Out of Print

The Story Behind the Stories

by Erwin Romulo
Photos courtesy of Jeff Canoy
Jeff Canoy has been a broadcast journalist since 2007 and for over a decade has been witness to changes both in front of and behind the camera.

Jeff Canoy didn’t want to be a TV anchor. Not when we first met in 2016, a few years before he actually became one. Explaining why, he sounded to me like someone bracing for a literal one to fall on his head—but still hoping to step out from its path at the very last second. Anchors by definition, he would point out, were “literally unmoveable.” They stayed put. In his line of work, it can also be inevitable, particularly if you’re successful. It didn’t sound like it appealed to him.

At the time of that conversation, we were both in Davao to cover Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa and his first visit back to his hometown after being appointed the head of the Philippine National Police by the newly-elected president Rodrigo Duterte. He had been assigned to cover the police chief, something he would do for the next two years. The morning we met he had been on that assignment for just over a month. Like many reporters in the field, Jeff was doing several things at once: messaging on his mobile phone every few seconds presumably with his editor and producer back in Manila, striking conversations with anyone and everyone in his immediate vicinity, coordinating with his cameraman regarding coverage, and negotiating space with the coterie and the crowd that accrues around the newsworthy when they’re out doing newsworthy things.

A lasting image I have of Jeff from that time was outside a videoke joint where De la Rosa was celebrating his homecoming. After a few hours inside, bearing witness to the future senator’s fondness for power ballads and Cali Shandy as well as his prowess for hitting the high notes without recourse to falsetto, it was time to call it a night. Before leaving, I spotted Jeff in the parking area, pacing within the ridiculously small area reserved for smokers. He was reporting over the telephone. He wasn’t even smoking anymore.

Jeff began reporting for ABS-CBN in 2007. The early part of his career would be distinguished by stories from disaster and conflict areas. That included covering a host of typhoons, eruptions, and earthquakes which found him wading through flood waters, being trapped on rooftops, sleeping on basketball courts, and spending holidays and birthdays in remote locations braving the elements.

In 2017, he covered the longest urban war in the history of the Philippines, waged for five months in Marawi city in southern Philippines. The reports that he and fellow ABS-CBN reporter Chiara Zambrano made about the siege would be produced into the documentary ‘Di Ka Pasisiil. The film would win awards both in the Philippines and abroad, including the Golden Dolphin at Cannes, a first for the Philippines. That same year, his written essay about the conflict, “Buhay pa kami”, was awarded first prize by the most prestigious literary award-giving body in the Philippines, the Palancas. He was named as the new permanent anchor for the network’s morning show, Umagang Kay Ganda, in 2019.

On July 10, 2020, the Committee on Legislative Franchises from the Philippine House of Representatives voted 70–11 to deny the franchise application of ABS-CBN, reaffirming the cease-and-desist order issued by the National Telecommunications Commission last May 5 and fulfilling President Rodrigo Duterte’s threat to shut down the network’s television business. The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines condemned the closure as a “painful stab at press freedom.”

As a result, the company has had to shut down divisions and regional affiliates across the country, laying off thousands of its employees. As of this writing, it continues to operate on cable and through its online portals.

Jeff Canoy is still a correspondent for ABS-CBN.

The following interview was conducted via email and text message and has been edited for print. 


“When you're in too deep, you sort of focus on the details and forget to look at the bigger canvas," says Jeff Canoy about things he could do better as a journalist. He says it's important to take a step back to see what the work is really about.
Erwin Romulo: When did you first realize you wanted to do broadcast journalism?
Jeff Canoy: I just sort of fell into journalism. Growing up, I wanted to be a comic book artist, a graphic designer, a filmmaker, an astronaut and other sorts of odd jobs. It didn't really hit me that journalism was something I was interested in until I was in college. I started as a layout artist for our college paper and then eventually covered stories and wrote more whenever they needed somebody to moonlight for absentee reporters. It was only then when I realized that out of all the odd jobs that I dreamt of having, the constant threads are the instinct to tell stories, a sense of adventure and a thirst for fantastic events. Journalism essentially has all of that.

What didn’t you expect about the job?
Just a little over a decade ago, when you're a TV reporter... you're a TV reporter. And you have a completely different department that deals with online articles and a different roster of radio reporters that work with the platform. Your focus is solely on producing a broadcast package.

And the same goes for print journalists. They mainly focus on the articles that will get published in the morning paper. And everything else that has to do with video or audio, they lump it in some sort of "Department of Everything Else".

Nowadays, all journalists are required to have the same skill set. You're not just a broadcast journalist because you have to do an online story or do a podcast about it. You're not just a print journalist because you may be required to do a broadcast equivalent of your story. So it's a bit limiting or reductive to box journalists with labels. You have so many different platforms to deliver a story now that ultimately, you're not just a broadcast or a print journalist. You're a journalist that works with many different platforms.

Did you cope well with the evolving demands of the job?
The overall shift of the journalism landscape in the last decade really left me disoriented for a time. I was trained to do broadcast journalism. But nowadays, everyone's required to sort of dabble into different platforms and become a jack of all trades. Which is great. The more spaces we have to tell stories, the better. But there were just a lot of birthing pains in acquiring the skills needed to become a multi-platform journalist.

“The first question should be: how did we get here?”

Do you think the world demands too much from journalists/the press or not enough?
I think it's only fitting that the public demands more from us because they've trusted us with a huge responsibility to tell them the truth—whether they like it or not.

The thing that needs work however in the Philippines is news literacy. There's a huge part of our population that doesn't really understand what journalism is or has a misconstrued version of what it is. And the institutions we have in the country, even media outlets, are partly to blame for that. So we need to push for news literacy education more. So the people know what the news is. So they know how to spot what's not. So they know the watchdog function of journalists. So they understand why we have to be adversarial. When they know more, they can demand more from us. And greater accountability can only be good for our industry. We can do better stories.

What is the common misconception about journalism?
That it's just a glamorous, on-cam work. That you just show up on the scene and then the lights come on and then you report and then you go home. There's a lot of work that goes behind a story and that it's a team sport. It's not just you who produced a story: you have a cameraman with you, an editor in the newsroom who polishes your script, a producer that determines if it's worthy of airing, etc.

With so many platforms nowadays, there have been numerous times I've gathered news and done live reports non-stop for 18 hours. But then the audience doesn't really have to know that. And no self-respecting journalist would list down what they've accomplished in a day. Let the work speak for itself.

It's always about the story. And that's all the audience needs to know.

They don't need to know that you've barely slept while working on the story or that you haven't eaten anything or that you're exhausted or that you're sick. What matters at the end of the day is the story.

Where do you think you've failed and where do you think you've succeeded? 
There are definitely more community stories that I wish I'd done. There are issues on the community-level that I think deserve more national attention. So moving forward, I hope I get to do more of those.

How do you manage when you get disillusioned?
Curl up in a fetal position and brood?

Whenever I feel that way, I sort of step back from the work. Just enough to see the bigger picture. When you're in too deep, you sort of focus on the details and forget to look at the bigger canvas. Also known as life. So I try (operative word here) to do something far from the usual grind. And that usually means going on misadventures with friends and family. I travel a lot just to experience other worlds that are far from my own.

"When you're in too deep, you sort of focus on the details and forget to look at the bigger canvas."  Can you apply this to your stories as well?
Definitely. During the 2017 Marawi siege for instance, it's easy to paint the story as warfare. It's easy to look at it as a numbers game. How many people have died? How many soldiers have been killed? Who's winning? But there's so much more to a conflict story.

When war breaks out, people's stories shouldn't just fade into the background. There's a tendency to focus on the have-nots and what's not there instead of what is. Lives are still being lived even during a conflict. Birthdays are still spent even in evacuation centers. Weddings. Familial life. Jobs or means of livelihood. There are still ordinary people who encourage change in their communities and do not wait for the world to change it for them.

Then there's the matter of an even larger look into the canvas. The siege didn't just happen overnight. So it's important to always determine the history and context of a certain event. The first question should be: how did we get here? What went wrong? And how do we move forward so that this doesn't happen again. The details are the events. Context is the canvas.

“It's always about the story. And that's all the audience needs to know.”
Can you explain the concept of “Aling Barang”?
She's my go-to audience archetype for primetime newscast stories. She represents the masses. I always make sure that the story I'm doing is something that has a direct link to her.

For instance, I could be working on a story about a global fiscal crisis. But what does that mean to her? As journalists, we often fixate on the whos, the whats, the whens, the wheres and the whys. But after writing a story, we have to ask ourselves the most important question: why should they give a shit? Why should this story matter to them and how will this story help them in daily decisions.

I think as journalists—or any writer for that matter—should always keep their audience in mind. I mean, I could rattle on and on about the science of a storm surge for instance. But if I'm not using the language of my intended audience then the information is irrelevant.

So with highly technical stories, I try to make sure that my 11 year-old niece or my 82 year-old grandmother would understand it.

What’s the downside of focusing on a mass audience?
The trap with the Aling Barang archetype is sometimes you have to pause and think if you're underestimating the audience or if there's too much hand-holding. Sometimes stories don't get aired because it's deemed too "high" or "technical' for the audience. Or are deemed "boring" and "not sexy enough". Political stories, business stories are often the ones that fall on this sword. There's a pre-judgment that the audience won't care about these stories because the issue is too far from their daily lives. And that's troubling because there are stories that are way too important to not air because of this perception. It's really just a matter of finding a way of communicating these stories and showing them what's at stake for them.

No one enjoys criticism. But any case when praise can be detrimental?
Praise isn't bad, per se. I mean, who doesn't like getting a [pat] on the back and hearing that you did a good job? Or you're doing the right thing? What's dangerous though is if the journalist doesn't take that spotlight and cast that same light back to the story. Awards for instance are tricky because yes, you're grateful and appreciative but at the same time you should want to use the attention and draw it back to the story. The attention should be at the work so that maybe more people could see it or read it. So more people will be affected by the story. So those in the story feel seen and heard.

And criticism is just as important. Because your goal should be to improve as a storyteller. After all, you're only as good as your last story.

Jeff Canoy says he's had to gather and produce news for 18 hours straight but according to him, the audience doesn't need to know that. "No self-respecting journalist would list down what they've accomplished in a day. Let the work speak for itself.”
The first time we met you told me you didn’t want to be an anchor.
Maybe I was a bit more naive when I told you that. Haha. But yeah, I still subscribe to that idea.

By definition, anchors are literally [immovable] forces. Which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. They are the steady hands that guide the tone and agenda of a newscast and in many ways, protectors of tradition. But at the same time, innovation and change can be a problem.

For me, it wasn’t so much about not wanting to be an anchor. But wanting to remain in the field. And I still get to do that. So in a way, I have access to both worlds.

Of course there are days when the dual role becomes a struggle. You have a longer work day. And sometimes I gnarl in envy when I see other journalists covering a story outside that I wished I would have done. But at the same time, I’m learning the ropes too of the new gig. It’s a whole different creature when everything’s live and you sort of depend on your gut and experience in the field during interviews. What changed my perception is really the challenge of tackling a new role and hopefully down the road being able to strike a different path with it. And I’m sure other journos from my generation are trying to forge their own roads too. With so many different platforms now including streaming and a changing landscape and audience, it would be interesting how the concept of an anchor changes in the next few years.

Will it stay its course or will it embrace change and be stronger for it? I’d like to believe it’s the latter.

But between anchor and documentarist, I’m still keen on the latter. I’m still a field person. But since I’ve been thrust into this role too, might as well make the most out of it.

On the last night of TV Patrol's final broadcast on free TV, Jeff Canoy took this photo of ABS-CBN News Chief, Ging Reyes and uploaded it on Instagram. He wrote on its caption that up to that point Reyes hadn't produced a newscast in over a decade but that she got "back in the producer’s chair for TV Patrol’s final newscast.”

When congress voted not to renew your home network’s franchise, were you covering your own newsroom? How do you approach reporting when you're very much part of it?
Reporters from other newsrooms were there to cover us. And it was really strange to have their attention on us. We're taught that the news should never be about the journalists but we were at the center of it. Add to that that we were also covering ourselves because the work doesn't stop just because we were the subjects. So we really had to push through and make sure that even if we were devastated, the deadlines for the broadcast weren't going to budge.

For me, it was nearly impossible to cover. I remember having to step away from the newsroom a few times just to grieve and cry and be angry over what happened. The people that I was covering were people I knew for over a decade. I knew their life stories. I see them everyday. I knew who the breadwinners were, the ones who just took out mortgages, the ones who couldn't hold their liquor during after-work inumans, the new dads and moms, the ones from the provinces who dreamt of working for ABS-CBN, the ones who spent birthdays at work. And I knew how the decision to not renew the franchise would affect them and their families. But I knew I had to push through my own emotions and keep myself in-check. I had to tell their story as a journalist and I had to tell it well. I owed them that.

When you are that invested, is it better to try and remain objective or is it better to follow your gut?
No such thing as objectivity in news. The act of writing is already a choice. The words you'll use and the soundbites you'll use and cut are choices. The way you'll build the story will be influenced entirely of your own historicity and understanding of what you bore witness to. I think what's important is you just make sure that you come from a place of honesty when you do these stories and be transparent all throughout. And make sure that the journalism is still at work—accurate, accountable and being fair to the evidence.

If you say that there’s no objectivity, doesn’t that leave you open to accusations of being biased?
Bias is in the eye of the beholder [laughs].

Everyone is biased because everyone is coming from a different point of view. How we were raised, how we were educated, our economic status, the friends we’ve surrounded ourselves, the influence of the political atmosphere we grew up in. The challenge is to limit those biases and make sure we still adhere to the journalistic values of accuracy and fairness. Audiences have their own biases too. How they look at stories and how they receive them. One man’s “good” news may be “bad” news to another and vice versa. So yeah, bias is in the eye of the beholder.

An empty newsroom days after congress voted not to renew ABS-CBN’s franchise. “It was nearly impossible to cover," Jeff says. "I remember having to step away from the newsroom a few times just to grieve and cry and be angry over what happened.”
 What stands out for you when you recall that day?
It was a heartbreaking day. And we didn't know how we were going to come out at the end of it. But outside of our building, there were people from all walks of life who came to grieve with us. And be angry for us. And express support -- not just for our cause but for the greater fight for press freedom in the country. Then our bosses—who I've mostly seen in offices and in congressional hearings in the past few months—went out and into the streets to be one with the people. I don't think I'll ever forget that moment. Their faces lit up—even just for a moment. They found hope at a time of solace because of the sheer power of community.

What was the day after like?
For me, I'm still taking it one day at a time. Just trying to focus on the work and cutting out all the other distractions to what I signed up for. Which is to write and be in service with the stories I tell.

I'm not sure I've reached that place where I can properly assess my feelings over what happened that day.

Especially since layoffs are happening. Everytime I feel like I've reached a point where I'm like "Ok, let's move forward. I'm okay", I'm suddenly dragged back to a place of absolute grief every single time a colleague or a friend calls me and tells me that they've just been informed that they will be retrenched. I'm devastated once again. And then followed by a creeping doubt of "am I next?"

But what gets me through the day -- and this will sound entirely cheesy but it doesn't make it any less true—is the sense of community and family that ABS-CBN really fostered in us. Yes, we're all sad. Yes, we're all angry. Yes, we're all worried. But we're still going to help each other out. We're going to find ways to support each other through this. Whether helping each other find employment during this pandemic, or by simply asking "Kumusta ka?".

What's your schedule like these days?
Still rough. I mean the load is lighter in many ways but there's still a lot of work to be done. There's still a pandemic to cover.

What do you think journalists need to do at times like these?
We need to close ranks. This is beyond ABS-CBN. This is an issue of press freedom and we all have to be on the same page if we want to make sure we all survive.

Can you imagine a time when you'll decide to leave journalism? If yes, what would be the conditions for that to happen?
I don't think journalism is something you "leave". I know a lot of folks who "left" the industry but at the core, they are still journalists in their own little way. When something happens, they still have that urge to write and produce and to tell that story. It's just who you are. And being who you are is something that never leaves you.

Personally, I can't imagine a world where I'm not a journalist. It's going to be more difficult obviously to practice it with everything that's happening. But then you don't fight for something that isn't worth it. ︎

Erwin Romulo is writer, editor, music producer, and creative consultant based in Manila.