I’ve lost track of the many awarding ceremonies that I have to attend as UP Diliman chancellor, but one of my favorites is the Gawad Plaridel, given annually to one individual in recognition of his or her (mostly her) being an exemplar as a mass media practitioner.
Plaridel was the pen name of Marcelo H. del Pilar, who edited the reformist newspaper La Solidaridad from 1889 to 1895. It is also the name of the main building of the College of Mass Communications (CMC).
Last Wednesday, we had the 14th Gawad Plaridel, and the awardee was, you would have guessed from the column’s title, Jessica Soho. More than “celebrating Jessica” (a term that CMC dean Elena Pernia used), we were celebrating the way mass communications has evolved in the Philippines, and how the torch is being passed from one generation of practitioners to another.
I thought of the generational aspect here because Tina Monzon Palma, last year’s Gawad Plaridel awardee, graced this year’s Gawad for Jessica. Tina, after all, had mentored Jessica when she was just starting, some 30 years back. Jessica made sure, somewhat emotionally, in her Gawad Plaridel lecture that the audience would remember that link.
UP has been courting Jessica to join our faculty, even if on a part-time basis, but understands that this might not be the right time yet, given how dedicated she is to mass media work. But the people at the awarding ceremonies had a preview of what Jessica might be like as a teacher as she shared what it takes to become a journalist, particularly in broadcasting.
It’s the story, she kept repeating, that’s important—but “story” was shorthand for the facts, for the truth. Going beyond the cliché of “connecting the dots,” she said that journalists need to find the dots first.
I thought of the stories she had produced for her many programs, from her first George Peabody award-winning story on the sale of kidneys (which, she explained, started out as a police story of a murder) to the aftermath of disasters, from students who make good overcoming adversity to the long-running series where she and her team find ways to reunite Filipinos with long-lost relatives, sometimes across oceans. In six years, she said, they have been successful with some 800 families.
Heartbreaking, heartrending, heartfelt—those are terms that come to my mind about her stories, and, of course, our own “nakakataba ng puso,” a phrase that defies translation yet is so familiar in the way we actually feel it.
No sensationalism with Jessica, because her stories don’t need to be embellished. She is the epitome of “simpleng tao,” a simple compliment we save for great people. Jessica raised new standards for journalism in the Philippines by challenging the stereotypes around its practice.
A video produced for the event showed Jessica chasing these stories, many in difficult, even dangerous circumstances. One riveting clip showed her in Kabul, a few meters away from a bomb as it exploded. She described what it felt, the heat descending on her face, but how, Jessica-style, she had to keep her composure for her team. She explained how important it was to keep calm for her team, even as she acknowledged the cameramen as the crucial players for stories.
Throughout her lecture, I could see in her a special skill, the ability to choose words that people can grasp, can feel immediately. And I realized that all good teachers need to be, in a sense, masters of the art of communication, in the same way that mass media practitioners, to reach a large audience, still need to have interpersonal skills.
I was happy there were many mass com students from outside of UP who attended the lecture. They were privileged to hear Jessica, especially as she urged them to be more discerning, to go beyond tweets and click and to check the facts.
Learn to be humble, she challenged the audience. Capture the good, she advised, and then assured us: The good will still outnumber the bad.
Jessica referred to the perilous times we live in, and, at one point, observed that tyrants come and go, but mass media will and must always be there to defend truth. She is actually the first UP alumna to get the Gawad Plaridel, so it was important for her to show that one can be wise from the heart, without preaching, without slogans, without fiery rhetoric.
Jessica is an exemplar not just for mass com students and mass com practitioners, but for a nation in search of truth.
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