Changes at ABS-CBN: What Maria Ressa leaves behind

By Katherine Visconti, Princeton-in-Asia Fellow

Posted at Nov 02 2010 11:44 PM | Updated as of Nov 03 2010 09:20 AM

MANILA, Philippines - ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs Division (NCAD) chief Maria Ressa announced weeks ago that she would not renew her contract with ABS-CBN, which ends in January 2011.

For 6 years as head of the news division, her battle cry was “excellent journalism to make the world a better place.” From the newsroom, Ressa worked to change the country, the network, and journalism.

For the country, she launched a citizen journalism campaign that, she said, was “people power with new technology.”

For the network, she set an ethical standard for ABS-CBN journalists.

And for journalism, she fought for free media that provided quality coverage for the public good.

Joining hands with citizen journalists

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Ressa was passionate about citizen journalism as a tool for Filipinos to highlight the injustices in their own communities and incite national change.

In an interview shown on ANC's Storyline Special, "Once," Ressa said that after nearly 20 years as CNN’s lead investigative reporter in Asia, she made the move to ABS-CBN specifically to “commit to the country," adding that "ABS-CBN is huge...its impact on our society is immense.” She wanted news to shine a spotlight on problems that needed to be fixed and to be “infused” with values. “Values like hope and empowerment. More than anything,” Ressa said. “Forget hope. Empowerment.”

Ressa spearheaded two Boto Mo iPatrol Mo (BMPM) citizen journalism campaigns for the 2007 and 2010 general elections to push citizens to check corruption in the polls by reporting on the election process in their own communities. Citizen journalists, known as Boto Patrollers, used the Internet and mobile phone technology to inform ABS-CBN about vote buying, tampering with election documents and faking ballots. Then, the station used the power of traditional media to amplify verified information.

Jing Castañeda, one of ABS-CBN's veteran reporters, explained: “Maria envisioned a country where citizen journalists and professional journalists worked hand in hand. Citizen journalists, through ABS-CBN’s BMPM program, realized that the power to change the world, literally, is in their hands.  Maria made this happen.” 

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Throughout 2009, ABS-CBN built the ranks of citizen journalists with school visits, training workshops, and a Boto Patrollers’ concert attended by at least 20,000 people. On Election Day 2010, BMPM had 81,000 citizen journalists to bolster the reports of some 50 professional journalists from ABS CBN. Patrollers from hundreds of barangays were incorporated into the existing order of the newsroom. Their reports strengthened media’s ability to check corruption and increased the depth and range of the network’s coverage.

The slogan of BMPM 2010 was “Ako ang Simula” or "I am the Change" – a message for Filipinos to embody constructive nation building by being the start of the change they wanted for their country. ABS-CBN New Media Manager Arlene Burgos, who co-headed the 2010 BMPM campaign, explained: “The Philippines is a young democracy. We are at that point where we are testing the limits of our own institutions. Since we are still struggling with democracy, we are learning how to participate with the government. BMPM provided citizens with the power to speak about their institutions, their government.  It’s basic and yet fundamental to how democracies work.”

Saying no to corruption

Ressa said on Storyline that when ABS-CBN chairman Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez offered her the job as news head in 2004, he asked her to create a professional news organization and promised her full control of news. In the same special, she said, “You can not have a professional news group if you’re for sale...Change is hard...People didn’t like it. The people who benefited lost income....Before I joined ABS-CBN, I was the friend of everyone....When I joined ABS-CBN after I started making the move, boy, I cannot count the number of enemies that started racking up.”

Ressa created a standards and ethics manual to establish a moral and professional yardstick tailored specifically to the journalists at ABS-CBN. The manual guides newsmen on how to handle journalistic challenges ranging from how to cover religion to how to handle hostile situations.

One human resources (HR) representative, who was assigned to the news group when Ressa began implementing the standards and ethics code in 2006, said that it wasn’t received well initially. Between May and December of that year, there were 11 disciplinary cases, ranging from written warnings, to 2-day to a week suspensions, and 2 terminations.  There was roughly the same number of cases in 2007. “Finally (in 2008), it served as their bible as journalists. And it wasn’t an excuse if they didn’t read it,” said the HR representative. 

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Vince Rodriguez, who was both head of Studio 23 News and Ressa’s executive assistant during her first year at ABS-CBN said: “What Maria did was give the news group back its credibility. But it goes beyond the Standards and Ethics Manual. She showed she would not tolerate corruption in any form. She eliminated gray areas but she allowed people to debate and discuss ethical issues they were unsure of because she had an open door policy.”

Another ABS-CBN employee added that Ressa made herself accessible by literally keeping the door to her office open.

Outside ABS-CBN, Vergel Santos, chairman of the Editorial Board for BusinessWorld, observed that, “Her reputation alone made the network look instantly more credible. And the credibility she lent to it became in time its own.” But Santos also said, "Now, again, how she has effected, if at all she has, local journalistic practices and standards is a point itself too presumptuous, even patronizing, to raise."

Ressa ardently defends media freedom. Recently, Ressa advocated against restrictive legislation for the press at a Senate inquiry into the role of media in the bungled August 23 hostage incident, which was aired live and internationally. When Senator Joker Arroyo asked media to help draw a line to serve its interests and the "national interest," Ressa pointed out that freedom of expression as “enshrined by the constitution” is in the national interest as “one of the key goals of our country."

At the hearing, Ressa was specifically targeted for putting the quality of President Aquino’s leadership on the line in an article she wrote for the Wall Street Journal titled,  “Noynoy Flunks his First Test.” In response to that criticism, Ressa stated: “Journalism, ethics and freedom of speech are universal. There is no conflict of interest between a journalist inside the Philippines (and outside)…. Journalists only convey the events that happen. In fact, I can tell you, I wrote that article with the intent of constructively criticizing and hoping for better action from the government.”

The editor of the Wall Street Journal Asia’s editorial page, Mary Kissel, stressed that Noynoy Aquino explicitly ran for office on the promise of transparency and accountability, and that journalism, as an independent watchdog for government, is one of the only institutions in the Philippines that can help the administration achieve that goal. For Kissel, the article was a success because it stimulated debate across the board.

Maria Ressa’s brand of journalism

In the Storyline interview, Ressa said, “You can’t just give isolated facts without context because people get confused, and who else will say it so, you go fact, fact, fact, this will support this. I even know, working for CNN, it is impossible to be objective.”

Chi Almario, ABS-CBN's head of newsgathering, spoke about Ressa as someone who unabashedly stands her ground. One ABS-CBN employee described Ressa as combative in a Western way.

But for Armand Sol, the head of Editing Operations at ABS-CBN, Ressa has a straightforward American approach to doing work, and the warm personal touch of a Filipina. According to Sol, Ressa would not speak badly about people behind their backs and never took arguments personally.

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On Storyline, Ressa said, “We (ABS-CBN News) are confrontational. We are aggressive. That’s the direction we want to be. We want to hold you accountable.”

Almario explained, “As a journalist you can’t back away from confrontation. You always have to be in the fighting mode. Hesitation could be mistaken as cowardice. We can’t afford to be timid. She knows people are watching and she has to lead because that is the ABS brand- we’re fearless.”

Two mediamen outside ABS-CBN, Vergel Santos and Luis Teodoro, deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) said they disagreed with certain things that were done during Maria’s stewardship. But both independently observed general improvements in the network's coverage during the past 6 years.
Despite Ressa’s media freedom defense, Teodoro took issue with the ethical choices networks and executives made in covering the August 23rd hostage incident. He said, “I don’t think it’s Maria alone but I think it’s because the networks are locked in a struggle for ratings. So they are driven to take shortcuts.”

Nevertheless, Teodoro emphasized that the CMFR saw improved coverage of the 2007 and 2010 elections from ABS-CBN. Monitoring the 2004 national elections, Teodoro noticed that coverage was reactive, the reporters were not well prepared and the reporting tended to be repeated. But in 2007, he saw reporters demanding candidates to focus on the issues. Whereas previously, he observed public affairs programs being held later and later in the evening, under Ressa, discourse about the elections moved to primetime.

Teodoro said, “We attributed this (improved election coverage) to the direction of Maria Ressa. In the last election, 2010, the same things were going on but it was even better. The networks were sponsoring forums and debates, which improved the dialogue and discourse.”

Santos said, “I have observed that, in her stewardship, the discussion of public issues on the network has widened and to some degree deepened and that reporting itself has acquired some depth - has shown to have gone further into the whys and wherefores of the news. The network seems to me also to have been more open about itself, thus inspiring openness in the industry itself, which I think a critical ethical and self-policing development.”

The Next Change

Ging Reyes, ABS-CBN’s North American bureau chief for the past 8 years will take over for Ressa. For the past 2 weeks, Reyes and Ressa have worked in side by side offices to facilitate a smooth transition.

Even after Ressa’s departure, ABS-CBN News’ professional relationships in the broadcast industry will likely remain the same. The executive director of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), Reynaldo Hulog, said, “It may be hard to fill her shoes. However, we do not think that the KBP's relationship with ABS-CBN will change. ABS-CBN has always tried to maintain its good standing in the association -- not to mention, the broadcast industry.”

For his part, Teodoro said, “There are more factors in the way the media will turn out than one person. Although as far as ABS-CBN was concerned, Maria did a lot of positive things.”

Ressa said on Storyline, “I think the next phase now is combining all of the different initiatives that we’ve put together-- the citizen journalism, our editorial perspective and public service, that’s where it needs to go. But perhaps, that’s not where ABS wants to go now.” She added, “Perhaps really, it’s time to allow someone else with new ideas to come and test whether my ideas are right. Even look at the changes that will happen when I go, who’s to say they’re not right?”

Ressa has yet to disclose what change is next for her.

She ended the Storyline special by saying, “I don’t know if I’ll be alive for the next 20 years. But you know, in 1986, I said I think the Philippines is going to be amazing 20 years from now. It didn’t happen but I do hope that in my lifetime, I will see a much greater improvement in the quality of life, governance and of our own democracy. And I will do all I can to empower this coming generation.”