Maria Ressa on her toughest interviews, and the changing world of journalism

- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - August 4, 2013 - 12:00am

Maria Ressa is a news junkie. But she knows people today get their news fix in many different ways. They tweet, they go to websites (like Rappler, which she runs), they look at news feeds on their cell phones. Only someone who has segued seamlessly from Jakarta bureau chief for CNN to the printed word (Seeds of Terror) to heading the ABS-CBN news division could understand all the changes rapidly sweeping journalism.

The investigative journalist was at UP Diliman’s Palma Hall last week to entertain questions after a showing of HBO’s The Newsroom. It turns out she’s a fan of the show: “In our newsroom, we watch The Newsroom. If you’re a journalism student, this is a sneak peek into what it looks like, but it’s a sneak peek that’s changing in front of your eyes.”

When she started at CNN in 1988, Ressa notes, “I had a minimum of four people on my team. Now you bring your own camera, shoot your own video, you write, you tweet. This is the new world.”

She didn’t need to tell these journalism students, who were busy shooting video, tape recording notes, taking their own pictures and tweeting questions while Ressa (who moderator Jian Miranda introduced as “short and hard-hitting, like the TV series”) gave a glimpse of media’s future.

First off, she says, learn to multitask: “Journalism students ask me, ‘Should I learn print, radio, or broadcast?’ You’ve got to learn them all. Because it’s no longer that world where you can segregate them; you’ve got to know how to write, shoot, and how to do video.”

Another change: objectivity is passé. “When I first became a journalist, it was all about pushing your emotions aside. I remember reporting stories of 600 people dead, they’re digging mass graves with bulldozers. How can you not be emotionally scarred by something like that? You pretend you’re not; you attempt to deal with that as journalists.”

But today’s reporters are encouraged to bare their emotions. “In our world today, the rules have changed; we’re not pretending to be non-human beings anymore. The prevailing emotion now is that it’s better to let people know where you stand.” She says bloggers have led this change, though it could just as well be Barbara Walters or Anderson Cooper. “Bloggers today are authentic. They speak from their perspective. I think that’s part of what people are looking for: authenticity. What is it people have gone through, that can I learn from — more importantly, what I can feel — without having been there?”

Ressa herself fell into journalism “mostly by accident” (“I was pre-law, pre-med, my senior thesis was a play I wrote, so it wasn’t by design.”). But she found it was “a calling,” and after taking a Fulbright scholarship at Princeton, she did her graduate work in journalism at UP Diliman. From there, she was CNN’s Manila bureau chief from ’88 to ’95, then Jakarta’s bureau chief from ’95 to 2005, honing her investigative journalism skills on the subject of Al Qaeda, among other things. From there, it was a six-year stint as News and Current Affairs chief at ABS-CBN, an experience that may have led her to shift toward small, intelligent mobile teams such as Rappler.

The Newsroom follows the exploits of TV anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), his executive producer Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) and a team of writers, reporters and tech people who make the news happen every night. The characters in Aaron Sorkin’s series talk a mile a minute and cover real-life stories from the BP oil spill to drone strikes. “It’s metaphorical for me on many levels,” says Ressa. “You look at the characters in this series and you see caricatures and stereotypes of the way real-life journalists are.” (It was a relief to find that Ms. Ressa doesn’t talk nearly as fast as the characters on The Newsroom do.)

Yes, broadcast news is as intense as the show, Ressa says. “What you see, and what drives The Newsroom, is the real live stuff of how to do television news… I love the issues they pick up: ethics, ratings versus substance, foreign policy versus crime. All these things are there in every newsroom.”

But in real life, there are real battles. Airing news with substance, despite the ratings, for example. While at ABS-CBN, she says she fought to give viewers their “vegetables” along with their daily sugar. “On good days, we hit 90 percent. We’d give you — I call them your vegetables between your sugar. What’s the sugar? Entertainment is number one. What’s second? Crime.

“I’ll give an example: a Mindanao story is critically important to the Philippines in many ways, yet it costs so much more to cover, and only seven percent of Filipinos watch, so your ratings dip. So why should you keep doing it? Because the other part of network news is it’s public service: you guys need to know about it. So that’s the balance that needs to be negotiated on a daily basis.”

Working with a big news organization has its benefits, but Ressa notes “it moves like the Titanic; it’s very hard to turn the ship. And the people managing a large organization tend to spend more time trying to turn the ship.” At ABS-CBN, she says, “My job was to keep corporate away from the journalists and manage the work flows of the journalists.” Just like in The Newsroom. “Do you get a lot of flak for it? Yes, absolutely. Is my life nicer now that I’m not with the network? Absolutely. Fewer battles, and every battle is with external policy issues, instead of internal.”

Naturally, students wanted to know how Ressa comes up with questions. Her answer was like a journalism guidebook: “There’s no formula. Don’t be afraid to ask the questions. Place yourself as Everyman. In many ways, the best journalist is the one who asks the most apparent questions. The best way is to avoid details; distill what you know into the most apparent question… If you’re doing a TV interview, the most you have is three minutes. In a sound bite, what you want is insight and emotion. Those are the two things.”

She cites two of her “toughest” interviews ever: Bill Clinton and Gloria Arroyo. In the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, “I had to ask Bill Clinton about his wife Hillary, did he really cheat on her? As a traditional journalist, I cringe, because it’s a personal question and I’ve been taught not to ask those questions.” But she did, because he was the US president and his actions had an impact on policy and ethics. Equally hard was interviewing Arroyo at the tail-end of her presidency. “One of the toughest questions was pushing her about her legacy — did she do the right thing, the issues of corruption. And any public figure is adept at fielding such questions. So what you’re looking for is that insight or moment when they’re real.”

While the trappings of journalism are changing rapidly, the game still remains the same: getting the story. “This is a great time for storytellers,” Ressa says. “The boundaries are merging, but it still relies on clarity of thought. You need to know the story you want to tell, and then you ask simple questions that elicit insight and emotion.”

Another warning to would-be journalists: Don’t see the glass as half full or half empty. This may sound like a Zen koan, but Ressa wants young journalists to understand that every statement comes with an agenda.

“If I’m talking to a source, I like knowing which perspective is it coming from? If you think the glass is half empty, you’re a pessimist and you have a perspective; if you think it’s half full, then you’re an optimist and you have a perspective. Use that as a metaphor for any issue. There’s always a perspective. None of us is objective. And to pretend you are is illusory.”

She has little patience for those who fail to recognize this dialectic. “People are always concerned about how they’re ‘portrayed’ in the media, but my response is, the media doesn’t ‘portray’ you; you portray yourself. If you answer the question wrong, it’s not media’s fault. ‘Why did you show it? Why didn’t you edit it?’ It’s not my job to make you look good; it’s also not my job to make you look bad. But it is my job to place you in the context of a public dialogue.”

She concedes the world is “more chaotic” than when she started out. “There’s so much information out there. You’re going to have to decide where your attention goes. And that, if you’re creating content, is what you’re fighting against. So the sharper you are, the more concrete it is in your head, the better your story will be.”

And the online world — of which Rappler is a part — has a greater responsibility than ever to help clear up the issues.

“It’s so easy to give your opinion now. But what if your opinion isn’t an informed opinion? Then you just add to the noise. And you make it harder for others to understand. Make sure you add to the insight, and not the noise.”

* * *

The Newsroom Season 2 premieres on HBO Aug. 5, 9 p.m.


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