Television

"Everybody comes to you with an agenda. You better be astute enough to figure out what that is" Maria Ressa - CNN Jakarta Bureau Chief

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 When you walk into the room to meet her, you would hardly think that this slight person sitting across the table is the same one who had reported on the dramatic political changes, economic crisis and social unrest in Indonesia, focused on the roots of separatist, religious and ethnic violence, which included brutal, ritualized beheadings in West Kalimantan, a separatist conflict in Aceh and Irian Jaya, and religious war in Ambon.

CNN's Jakarta bureau chief Maria Ressa is currently in India to promote CNN's Young Journalist Award.

She has traveled and reported extensively in Asia, including China, Japan, South Korea and India. Ressa was CNN's lead reporter on three changes of government in southeast Asia: in Indonesia in 1998, in East Timor in 1999 and in the Philippines in 2001.

In October 2002, just days after a lethal car bomb killed almost 200 people in Bali, Ressa provided the exclusive report that the first-known videotapes of an Al Qaeda training camp in Indonesia had been found. She has reported extensively on major events in the Philippines.

More astute, focused and a harder worker than most of her contemporaries, Ressa has moved up in broadcast on sheer grit and want to know more. She is currently awaiting the release of her first book on Al Qaeda which she started writing post 9/11. The book is due to release on 28 November in New York.

She spoke to indiantelevision.com's Hetal Adesara and Trupti Ghag just hours before she addressed a bunch of budding journalists at a conference held at the Cricket Club of India (CCI) in Mumbai . Excerpts from the t?te-?-t?te:

Your career graph suggests that you are quite focused on broadcast journalism as the career of your choice. Why?

I grew up on it, although the move was by accident. I grew up in the United States, my family moved from the Philippines when martial law was declared.

I studied English theatre, dance and molecular biology at school in US. I didn't know what it meant to be a Filipino so after graduation, I think in a bid to trace my roots, I tried to get a scholarship to go back into the country. I went in supposedly to do Political Theatre on a Fulbright scholarship but it coincided with the people power revolt and within two months, I was directing the newscast at the government TV station.

How did that happen? Weren't you were fresh from college?

The government TV station was in a terrible flux after Marcos left. I just walked into the station and said that I direct. That was it! I was directing the prime time newscast. Through television I learnt about the Philippines, about the people, the culture and what it means to be a Filipino. I thought I was going to stay for a year but I still haven't left.

What really made you stay so long?

I was trying to figure out who I was. Whether I was an American or a Filipino…. During the people power revolt, I was trying to be a part of the society that was trying to be structured. It was heady for a kid and that's the reason why I stayed on. I started a production house and CNN came with an offer in 1988.

What was your impression of CNN then? Was it something that you wanted to do?

I was looking at the way the revolt was covered by the foreign press. Most of the journalists were Caucasian men, who were making fun of certain things. I was very unhappy with a lot of the coverage and I though that the culture was misunderstood.

So when CNN came out with an offer, I thought that I would work part-time for it and see. After I joined CNN, I realised that they hit a global audience. I was to join in to offer my perspective, try to take the reality I see in the Philippines from that cultural background and translate it for a global audience. I could also take into account the American perspective and try to explain it to the local audience.

You have also been fairly consistent with the beat that you started with. Any particular reason why?

I am still learning. I came to the Philippines because of my personal interest and then my boss at CNN asked me to widen my area of responsibility to South East Asia. It was a fascinating time to be in South East Asia because 1986 started a whole movement for democracy.

"Television is very manipulative medium. In print you need more skills to get that same kind of impact"

Now that you are also going into print, what is the difference you find between broadcast and print journalism?

Earlier, I used to think that print journalism is easier because in broadcast journalism, especially in CNN, you are on air all the time. It is minute by minute reporting. In one day, I can do eight to ten pieces. So every half hour, I am writing something. As I grew older, I really began to appreciate print for its details.

In many ways, print journalists have the luxury, which is what we don't have. But they also have so many questions to answer. The thinking process is more disciplined for print. They have to come out with far bigger, broader pictures of reality. Although it is not common, but a TV journalist also gives that bigger picture.

That is the prime reason why I stay in my region. I know the context well, I can give you the details and at the same time give you an overall view. You have to have volume to support the umbrella that you create in the beginning.

Within a two minute TV piece, you should be able to tell the entire story with just one sentence and a still. Of course you have the tricks of the medium, the advantages of sets and sound, the feel, which is something that you can only describe in print but can't feel. That's the impact of television.

Both media have their strengths and weaknesses and the strength of television is the immediacy of it and the emotions. It is a very manipulative medium. In print, you need more skills to get that same kind of impact.

What about the ethics of journalism?

Firstly, I would never talk about an off the record story. It's anathema. As a journalist, you die if you do it. Journalists who let go their source cannot retain their credibility.

In countries that I work, Indonesia for example, few people really tell you what is going on. If I burn the source, I wouldn't be able to work there.

The primary thing is that you need to protect your source and secondly, you need to be accurate. One source isn't enough, you definitely need to counter check. I need to check out the source more than one time before I put anything on air.

For example, during the War on terrorism story, I worked with intelligence documents. I made sure that there were at least three different sources from two different countries to back my story. Because even though they are interrogation reports of the terrorists cross-checked in custody, there is a chance that the guy could be lying. What is the credibility of the source?

What are the essential requisites of a broadcast journalist?

Don't study journalism, study international affairs, economics. Journalism is about curiosity. It is about the way people are and the way things work. It is about reporting, telling the story that you have assessed with facts. But when you present it as fact, it better be a fact.

Journalism is actually theatre in reality. As a journalist, you have a mission to present the version of reality and affect the way reality will work.

Essential qualities are openness to different perspectives, analytical skills to figure out the information that you get, context to place it and obviously responsibility. Everybody comes to you with an agenda; you better be astute enough to figure out what the agenda is.

More often than not, broadcast is about banging in the news first, being first. How do you work in such a scenario?

This is the advantage of having contacts and working in the same beat for some time. When the news breaks, I already know the background.

When assigned to cover the Indian Airlines hijacking in '99, I read like crazy to figure out India, the people, the culture and the form of government. You need to collect the background information before you actually start reporting on the event. When you start reporting about the actual event, you start reporting about the how it began, the narratives, what the story is like, who are the people involved and what is the impact. These are the things that you put out before you actually start reporting.

Actually speaking, anybody can tell what is going on, it is the perspective that the reporter needs to offer.

Often times in breaking news situations, you don't have time to put in all the analytical thought, so that means you have to do your homework beforehand. You should know the context and the end goal. You need to be reminding the audience why the situation is important and then put in minute by minute reporting.

When we were covering the Bali bombing, we divided into two groups. A correspondent at Jakarta and then my producer, Atika Schubert went to Bali to say what's going on there because it is a human interest story there. But what I did is go to Manila and Jakarta and do a broader picture to get to know more about the attacks. What is the terror network like, can we expect more attacks...



So if you do the coverage well for television, you cover all those spaces. Sometimes you fall short, but it is all about preparation. I like to quote what my cameraman says, "Proper preparation prevents piss full performance". At television networks, you have to work as team. My cameraman has to be as prepared as I am.

"Over the last two years I have been in the my apartment for less than 80 days which means if I had children they would not eat, my plants would die"

There is a lot of work going on in broadcast, yet people consider print sacrosanct. Why is it so?

Because I think at the end of the day, print still gives you the broader picture. When you read a newspaper article, the reporter has put in a whole day to get all the details, so he is able to give you the full dish at one shot. Television's breaking news will only give you a piece at a time.

You can tune into television. But how many times will you tune in to watch a live report?

Speaking about the gender divide, is there any such thing as a shelf life for women journalists?

It's your call, really. Let me talk about it personally, over the last two years I have been in my apartment for less than 80 days, which means if I had children they would not eat, my plants would die.

It's upto you to decide what type of life you want. Some women are very lucky and can have children at the same time while they pursue a career. They can have a family life if they don't travel a lot.

I think my ideas are the same. I still want to figure out what is going on. I still want to be a part but probably not at the same pace that CNN demands. But I don't see my self leaving anytime soon.

Is there any kind of disadvantage that women have?

Some one can choose to look at it as a disadvantage but I look at it as an advantage. In my experience, when I am working in a conflict situation, working with the predominantly male military, I can get information from those guys that my male colleagues cannot. The fact that I am a woman doesn't seem as bad then. I just use it to my advantage.

You offer different perspectives and different analysis to a story. What is the thought process that goes into analysing it?

I am accountable to a global audience, to the people that I live with. I live in south east Asia, so first thing that I look at is the cultural angle.

If I am in Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world, the Indonesian perspective on war on terror will be very different from that in Washington.

Particularly after the attack on Iraq, I saw this divide getting broader. It was very easy for me because I was seeing both worlds. I was able to present what Indonesians think and what Muslims believe. I give a perspective of different cultures but in a way that even my audience in Iowa can understand.

Decisions made at the foreign policy level are made by people from different cultural backgrounds so it is easier to understand what potential clashes can happen. So instead of telling the American audience what they expect to hear, I tell them what is happening here.

To what extent has the divide deepened post 9/11, between the Muslim world, the Arab Muslim world and the Western world?

If you look at the attitude survey conducted in south-east Asia in 2000, about 75 per cent Indonesians said that they liked America and in 2003, 85 per cent of Indonesians said they disliked America.

In south East Asia, the anti-American sentiment has increased not because of 9/11 but because of foreign policy actions post 9/11. Those are the reactions in regions like Indonesia, Malaysia, where the prime minister is pretty vocal. The Philippines is the US' strong ally but there are pockets where the feeling isn't the same. But none of it had anything to do with Iraq.

What was the situation for you on a personal level then? Were you divided between your birthplace and the place of work?

I did not look at it like that. I try and understand the forces of our world. It is all about push and pull. It is all about the interest of nations and people. If you put it all into that context, you know where the interests of each group lie. They interact and that is what creates conflicts.

No I don't look at it as a person of that country. I just look at the world today, still trying to understand why? The big picture is what keeps me going on.

How is CNN as an organisation to work with?

I have been with it for 15 years, in that sense I grew up with CNN. It is the only place that I can see myself doing whatever I am doing now. I am able to do work the think tank guys do but I do it for a broadcast network that puts it on air, so I actually get to reach the audience.

We are the only American network that actually has a set up in Indonesia. It's gone through evolution and changes from when Ted Turner was there but the main mission remains the same. It's the only place that I can see myself working.

What is your view of Indian media?

It is extremely free, people are extremely aggressive. I don't mean to be offensive, but I think a level of accountability should be set in Indian media too. If a journalist cannot be held accountable, then you have to discount his credibility.

Ideally, there should be an oath that the journalists need to take like the Hippocratic oath for medicine. What should that oath be, according to you?

Accountability, credibility, accuracy and fairness. In TV journalism, with the rush to be first, if you have to choose between being first and being accurate, then you better be accurate. You cannot take it back. It is a violent cardinal sin.

You cannot get it wrong because the minute you get it wrong, you have altered the reality. Personally, I have been in situations where I have held back the news because I am uncertain of the facts. I report it only when until I am absolutely certain of the facts.

"You can never get yourself out of the situations you report because you need that to assess the situation. What you do is stifle the part that wants to scream"

 More often than not, journalists do take shelter under the term corrigendum or correction. What do you have to say?

It is my worst nightmare that is part of the reason why I am very careful with my stories. Through the years, I have learnt how you can report in the breaking news situation. If you are going to report something, you better have your sources right, tell the audience what you know, what you don't know and what is the context.

How do get yourself out of the horror that you see around you and report the things happening around you?

You don't really, because you need that to assess the situation. What you do is stifle the part that wants to scream. For me, it is just being on autopilot now. You figure how it affects you personally later on, right then, you try to understand why it is happening.

In Kalimantan where there was an ethnic conflict, I walked on to a field and I saw a group of young boys playing soccer. I knew there was brutal violence and so when I saw them I started going towards them. Just then, my cameraman tugged me and asked me take a look at the ball, it was the severed head of an old man. It was weird, it was a party atmosphere - they were having a lot of fun but the horror of what they were doing wasn't filtering into them.

I was there for four days, at the end of which I flew back to New York for two weeks. I hadn't finished reporting it but I was affected by it.... I knew I had to get myself out until I could center myself before I was going back in. There are millions of reasons why people do what they do. Also when you're reporting it your first instinct to judge it. It is easy to call some one an idiot but you need to understand the psyche of the people. Why is it acceptable to them? Then you will be able to figure out why this conflict is important.

With this manic energy, how do you unwind?

I have just managed to take three months off in the whole of my adult life. It was like the ghost train walked across me. I was really able to understand why things happen the way they do. The little time that I get, I read, watch DVDs or unwind with my friends.

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