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MARIA RESSA

The mind of a journalist

07:49 PM August 05, 2012

Quezon National High School
Danica A. Brutas
Vivien Joy P. Berania
Angela Christine M. de Mesa
Lea Z. Nuera
Ramonito O. Elumbaring (coach)

She sits and starts taking our eager questions, pausing briefly to summon a member of her staff to turn up the television volume.

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The impeachment trial of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is on. Immediately, we know that the world-class journalist is multitasking.

Maria Ressa is the chief executive officer and executive editor of the country’s newest social news network Rappler.com. The 40-something Princeton University graduate has been a journalist for more than 25 years.

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She was CNN’s Jakarta (Indonesia) bureau chief and, later, head of the Philippines’ ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs. She wrote the book “Seeds of Terror” that documented the growth of the Southeast Asian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah and its links to al-Qaida.

In this conversation, she tells us about her hard-learned lessons, her fears and her battle cry for the nation.

What made you choose journalism? What’s in it that interests you most?

I didn’t set out to be a journalist. I entered Princeton as a pre-med(icine) student, and I applied to all the accelerated medical school programs. I wound up hating it because I don’t like the sight of blood (laughs). It was what my parents wanted, not what I wanted. When I told my parents that, they said, “Oh, then you should go to law.” Of course, you keep your parents happy so I applied to law school. [And then] I chose something that would pay me to learn. The best part about being a journalist is that you can go anywhere and ask questions and people actually answer you. You learn from people.

What is the most significant work that you have done?

I think it’s ongoing—Rappler— because we’re taking so many risks. We started it from scratch. It’s really a fresh look at the world and how we can serve it as journalists. The biggest part is that now it’s not just us telling stories. For the first time, journalists can go beyond just telling stories. You can actually harness people. Like the “Mood Meter” is actually asking you how you feel and then we do something with it after. Beyond that, you also have what we call the “crowd source project.”  Social networks and social media can give us the ability to actually strengthen democracy in ways that our institutions have not been able to do yet.

With the new media merging with traditional journalism, we high schoolers appreciate your work with Rappler.com. Do you see the new media mainstreaming in the future?

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Thank you. I think it already is. Part of what we’re being pushed to do now is that traditional journalists have to move to a different space. It used to be [that you had] traditional journalists and then you had bloggers. And bloggers stayed in an emotional state but they didn’t have the discipline that journalism teaches you.

What Rappler is trying to do is merge that because, in the end, the best stories are the ones that speak from emotional authenticity. If you don’t touch people—or you don’t make them care—you don’t really have a story, particularly, if you want them to act on something. As a traditional journalist, I’m not willing to concede the emotional space to bloggers. And this is what Rappler is doing. We come at every story with the discipline of traditional journalism and the emotional authenticity of what used to be just bloggers.

You’ve been investigating terrorist networks. Why are you so passionate about it when your life could be in danger?

Because it helps us. The threat that affects our lives and what we’ve seen with 9/11 is that if you leave something—fermenting is the word I’m thinking of—and let it percolate without trying to address the problem, it gets worse.

I wrote a book called “From Bin Laden to Facebook” about trying to understand why people turn evil. Why do people want to become suicide bombers? Why do they kill innocent figures? (They do not) target you and say “I hate Christians.” It’s not that simple. Hitler obviously thought he was a good guy. Terrorists think they’re good people. Part of what you need to do is to understand what motivates them.

With many journalists being taken and beheaded by the al-Qaida network, the danger of publishing a book like “Seeds of Terror” can be a genuine concern. Did you have that concern?

I got threats. CNN was worried enough that there were times when I traveled with a Special Forces guy from England. But he stood out in Indonesia. I felt safer without him, to be honest. When I moved to the Philippines, they had to look at the apartment. They did security checks. It’s part of the job.

I also think, beyond terrorism, if you’re doing stories on corruption, of course, you’ll be targeted. You just learn to deal with it.  I also think the best defense is a good offense. You go and do your story. This is our job.

What fears do you have?

What am I afraid of? I think I’m afraid corruption will get worse rather than [lessen] because our values and our society condone it. The thing I fear the most is that we won’t find solutions—that we continue to go like rats on a treadmill. We’re just going to keep doing this over and over and over.

But you get scared and you learn. The best part is that you learn to control your fears, so you cannot be intimidated. You always have to look it straight in the eye whatever it is you’re facing.

As a journalist, how do you feel about corruption? How can you lessen or prevent it?

Start with your area of influence. For me, it starts there because I’m not in government, nor do I want to be. You really can only change yourself. You can only control yourself. And, as you get older and if you manage people, you can create a world.

I believe in “no corruption.” Every instance where I’ve had the power … like in ABS [-CBN], one of the things I did was to implement in the newsroom a zero tolerance policy on corruption. If you’re caught, you’re fired. It didn’t earn me a lot of friends, but it was the right thing to do and certainly that’s the same policy at Rappler.

For you, guys, you can do something about it now. Start with your world, talk to your friends about it because it’s a real-life issue.

In past interviews, you mentioned that your dream interview was Ramzi Yousef. Of all people, why him?

Because he was very, very smart. He tried to bring down the World Trade Center in 1993 and his uncle succeeded in 2001. Mostly, that was the reason. But, you know, I think maybe that interview happened at the time I was working on terrorism.

If you ask me now, I would love to talk to Mark Zuckerberg, the guy who founded Facebook. He would be an interesting interview because he looks at the world in a particular way and I like a lot of the stuff that he says. I don’t know whether it’s the truth. I would love to test it. He said he created Facebook because he believed that a transparent world would lead to a better world.

What are the three questions you would ask Ramzi Yousef and Mark Zuckerberg?

Mark Zuckerberg: His best scenario and his worst scenario for this company he’s created. How can they harness people to actually move for social change?

Ramzi Yousef: Why do you want to kill people? Why did you do what you did? He’s been in the Eastern Colorado super max (maximum security) prison since 1995. It’s been a long time. Was it worth it?

If you were to become a mother, would you still continue the dangerous work of a journalist, knowing that you have children waiting for you at home?

This is a bad question for me, only because I can’t keep plants alive. I did think seriously about whether I would have kids because I love kids, but I couldn’t keep anything alive that I couldn’t pack in my suitcase. For now, I feel Rappler is my baby.

What advice would you give students like us who aspire to be world-class journalists like you?

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called “Outliers” [where] he talked about those people who succeeded. How do they succeed? It takes 10,000 hours to be good at what you do. Only after that point are you actually able to create.

It starts with hard work—but hard work doing something you love. How do you know the difference between a smart choice and a bad choice? You don’t know in the moment but what you can do is work really hard so that your rational mind can make the choice. And always pray.  And you have to trust your instincts. You have to trust what feels right—I’m a big proponent of that.

Surround yourself with the people you want to be like. Surround yourself with the people who believe the same things you believe in because you can’t do things on your own. Anything worthwhile that you need to accomplish in our society requires a group.

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