THE rise of explanatory journalism is said to reflect the revolution of expectations intensifying the public’s view of the role news media should play in modern democracy.

Media scholars point out that the entry of digital media also adds to the pressure for journalists to go beyond the straight news and breaking stories that once spurred news deadlines.

Other pundits observe that information and explanation had always defined news as exposition. However, many journalists conveniently choose to daily chase names and events, preferring to ignore, treat cursorily or relegate reporting with enterprise and depth as “specialized” and thus not done for regular deadlines.

Since many news these days involve a complex chain of events unraveling over time or require an understanding of the backstory that touches several stakeholders, the techniques of explanatory journalism should be tapped in coming up with nuanced, thoughtful articles that make the public understand better daily happenings and establish a connection between these and their personal life and greater social concerns.

The International Ecumenical Congress (IEC) held in Cebu City last Jan. 24-31, 2016 was one such event demanding not just routine media coverage but reporting and explanation that would not just keep the public informed about the myriad preparations and changes generated by the IEC but also the significance of the historic conduct of the 51st Congress, first held in Manila on Feb. 3-7, 1937.

The Cebu Journalism and Journalists interviewed local journalists about their innovations in covering the 2016 IEC for the three English dailies, Cebu Daily News, Sun.Star Cebu and The Freeman.

Coverage as “work and prayer”

Cebu Daily News (CDN) columnist Malou Guanzon-Apalisok was an embedded journalist, covering the 2016 IEC for the daily as well as for the Archdiocesan newspaper produced during the week-long IEC and which was also edited by another CDN columnist, Dr. Jojo “Jobers” Bersales of the University of San Carlos.

She was also a media volunteer in the documentation committee of the Cebu Archdiocese, which produced the commemorative coffee table book, Days of Hope and Glory. Apalisok wrote three articles for the book, aside from more than a dozen news stories, including opinion articles, before and after the IEC for the CDN.

In retrospect, Apalisok emailed that the “blow by blow account” of the 2016 IEC was a “given for CDN or any news organization for that matter.”

For her, what stood out was the daily’s decision to put the Catholic Congress “in the context of the religious fervor of Cebuanos.”

“In that sense, the CDN was able to connect with the international audience without losing its local flavor,” wrote Apalisok.

The veteran print and broadcast journalist wrote stories that were “experiential.” She said she was moved by testimonials of faith from ordinary people, such as the Ilocano priest who “bared his soul” before the international assembly on the first day of the Congress.

LOCAL FLAVOR. Cebu Daily News covered the Catholic Congress in the context of the religious fervor of the Cebuanos, giving international audiences a glimpse of the practice of the faith Filipino-style.

Apalisok recalled that she “went the digital mile” to interview a Filipino priest studying in Ireland who was requested by the Archdiocese of Dublin to orient the Irish delegates attending the IEC.

“The ladies who did the flower arrangements for the altar, the perfect attendance of catechists living in the mountains of Pinamungahan, Cebu reveal a lot about the deep devotion of Cebuanos,” emailed Apalisok.

She said the CDN coverage also included the transformation of foreign delegates exposed to the Cebuanos’ religious fervor.

A “common thread” running through many stories centered on “Cebuanos enabling the hundreds of thousands of (foreign) delegates to rediscover their faith.”

Apalisok said she didn’t expect that a writing assignment “could also be a tool for reflection.”

Breaking the mold of the journalist as dispassionate observer and cynical skeptic, she wrote, “Taking down notes and writing the final copy was both work and prayer.”

Balance of the “practical and inspirational”

Editor-in-chief Isolde D. Amante emailed that the Sun.Star Cebu (SSC) news team “tried to consistently provide the combination of practical and inspirational stories” during the IEC.

SSC stories on the IEC offered practical information to “help (the public) cope with how the congress would change their daily routines.” She cited that before the IEC and every day during the week of the Congress itself, the daily ran a series of maps showing which roads would be closed for public events.

There were also several advisories on the traffic and transport situation, such as a report that over a hundred buses usually plying southern Cebu routes had been rented for the IEC delegates, emailed Amante.

RARE BANNER. During the International Eucharistic Congress week, the front pages of issues Sun.Star Cebu published were “rare… when the newspaper banner wasn’t typically secular (e.g. “Find unending joy,” Jan. 31, 2016 issue).”

On the other hand, SSC coverage also included “inspirational stories based on the IEC delegates’ experiences.”

Amante pointed out that the front pages of issues published during the IEC week were “rare… when the newspaper banner wasn’t typically secular (e.g. “Find unending joy,” Jan. 31, 2016 issue).”

“It was a treat to feature so many new voices, including a survivor of the March 2011 tsunami in Japan, a Ugandan delegate who shared his impressions of local parish life, and a Filipina former scavenger who had the opportunity to address the congress,” recalled Amante.

To present the sweep of the practical and the inspirational, the SSC team used approaches honed for years in routine coverage, such as maps, drone photography, human interest stories, and photo spreads.

Aside from combining visual tools with narrative approaches in storytelling, the SSC team also tapped social media for audience engagement.

“We also tried our best to cover the public events and the daily IEC briefing in near-real time for our communities on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram,” emailed Amante.

Although the storytelling approaches were tried and tested, the “extent” of the coverage of the 2016 IEC stood out. Amante observed how this was a “challenge” since the news team “hardly had any time to rest and recover from Sinulog week, which was hectic as always.”

“Full blast” with social media

For The Freeman (TF) and Banat News editor-in-chief Quennie Sanchez-Bronce, their papers’ coverage of the Sinulog and the IEC stood out for their team’s all-out efforts to engage audiences through social media.

She emailed that since the IEC generated several events, social media coverage was an “imperative” to give readers a “blow by blow account of what was happening” and to supplement the printed edition of the papers.

SOCIAL MEDIA BLAST. For the IEC 2016, The Freeman went all out to engage audiences through social media, giving a “blow by blow account of what was happening.”

Bronce said that after the paper’s social media coverage of the Sinulog drew “good reviews” from Netizens and in-house monitors, the TF team replicated the practice of engaging audiences online in their IEC coverage.

Although the paper assigned reporters to cover the different events, the team also tapped crowdsourcing to solicit information, photos, and videos from other social media users.

The content from their social media coverage went into the printed edition of the papers, she said.

For Bronce, this social engagement yielded “heartwarming” comments from Netizens who did not just feel that the virtual content made them feel as if they were actually participating in the events but also gave many citizens the unique experience of contributing content to a news organization’s print and online platforms.

(CJJ11 was published in hardcopy in September 2016.)