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Atom Araullo: TV’s unexpected leading man

‘There is no way you can separate the journalist from the human being. When people are hungry, thirsty, desperate, despairing, looking to you for help, how can you stand behind a force field?’ says Atom.

MANILA, Philippines - Kids of the ’90s remember him as one of the faces of 5 and Up, an educational show with skits and fun facts. Those who walked the hallowed halls of the University of the Philippines Diliman remember him as the “red shirt guy”—an activist, a young man with the desire to raise his voice for the rest of those who could not be heard. And weeks before typhoon Yolanda hit, many would have called him a familiar face on ABS-CBN news broadcasts.

But recent circumstances have led to him being regarded as kind of a hero, a Superman who stood in the midst of Tacloban as Mother Nature tore her apart and gave the rest of us who were safe a window into her destruction. He reminds us of an era that at times seems long gone — a time of statesmen, of gentlemen, of integrity and the pursuit of truth. He is as razor sharp as he is easy on the eyes, and though he handles himself well in the eye of celebrity, he veers away for the chance to be seen as more than just another heartthrob.

As Supreme gets a little more personal with Atom Araullo, we gain insight into those now-viral news broadcasts, the path that led him here, and really, what makes a hero tick.

Your professional career started at a very young age, with many of us seeing you on our TV screens as a part of 5 and Up. Did you know back then, especially being part of a show that was put together by the same people that did The Probe Team, that you wanted to pursue a career in journalism?

I remember being fascinated with the work that The Probe Team was doing, and the idea of becoming a media worker did cross my mind back then. But after graduating from the show, I gravitated toward a career in the natural sciences. I studied in Philippine Science High School and finished a course in BS Applied Physics in UP Diliman. My “return” to media happened rather serendipitously, but I haven’t looked back since.  

As I understand, you were initially hesitant about being featured here in Supreme. How important is it to you to keep the celebrity element of the work you do at bay? Are there any measures you take to ensure that the integrity of your work is seen separately from the image certain people might have of you as someone they see on TV?

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I’m very happy when people recognize the work that we do for television, but I have to be mindful not to drag attention away from important issues and events. I just covered the devastating typhoon in Eastern Visayas, and the situation there remains critical. TV is already a glamorous medium by nature, and there is a danger of distracting viewers from what really matters: telling the story of people who have lost so much. I guess the best way to maintain integrity is to be sincere in the work that we do, and to always be open to (constructive) criticism. 

Is there any journalist whose career you’d like to emulate, or at least draw inspiration from?

I admire a lot of media workers from many different backgrounds, not just broadcasting. I love reading insightful articles from print journalists, looking at powerful images from photojournalists, hearing sharp interviews from seasoned news anchors. Emulating the career of just one person would be so limiting.  

If you didn’t end up in journalism, what profession do you think you’d pursue?

Physics most probably, or it’s many derivative professions.

While you pursued your undergraduate degree, you were known as kind of an activist, especially as a member of both the Student Alliance for the Advancement of Democratic Rights (STAND-UP) and the League of Filipino Students. Being someone of strong political opinion, how does that affect the work that you do?

I look at my “strong opinions” as an advantage rather than a handicap. It guides the work that I do and allows for a more informed and critical take on burning issues. Being completely neutral in this profession is not only impossible, it seems counterproductive. Like they say, a person who does not stand for something will fall for anything. 

Living the kind of life that you lead and your obvious dedication to your work, does that leave much time for a personal life? What are you like on your days off?

I have very little personal time nowadays. It is something that I am always keen on improving, because a well-balanced life is very important. On my days off, I read, listen to music, watch movies, or spend inordinate hours on Internet drivel. I try to stay fit by running or playing football.   

During Haiyan, you covered events on the ground as the destruction was occurring. What was going through your mind at the time? Was there a point where you thought of abandoning the newscast due to the life-threatening circumstances?

Call it tunnel vision, call it an adrenaline rush, but you only come to grips with what you’ve gone through after the fact. We had little time to ruminate over the events that were unfolding before our very eyes. We had to act, we had to keep on going, we had to survive. In any case, what we went through is nothing compared to the grief and suffering of so many people around us. While witnessing that kind of destruction was mind-numbing, it also spurred us into action. We were not able to broadcast from Tacloban for more than a day because of damage to our equipment, and that was the most agonizing thing of all. 

There is a code of ethics that applies to journalists, where you keep your distance from a story and observe as it unfolds without trying to affect the outcome. During a disaster such as Haiyan, where did you find yourself drawing the line between being a journalist and being an ordinary citizen with some ability to help those in need?

There is no way you can separate the journalist from the human being, as any reporter will tell you . It is not only impossible, it is inhuman. When people are hungry, thirsty, desperate, despairing, looking to you for help, how can you stand behind an imagined force field of ethics and neutrality? At the same time, however, you have to be reminded that the best way you can assist them is by doing your job as a journalist. It is our responsibility to tell their stories, to share what we see and perhaps as importantly what we don’t see. In this way, we hope to move people into action. 

What was the name of the cameraman who was with you? Is there anything you can tell us about him and what it was like going through that experience together?

I was working with two amazing cameramen: August Pineda and Chris Panlubasan. Both are experienced journalists, sharing valuable insights that shaped our coverage. With us were two dedicated assistant cameramen as well: Mitchell Bermudo and Eugene Dizon. Many more media workers were also in Tacloban during those times, from many various organizations. They all deserve credit. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank our colleagues from other networks who did not think twice about helping us during those trying times. Jiggy Manicad and Love Añover from GMA 7 in particular, relayed a message on air that our crew was fine when we still didn’t have communication with Manila. That means a lot to us.   

What was it like coming home after such an experience? How did your loved ones react to your commitment to the broadcast?

It was a relief, to be honest. My loved ones were worried about me the whole time, but they were ultimately proud of our coverage. Siyempre (laughs).

The Internet has hailed you our local “Superman” and a true hero to the people. How do you respond to such comments?

I’m not a hero. I was just one of the guys covering the storm. 

Seeing what you’ve seen, especially during Haiyan, what do you think makes a hero?

A hero is a person who has little to offer but gives so much without hope for renumeration or recognition. Hotel staff who kept working despite being typhoon victims themselves are heroes. Doctors manning bombed-out hospitals in Tacloban are heroes. Ordinary folk working extended hours to revive the hard-hit areas of the Visayas are heroes.

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Tweet the author @gabbietatad.






Produced by DAVID MILAN

Grooming by HANNA PECHON of Shu Uemura

Shoot assisted by LEI ANGELIQUE CRUZ

Shot on location at The Malt Room in Rembrandt Hotel


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