Maria Ressa talks start in journalism and gives advice to aspiring journalists

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On Nov. 2, 2022, international journalist Maria Ressa delivered the Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture at DePauw University. Prior to our lecture later in the evening, media outlets and students had the opportunity to ask Ressa questions about her career as a journalist and gave advice to students who are looking to pursue a career in journalism. 

During the media session, when asked about her career endeavors, Ressa gave insights about the career her parents wanted her to pursue and how she ended up pursuing journalism full-time. 

“I was pre-med for two years because my parents wanted me to be a doctor. Then I finished college, but what I didn’t know is I went to look for roots. [In] my senior year in college, I got a Fulbright Fellowship going the other way to the Philippines, and I never left,” Ressa said. “That was in 1986 when People Power happened and ousted Ferdinand Marcos, whose son is now our president, overwhelmingly elected last May. It kept me there because I fell into journalism.”

She continued, “I think the reason why I liked theatre was in a room full like this, we can actually come to a meeting of the mind…We can talk about, we can change, [and] we can shift the way we see the world.”

Ressa’s ethnic connection to the Philippines also was a major component that kept her there to pursue international coverage of journalism.

Ressa said, “I fell into journalism in the Philippines because it was partly roots. You can peg my age because that was the time around when “Roots” was, and I went back and I realized that I never felt completely American when I was growing up in…Tom’s River, New Jersey. When I was growing up here, I was an introvert. I was pretty quiet. I had to learn English because [as] I was growing up we were speaking Tagalog, and then I never felt completely American, [so] I thought that meant I must be Filipino.”

Then, reality struck her once she arrived in the Philippines on her Fulbright as the phenomenon of how her American identity made her stick out to other Filipinos.

 “When I went back to the Philippines on Fulbright, that’s when I realized how American I really was. When I’m with Filipinos, I’m very American, and when I’m with Americans, I’m very Filipino. Then you learn to fuse these different parts [and] take the best of it,” she added.

For journalism in her time, Ressa refers to it as a Golden Age in journalism. She refers to this as a time when reporters were given resources to do good journalism and when a TV crew had four people instead of one. She then begins describing her exploits and coverage of the People Power movement in the Philippines and how it affected surrounding countries.

According to Ressa, “It was an amazing time period.1986 was when People Power happened, [and] that was the time when we felt democracy was unstoppable. The [revolution in the] Philippines spread to South Korea, Myanmar, and then even Vaslav Hvuelle in Czechoslovakia [who] mentioned the People Power revolt in the Philippines.”

From this point, Ressa would go on to open the Manila Bureau in 1987-1988 and then open the Jakarta Bureau in 1995. Here, she also details what made her love journalism and the stakes journalists face every day in the essence of reporting the news.

“What I loved about it and why I love journalism is because it was like every day I get to meet people, I get to learn, and it was unlike today, where I feel like you shouldn’t be chasing page views, be chasing popularity, or we shouldn’t be commodifying journalism because our task is to hold power to account,” she said.

Ressa continued to drive this point home as she added, “The mission of journalism is very, very, simple, right? It takes courage and training to do that because you can never be wrong. Because when you’re wrong, it could mean your career.”

Over the course of Ressa’s career, she has faced many challenges in the pursuit of bringing the news to her audience, facing arrests from higher authorities, and more, but amid facing censorship from the government, she has the following advice to share with young journalists:

“The quick answer to this is collaborate, collaborate, collaborate, whether you’re part of a news organization or [any] organization. Do you guys organize on social media? One of the things that worked…is this kind of four-layer pyramid of an influencer marketing campaign for facts. Doesn’t that sound really boring? But, it worked,” she said.

She continued, “As a journalist, you are far more alone today than at any other time. Precisely because social media has made it that way. At the time, my organization stood front and I rarely had to deal with attacks except when you were in the field. Frankly, those are easy compared to landmines that we navigate on social media today.”

Using references to “The Matrix” and “The Truman Show,” Ressa further went into detail about social media and its effect on us as a society.

“I described another way [to] describe social media…It’s like “The Matrix.” Remember how the body’s human beings are the batteries for the Matrix? We are the energy that the social media platforms are running off of because they take our data and essentially clone us, and then they own that…We’re the batteries but take “The Matrix” [plus] “The Truman Show.” Every one of us is doing our own Truman Show. And, the question is, are we listening to each other?”

For new rising journalists in the digital age of journalism, Ressa advises the following:

“First, you need to build yourself. Build your body of knowledge, build your body of experience; it’s like going to the gym, right?... The second thing is you don’t have to wait now for organizations. You actually can experience and find your own voice. But, I would do the third thing which is you write for your school paper.” 

She continued, “What’s the school paper doing? What’s your social media presence? Right now, your school paper can actually fight against The New York Times in your neighborhood. You should actually hold this community in your hands, so community building and distribution would be the next part. And, that’s a whole different ballgame from when I was a young journalist. It’s a time of creative destruction.”