Her Christmas Wish List

Edita Burgos is a grieving mother in search for her missing son, Jonas, who was allegedly abducted by elements of the Armed Forces.

Just a week ago, I was watching her in a free online documentary, "Lost in the Shadow of War", answering a foreign journalist's question.

"As a mother, what are you going through?" the foreign journalist asked.

Mrs. Burgos responded, "I just wish no mother will go through what I am going through. And I wish the president of the Philippines will not go through this too, because if she does, she will know how a mother grieves everyday."

There is something in Mrs. Burgos' words that challenges my sensibilities, stirring me to asses my opinion and stand on the issue of extrajudicial killings and disappearances. I don't know if it is on the way she says things or the very things she says that move me to reconcile my journalistic instincts and the complexities of the real-life truths I witness and experience.

On the one hand, a part of me wants to help, to purse a cause similar to what she is fighting for. On the other, I am struggling to locate myself in the intricate web of power relations, to determine how far I can be involved without compromising journalism.

The documentary was less than 30 minutes, and I thought I could find an excuse to procrastinate on the issue, to just cross the bridge when I finally got there.

Lo and behold, however, I found myself face to face with the same Mrs. Burgos whose words still rang in my ears in a forum in the College of Mass Communication.

Perhaps I underestimated my time of arrival. It is now clear that the bridge I have to cross is just a few steps away.

There were a number of speakers in the forum and among them was Mrs. Burgos who recounted, among others, the media's role in the alleviation of extrajudicial killings in the country.

Interestingly, however, her Christmas Wish List-- containing powerful words and striking propositions-- is what caught my attention.

Here is Mrs. Burgos' wish list:

1. That the media would go beyond reporting the facts even the truths about the facts, and actually help the families of victims of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

2. That the media would pass vital information-- even off-the-record information-- to organizations fighting against extrajudicial killings if it meant the preservation of life.

3. That the media would uphold the truth being the very foundation of the profession, and report it with vision.

I agree with her third wish. The truth is indeed the foundation of journalism. Bill Kovach and Tim Rosenstiel in "The Elements of Journalism" put it this way, "Journalism's first obligation is to the truth."

The other two wishes, however, contain within them clashing debates ranging from practicality to journalism ethics.

When can a journalist cross the boundary and actually help the people he or she is covering? Will this not lead to conflict of interest? Will this not mar journalistic independence?

Mrs. Burgos capped her first wish with an example from her late husband, Joe Burgos, a journalist himself. Mr. Burgos helped the subjects of one of his stories-- victims of drug addiction-- by recommending them to rehabilitation centers.

Mrs. Burgos said the media should become a "good Samaritan," not only reporting on events but acting on them, helping those affected by the events.

I don't fully agree with the idea of journalists meddling with the events they are covering. However, there are instances when journalists can help without compromising independence. Perhaps, Mrs. Burgos is referring to such events.

If she is, however, the next question will be, "Can journalists cover the issue of extrajudicial killings and disappearances independently when they are personally involved?"

I don't know the answer, honestly. But I think journalists can do much even without personally involving themselves with the issue they are covering.

When a journalist practices the craft correctly, adhering to the highest journalistic and ethical standards, the stories he or she churns out can be as powerful or can even surpass personal involvement in the resolution of issues.

This is not to say that journalists can never help those they are covering. I think as long as independence is not compromised, they can.

Mrs. Burgos' second wish is more controversial than the first one for me-- the passing of critical but off-the-record information to organizations to help find or even save the victims of disappearances.

She pushes forward the proposition that life is more important than the commitment binding journalists and sources regarding off-the-record information.

I agree that life is important and it is for this very reason that journalists must honor the promises embedded on off-the-record information. Most of the time, sources are careful with the information they want journalists to use because their lives can also be endangered.

Carelessly passing information to organizations to help victims of disappearances is a serious disregard not only of the trust of sources but of their very lives. We cannot risk these people in order to save others. It is unfair to turn them into sacrifices.

As journalists, we must always ask for our sources' permission whenever we're planning to use off-the-record information. They must know so they can prepare for backlashes of the action. We can explain to them the context and the reasons and hope that they will agree to pass the information to help find and save the victims of disappearances.

If they refuse, however, we need to respect their decision. But we can use their lead to find other sources who are willing to face the risks by corroborating and owning the information.

I understand Mrs. Burgos' longing to find her son. I do not disregard the possibility (which is growing stronger and stronger) that the military is behind his abduction.

As journalists we can help by writing stories that can spur people to move, especially those who are in the position and are responsible to act. We can do this by applying the basics of journalism-- our obligation to the truth, loyalty to citizens, the discipline of verification, independence from those we cover, our watchdog role, providing a forum for public criticism and compromise, making the significant interesting and relevant, keeping the news comprehensive and proportional, and exercising our personal conscience.

We are not merely recorders of history; we are shapers of society.
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