by observation, common sense and ask around. That may tell why some reporters quickly get to the local police stations, the hometown of the hostage taker and the funeral in advance of others and dig deeply into the matter unearthed.