Jessica Soho: A Woman’s Wisdom
By Perry Gil S. Mallari Photos by Jessie Laureta
MUKHA lang akong batang pinabili ng suka ng nanay ko noon [I simply looked like a girl sent by her mother to buy vinegar then],” multi-awarded broadcast journalist Jessica Soho recalled her appearance when she started in the business in 1985. Twenty-two years and numerous awards later, Soho is considered an icon in the local news and public affairs industry.
She occupies the post of vice president for News & Public Affairs of the media giant GMA Network and also takes on hosting chores for two meaningful shows: Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho (GMA 7) and Sana’y Muling Makapiling (QTV 11). One thing seems to be constant in her two decades of journalistic flight—her unwavering commitment.
The accidental journalist
She originally intended to become a lawyer but chose to tread the path of becoming a broadcast journalist instead. Soho is a graduate of the University of the Philippines where she became a student of the late legendary broadcaster Louie Beltran. “He inspired me to become a journalist,” Soho said. She still vividly remember being awestruck in classes where Beltran showed them outstanding stories he clipped from The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications. Beltran’s exploits as a newsman ultimately convinced Soho that the life of a journalist could be both an exciting and fulfilling one.
Soho valued responsible reporting from the very beginning. When asked if there was an instance when she was restricted by her superiors to feature a particular topic, she said there’s none that she can remember. Journalists during the Marcos era knew that certain subjects were taboo but this meant little to Soho who was still a rookie reporter then. “Most of the stories assigned to me during those years were not really political so I do not have direct experiences of these things.” But she remembered one story when she had to pull off the plug not because of the intervention of the powers-that-be but because she lacked the materials to make it credible.
It was a report about the extravagant undertakings of one public official, “All the luxurious projects are visible,” remembered Soho but she decided to call off the assignment when the paper trail they’re pursuing hit a dead end. It was Soho’s resolute belief that a journalist must be accountable for whatever things he said or wrote. “It’s never a bad journalism to say sorry if you’re wrong and to rectify your mistakes if needed,” she emphasized.
Hazards of the trade
Soho knows the inherent risk of her profession and admonishes journalists to take the necessary caution. She recalled that time when her network sent three reporters to Iraq, she made sure that they have the necessary guides and equipment to make them as safe as possible in such a volatile environment. “It’s a basic rule,” she said, “you just don’t go to a foreign country where there’s a conflict without being armed yourself.” The GMA 7 team sent to Iraq was equipped with gas masks capable of protecting them from chemical and biological attacks. “Those gears are not easy to find,” related Soho adding that they found a supplier in Singapore after a long search in the Internet. Her colleagues were also issued Kevlar bullet-proof vests and helmets.
Soho has her own share of daunting war zone experiences in the Middle East. Right after the Coalition Forces drove the Taliban regime out of Afghanistan, Soho and her crew were tugging along a team of deminers from Denmark documenting the hazards posed by landmines to Afghans. An explosion occurred a few kilometers away and Soho learned that one of the deminers was killed by that blast.
The incident prompted her to change the angle of the story and instructed her cameraman to wait for the casualty to arrive. After the cadaver was loaded to the ambulance, the vehicle drove off a few meters then exploded, right on the spot where Soho and her colleagues were standing moments ago. Soho explained that buried on the spot was an antitank land mine and though they were standing over it earlier, their weight was not enough to trigger it to explosion. Had it been an antipersonnel land mine, Soho said they could have been blown sky-high. The explosion, captured by her cameraman, became a fitting backdrop to Soho’s reporting. It had become one of the most chilling footages aired on Philippine television in recent years.
Such hair-raising encounter is but one of many unforgettable experiences in Soho’s two decades of journalistic career, but she just shrugs it off as part and parcel of pursuing a good story. “It’s all in a days work,” she said, adding that a journalist is only as good as his last story. She has one dream assignment at the moment: an interview with Osama bin Laden.
Sticking to sound basics
Soho attributed her longevity and success in journalism to her adherence to sound fundamentals. Despite being identified with public service, she said she’s not out to save the world. “As a person and as a journalist, what matters most to me is that I am able to do my work the best way I possibly can.” Her advice to her subordinates is to uphold their responsibilities as journalists to their audience, their country, their profession but above all, they should make sure that they stick to good basics. With that accomplished, Soho believe everything else will fall into place. “What I learned from GMA 7 beginning day one is that you’ve got a job to do and you’ve got to do it well. Do it first and all the rest of the good stuff will follow.” She added that in her profession, there’s absolutely no conflict between keeping the sound fundamentals and upholding the big ideals.
Finding the lost
Soho has done countless shows and produced innumerable stories during her two-decade tenure as a broadcast journalist but when asked what project is closest to her heart, her show Sana’y Muling Makapiling (SMM) was the first that came to her mind. SMM was an offshoot of stories they did about missing children in her former program Jessica Soho Reports (JSR). They featured about 5 to 6 missing kids then, documenting the harrowing experiences their families had to go through while searching for them. JSR had a late-night airing and to the surprise of Soho’s staff, they received a lot of calls the following day offering leads to the whereabouts of the missing children. Eventually, four of the missing kids were reunited with their families and that was when the germ of the idea for SMM was born. “We learned then that there are agencies that give temporary shelters to vagrants and drifters but there wasn’t anyone helping them reunite the stowaways with their families,” she said.
Searching for missing people has become one of Soho’s fervent advocacies that when GMA 7 decided to make SMM a weekly program on QTV 11, she insisted that she be the one to host it. “We realized through SMM that it’s not impossible to locate a missing person, at least, in the Philippines.” Soho said they have come up with a very systematic and scientific way of reuniting lost persons with their families.
If a lost child gives the names of his parents, Soho’s staff will immediately check if such entries exist in the Commission on Elections (Comelec) voters list. If a name was found, the SMM staff will try to establish contact using all the available information on the list. SMM has a success rate of reuniting 2 to 3 missing persons to their families a week. A noteworthy accomplishment, considering Soho has just a small team doing all the legwork.
One interesting case that SMM handled was that of a man who had turned into a taong grasa (grease covered vagrant) after losing his sanity when his family died in the Bocaue pagoda-sinking tragedy. The man roamed the streets of Manila for years until one day, he came back to his senses and decided to ‘live’ again. The SMM staff found the man in a shelter home and learned that his roots were in Tacloban. SMM located the man’s relatives who were surprised to learn that the kindred they long presumed dead is still alive. Before the reunion occurred though, the man decided to run away anew. The SMM staff searched for him again on the streets, talked to him and finally convinced him to come home to his relatives in Tacloban. Commenting on the accomplishment, Soho said, “I’m very proud of my staff. I may be the inspiration behind the show but the hard work was really done by my staff.”
Drumming up awareness
Soho said that she’s glad SMM had raised the public’s concern and awareness about the plight of missing persons. Some bus drivers who have picked up lost people brought them to GMA 7 because they knew it’s the home of SMM. Some viewers who recognized the faces of missing persons they flashed on screen called the TV station to offer information. At the time of this writing, Soho said her show has managed to reunite 183 lost people with their families.
She said she wants SMM to be institutionalized almost to the same level of the Department of Social Work and Development (DSWD) so that when people want to help a missing person, SMM will be the first name that will come to mind. What matters most is that people will remember SMM as this program on television which mission is to find missing persons and reunite them with their families.
Soho has one advice to women who wants to follow her path, “Mag isip-isip muna sila [They better think things thoroughly].” She advised that before taking the plunge into broadcast journalism, one must love and breathe the profession. “Some careers are plain crazy and you have to be equally crazy to stay in it. For me to have lasted 22 years, malaki siguro talaga ang sira ng ulo ko [I must be very crazy to have lasted in this profession for 22 years!]” Soho explained that the job practically takes away everything personal in your life. Some people, even family members had a hard time understanding why she had to work on Christmas and during typhoons when practically everyone were curled up in bed.
Soho sees journalism as some sort of an enigma. She recalled that somebody in their organization once said that the true ideals of the profession is beyond all of them to grasp and that the only common thread holding things together is the belief that they are working together for a higher purpose. “This profession can sometimes be about pain,” she said, citing that among the primary roles of journalists is to expose the evils of society. “Sometimes, through the process, the pain rubs off on us. Mahirap ang buhay [Life is tough],” you have to be prepared for it. You just have to bear it and make the most out of it.”
Indeed, life is tough. But Jessica Soho is tougher.