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How to Hold the Line: 4 Journalism Survival Tips from 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Maria Ressa

  •   9 min reads
How to Hold the Line: 4 Journalism Survival Tips from 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Maria Ressa
Hubert Burda Media via Flickr

Nobel Prize winner Maria Ressa believes newsrooms around the world need to band together -- and stop thinking of each other solely as competitors -- in order to fight the good fight against misinformation. 

“We’re on the same side,” says Ressa, co-founder of Rappler, an independent Philippine news outlet known for its deep-dive investigations into the administration of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and the spread of online disinformation on social media. “If you are a news group, you are on the side of facts. I think we should be sharing each other. I think we should be working together -- letting go of the old-school idea that everything is homegrown, that this is our brand. Because we’re in a battle for facts.” 

Ressa received the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.” The Nobel committee noted the laureates “are representative of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions.”  

For the past year, Ressa and Rappler have been fighting multiple court cases that threaten the future of the publication and Ressa’s personal freedom. In June 2020, she was found guilty of “cyber libel” for a story published on Rappler in 2012. Ressa was executive editor of Rappler at the time, but she neither wrote nor edited the story, which was published four months before Philippines’ cybercrime law even existed.

"If we’re prioritizing toxic sludge, if we’re prioritizing anger, hate, conspiracy theories — everything that feeds on your fear and your us-against-them — then you’ll also preclude the best of humanity, the miracle of how we do impossible things together."

-- Maria Ressa

In general, laws can't be enforced retroactively in the Philippines. But in 2014, Rappler corrected a typo in the 2012 story – changing the word “evation” to “evasion.” The Department of Justice decided this counted as a republication, and thus decided the story was published after the law went into effect. Ressa is appealing the case, and she implores journalists to keep holding the line for press freedom. 

“I appeal to you -- the journalists in this room, the Filipinos who are listening -- to protect your rights,” Ressa said in a press conference immediately following that ruling. “We are meant to be a cautionary tale. We are meant to make you afraid. So, I appeal again: Don’t be afraid. Because if you don’t use your rights, you will lose them. Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen. If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything.”  

In early November, the Philippine Court of Appeals permitted her to travel to Harvard Kennedy School, where she is a Fall 2021 Hauser Leader at the Center for Public Leadership and a Fall 2021 Joan Shorenstein Fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy -- also home to The Journalist’s Resource. The same court granted her permission to travel to Oslo to receive her Nobel Peace Prize this week.

Before returning to the Philippines at the end of November, Ressa sat down with JR to share tips and insights for journalists who are fighting to hold power to account in the face of relentless harassment and misinformation on social media.

These are four key takeaways from our conversation.  

1. Online attacks are harmful to journalists’ mental health. Newsroom managers can help ensure journalists get the counseling they need, but professional counselors need to understand the specific needs of journalists.

Last spring, UNESCO published a discussion paper called “The Chilling,” a report of online attacks against women who are journalists, based on a book-length study by the International Center for Journalists. The research included a survey of 901 journalists from 125 countries; long-form interviews with 173 international reporters, editors, and press freedom and safety experts; and two case studies of attacks against women whose journalism has exposed problems with online platforms like Facebook -- one focusing on Ressa, the other on Carole Cadwalladr, the British journalist who exposed the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal in 2018.  

Maria Ressa speaks at Harvard Kennedy School on Nov. 29. (Carmen Nobel)

Of the survey respondents who identified as women, 73% said they had experienced online violence (including misogyny and other forms of hate speech), 25% said they had been threatened with physical violence online, and 20% said they had been attacked or abused offline in connection with the online attacks they had experienced. Some 11% reported missing work to recover from online attacks and 2% quit journalism altogether. 

The case study on Ressa includes a big-data analysis of nearly 400,000 tweets targeting Ressa from December 2019 to February 2021, and more than 56,000 Facebook posts and comments about her, published between 2016 and 2021. The data shows that 60% of these online attacks seek to damage Ressa’s professional credibility -- calling her a “fake news queen,” for example, or a “presstitute.” Some 40% are personal, including death threats and attacks on her personal appearance. 

“Name any animal, I’ve been called it,” Ressa said calmly during the 2021 Salant Lecture on Freedom of the Press  on Nov. 16, which was livestreamed internationally. “I have eczema, extremely dry skin -- and the meme they created was ‘Scrotum Face.’” 

This is all to say that Ressa understands the importance of anticipating a harassment onslaught, the importance of transparently acknowledging personal and professional threats, and the importance of helping journalists deal with them. 

While Ressa gets the worst of it, she’s just one of many Rappler journalists facing a routine barrage of hate on social media. “When we all came under attack, we actually became better friends,” she says.  

A couple of years ago, the news organization actively started offering professional counseling for its reporters and social media team. “Because you’ve got to,” Ressa says. “You’ve got to take it home.” 

Asked whether anyone accepted the therapy offer, “Yeah, of course,” Ressa says. “But then, you know what we realized? That our counselors in the Philippines didn’t understand the impact of exponential attacks. So, we had to then go to Dart and ask them to train the trainers.” 

She’s talking about the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which last summer launched the Journalist Trauma Support Network, a pilot program that teaches therapists about the types of trauma and harassment journalists encounter in the course of their work.  

Early in 2018, the Philippine government initiated multiple legal proceedings against Rappler, including revoking its operating license. Before holding a press conference to tell the world what was happening, the Rappler leadership team met with the newsroom’s reporters.  

“We held a general assembly among our people, and we flagged it for them,” Ressa says. “We’re walking into a different era and a different time. They’re actively trying to shut us down, and everyone is facing different risks. And we told them, ‘If you want to move to another news organization, we will help you.’ No reporter came to us. …Because when we were transparent and told them what to expect and gave them a choice, they committed even more.”  

2. In the battle against misinformation, journalists must promote and share the work of other journalists.

“The biggest shift in the world was that the creation of journalism was separated from distribution,” Ressa says, referring to the way information is spread on social media platforms. “And the principles of distribution allowed facts and lies to be [treated as] identical.” 

She notes that research indicates lies have a distribution edge on social media. In addition to citing reports that Facebook’s algorithms prioritize hateful messages, Ressa points to a 2018 study in the journal Science, “The spread of true and false news online,” in which researchers analyzed the spread of true and false news stories on Twitter from 2006 to 2017.  

The study finds that fake news stories were 70% more likely to be retweeted than real news stories, even when controlling for factors like the age of the Twitter account, the number of followers and followees of the original tweeter, and whether Twitter had verified the account with a blue check. 

“70% more,” Ressa says, her voice rising. “70% more! That’s part of the reason I think you need journalists all around the world to keep standing up to power. Now what we do have are standards and a mission. And courage. Because we’re foolish enough to keep standing up to power even at the detriment to the organization or to the journalist. So that’s what we have. But how can we then get the distribution? We should be thinking about strategies of distribution. So my solution to that is we should be sharing each other. That’s what is in our control, right?”  

3. For journalism to matter, journalists must empower the communities they serve. 

Rappler’s name combines the root words ‘rap’ (to discuss) and ‘ripple’ (to make waves).

“It was born to a new world of possibilities -- driven by uncompromising journalism, enabled by technology, and enriched by communities of action,” reads the organization’s mission statement. “For journalism to matter, the community must be a part of it.” 

Ressa maintains that one the biggest and important challenges for news media outlets is to warn their readers, viewers and listeners about the dangers of misinformation on social media.

“How are you going to tell your communities that they’re being manipulated?” she says. “And how can you pull the community together? Think of it like this: If we’re prioritizing toxic sludge, if we’re prioritizing anger, hate, conspiracy theories -- everything that feeds on your fear and your us-against-them -- then you’ll also preclude the best of humanity, the miracle of how we do impossible things together. And that’s the opportunity loss that I see.

“I get emotional when I talk about this,” she adds, with tears in her eyes.

Ressa now spends more time focused on technology regulation and distribution issues than she does on reporting the news. “If I write something today, it will be about how tech and data are manipulating you, or how it is impacting the world today,” she says.

4. Accept that it’s a terrifying but vital time be a journalist. 

“We have to accept that in this time period, it will be thankless,” Ressa says. “We will be vilified. Everyone will attack us. But we must keep doing what we’re doing because no one else is doing it.”

According to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 1,421 journalists have been killed since 1992. And 293 journalists have been imprisoned for their work in 2021 alone. 

“You have to hold the line,” Ressa says. “The quality of the democracy is as good as the quality of the journalist. If the questions aren’t asked, then power gets away with what it wants.”  

To learn more: 

  • Frontline produced the documentary “A Thousand Cuts,” which follows Ressa as she navigates Duterte’s crackdown on the news media in the Philippines. You can watch it in full on YouTube.
  • In “The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists,” UNESCO presents an edited excerpt of a book-length study by the International Center for Journalists. The report begins with a quote from Ressa: “The easiest part is dealing with the impact of online violence and disinformation on me. I just see the impact on the world, and I don’t know why we’re not panicking.”  
  • The Journalist’s Resource recently published a list of self-care tips and resources for journalists who cover and experience trauma, featuring insights from Dr. Elana Newman, research director at Columbia University’s Dart Center.
  • Reporters Without Borders publishes an annual index ranking press freedom in 180 countries.  Norway tops the list for having the most press freedom in 2021, while Eritrea ranks last. The Philippines is 138th on the list. The United States is 44th.
  • Ressa was the featured speaker for the 2021 Salant Lecture on Freedom of the Press. The title of her talk: "What Would You Sacrifice for the Truth?" Watch it below.

This article first appeared on The Journalist's Resource and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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