A faith cluster – and a wider vista

Chito de la Vega

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 A faith cluster – and a wider vista
Rappler’s faith and social issues cluster is the gatekeeper of religion stories, even those about painful truths

One of the perks of working as a journalist is the thrill of getting front seats when covering historical figures. For me, the highlight reels are the Manila visits by the Pope – yup the leader of the world’s Roman Catholic Church, 

In 1995, an era predating smartphones and wifi, I was christened by my newspaper the call sign “Papa 1” when they deployed reporters to cover the second visit of Pope John Paul II to the country. The coverage team then used walkie-talkies to communicate with each other. Though cell phones already existed then, the signal in many areas was still spotty and unreliable.

Again in 2015, I set aside desk work and volunteered to cover the Manila visit of Pope Francis. It must have been divined that I and a handful of media people would stand outside the barrier along the Arellano Drive side of  UST’s open field and get an unobstructed view of the Pope atop the popemobile. I’m sure Pope Francis glanced at me when his vehicle passed in front of us as it was about to exit the UST campus through the Espana Boulevard gate.

I am Chito de la Vega, a senior desk editor here at Rappler. I am also part of the faith and social issues cluster.

News organizations have always had a church beat reporter. But in the Philippine context, the church is synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church. Reporters pounding the church beat have only names of Catholic prelates on their speed dials. And their most dominant source for stories was whoever was the Archbishop of Manila. 

But it’s different at Rappler.

Reporters, researchers, artists, and social media specialists are grouped into topic clusters. Gone is the passé nomenclature of calling it beats. There are clusters, which are arranged according to topics agreed upon by the various editorial units. 

Arranging coverage teams according to topics makes sense because it gives each cluster an autonomy to assess, then later pursue, stories that are not limited to certain agencies or sectors. Dismissed was the previous newsroom practice of beats or assignments based on geographical considerations. 

The traditional beats are still there – the likes of Malacañang, the military, diplomacy. But should topics or issues arise within these areas, the clusters can take over.

Though covering the Church is still part of the faith cluster, here at Rappler we have a broader view on this topic. Right off the bat, binding together social issues and faith gives you an inkling of how editors consider these two. 

Faith is now no longer confined to an institution, regardless of how dominant that group is. No single thought monopolizes the conversation. 

Kaleidoscope of discussions

There still is no overlooking religious events, the Philippines being predominantly Christian or Roman Catholic. But at Rappler there is a conscious effort to veer away from monochrome narratives and present a kaleidoscope of discussions.  

Equally featured are perspectives from other faiths. Example is the piece “Ramadan during quarantine: In smaller circles, faith grows deeper,” which looks at the challenges faced by Filipino Muslims during Islamic fasting month at the height of COVID-19 lockdowns.

There was also a time when Rappler presented reflections on the Catholic Holy Week tradition of “Siete Palabras” (7 Last Words) from a nun, an evangelical Christian, and a Methodist pastor

Rappler’s coverage of faith is not only about reflections and traditions. We are proudest of our spadework – investigative stories which require a lot of digging to uncover ugly truths, which we consider as vital information for our citizens. As American journalists Kovach and Rosenstiel said, “journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.”

In our investigative stories, we set aside our rose-colored glasses to look for hard facts. 

Rappler has been at the forefront of investigative reporting on the misconduct of different religious groups as far back as 2013, when the late  Aries Rufo wrote his groundbreaking book “Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics, and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church.”  

Piecing together stories about wrongdoings of religious groups is like tiptoeing on a veritable  minefield;  there’s no room for mistakes.

Also riling the high and mighty are thought-provoking opinion pieces like those of sociologist Jayeel Cornelio. In his commentary on a homophobic congressmen, Cornelio came out blasting at the first paragraph when he wrote: “We must call it for what it is. Benny Abante’s homophobic bill is religious evil.”

As expected, Rappler’s exposés have caught the ire of religious groups, which previously were virtual untouchables when discussions veered towards abuses in their respective institutions. Examples are the controversies besetting the Iglesia Ni Cristo and Apollo Quiboloy’s Kingdom of Jesus Christ. Members of Quiboloy’s group had sued Rappler for libel in Davao, General Santos, Cagayan de Oro, and other Mindanao cities. They have also hammered Rappler in their respective media platforms. What triggered all this were Rappler’s investigative reports by veteran journalists Herbie  Gomez and Inday Espina Varona.

Thankfully, the prosecutors dismissed all of the libel suits for lack of merit. 

The faith cluster also publishes statements of religious figures who speak out against abuses in society. Religious leaders like Archbishop Soc Villegas, Bishop Ambo David, Fr. Flavie Villanueva, and those of the Philippine Independent Church, and the United Church of Christ in the Philippines have been covered by Rappler’s faith cluster.

Indeed, by having a faith cluster, Rappler’s reportage is unbound. It used to be tied down by the title “religion” or “church beat.” The shift has opened a wider vista – not only for our audience but for Rappler journalists as well. – Rappler.com

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Chito de la Vega

Chito joined Rappler as senior editor in 2017. Prior to that he had a 32-year stint with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, where he started as a sportswriter.