Pia Hontiveros on the truth-telling function of journalism

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For multi-awarded anchor Pia Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan, to sustain good journalism in the age of social media is to be mindful of its core values: fairness, balance, context, and the need, more than ever, to tell the truth. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When Pia Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan entered her office for her interview with CNN Philippines Life to talk about “News Night” — CNN Philippines’ newly-rebranded flagship evening news show — her first question, directed to me, was: “What do you mean by an ‘existential crisis’ in journalism?”

It was a question inspired by CNN international correspondent Christiane Amanpour’s speech in 2016, included in a list I had sent her earlier. The immediacy of her inquiry, perhaps, was an accurate glimpse into her sharpness as Pia Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan, the veteran broadcast journalist and multi-awarded news anchor, known for being the face of the ANC’s “Strictly Politics” for 22 years, and for anchoring “Network News” (in its various reincarnations) before the show became CNN Philippines’ “News Night.”

Her longevity in the industry comes with questions and observations on how the landscape on reporting has changed. She asks if by "existential crisis," I mean the proliferation of fake news sites and the allegations made against journalists being biased. She is aware of how easy it is for citizens online to give feedback, and how this makes it more important to get the facts straight: “The only defense we’ll have is if we do our work well.”

Having sat with all sorts of personalities from the edges of the political spectrum — her last interviewee for “Strictly Politics” was Mar Roxas, and she once conversed with Mocha Uson for CNN Philippines’ "News.PH,” for example — she is aware of the importance of leaving opinions out the door. She “brackets”: “You bracket how you feel about anything or something, and set it aside,” she says. “By bracketing, you don’t allow thoughts and opinions to get into your reporting.”

Hontiveros shares with CNN Philippines Life other things she has learned in her years as a journalist and anchor for television: on the obligation to be truthful, the importance of context, what neutrality means, and even the need, sometimes, to get out of the reporter’s hat and pursue other interests. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

You’re active in social media.

Yes. I’ve been on Facebook since ’08, Twitter, ’09 … Ayoko nga nung una nung Facebook, it was my friends from Ateneo who convinced me. ‘Di ko maintindihan kasi. [But] I got the hang of it. I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the social media age. And the next one naman was Instagram. For a while, I couldn’t understand Instagram either. Up to now I can’t even do reposts.

You never felt obligated to go to social media as a journalist?

No. I find it interesting because it allows us to keep track of things and not just of events. It’s not just a good way to keep track of what’s happening [with] pop culture, hindi lang ‘yung what’s trending, but what people are interested in, what’s the marketplace of ideas like. What are people talking about now? As a matter of fact, there’s a Twitter account on mindfulness and wellness … ‘yung mga ganun, ano. It’s an interesting concept — are you serious, being mindful in this day and age, when everyone’s into instant gratification?

Because of social media, everything moves faster, even ideas. Things spread literally like wildfire. I didn’t feel obligated. It’s more like I’m glad I’m there. I’m not just on social media because I want to keep track of people and events because I’m a journalist. I’m there because if you look at what I follow on Twitter and Instagram, I follow a lot of design accounts. I love design, arts, and music. I love the performing arts. I love designing the interiors of our own home.

Pia Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan "'Yun ako, that’s really what I’m like. It’s just that people put you in a box and just think that’s the only thing you can do." Photo by JL JAVIER  

It’s totally different from your persona on cam.

Kasi siyempre … I am a serious person. If I’m delivering the news and I’m talking about political upheaval, how can you smile ‘diba? If I smile, it will show that I don’t understand what I’m talking about. Pero … that’s what I’m interested in eh. I go to Divisoria. I’m a creative person. I coordinated my own kids’ birthday parties. I like gift wrapping, shopping, packaging. I clean my house myself with my maids. I decorate my house, I design my house — the interior design is my own. That’s me. It’s different … but that’s really me.

When I was in ANC, I did “Strictly Politics.” And I was doing this other show called “Shoptalk.” At that time my boss was Maria Ressa. She said, “Okay, so you’re doing ‘Strictly,’ and you’re doing the news. I’m going to give you one more show. I’m gonna give you a business feature talk show.” I said, “Business? Feature? Me?” “Yeah!” I said, “Why?” She said, “My mandate is to make you smile.” I said, “I smile!” “You don’t smile too often in front of camera.” “I’m not paid to smile!” I go like that, and she goes, “No, you’ll enjoy.”

The first week was like, pure torture. And then slowly, I began to enjoy it. Then I realized, this is my other side, really. That was ’06. In ’02, ’03, I was pretending to be an entrepreneur. I was selling naman stuff that the tita of my husband would make. Candles. But it was enjoyable pala. I even offered gift wrapping. After a while, on “Shoptalk,” we would do musical episodes, so Jose Mari Chan, Louie Ocampo ... and then arts. Visual artists.

It’s not like I didn’t know any of that. I grew up in a family of artists, practitioners. It’s not like it’s a completely different thing. ‘Yun ako, that’s really what I’m like. It’s just that people put you in a box and just think that’s the only thing you can do.

"The only defense we’ll have is if we do our work well. Doing your work well means being fair, being balanced, bracketing, listening well, asking good questions, asking fair questions. "

I don't feel the need to explain myself. Sometimes if you look at my tweets, 'pag malapit na Christmas, it’s about Christmas decorating, this is how I do the trees. Then I took pictures of the tree, one by one, as each branch goes up. Then I explain the reason why my decors last for 27 years is because I keep them well. You have to package them well and store them well so they last for 27 years. And then people react and say, oh my God, I did not know that you were like this.

It’s funny. Social media is not just for me to monitor. It’s partly my outlet din … there’s a whole world out there, it’s not just what’s happening to our country. It also makes you realize life is not just about work … I have a family, I have interests outside of work, which make me a happier person.

Last Christmas, I did some packaging, it was ‘yung gifts namin ng husband ko to some people. Baskets of capiz stars with light bulbs in them, with balot. Balot is from his hometown, the capiz stars are from my hometown. I did them myself. And then I shared them on social media. Then I would explain pa how I do the Christmas tree lights. One hundred bulbs for one level of the branches. How do you twirl the bulbs? I recorded a video and tweeted it, how you twirl the Christmas tree bulbs around each branch … it takes me two hours to finish the entire tree. The reason for that is … sa mga shopping malls, [you know how] the trees shine from inside? That’s because the bulbs are inside also. Pinost ko 'yan sa social media.

What do you think of Christiane Amanpour’s statement that we should strive to be truthful, and not neutral?

Well there is a really big grain of truth there. It is true, we should be truthful — we report whatever we see. If someone said something, we report that he or she said it, in his own words. This is what he said, we’re not making any judgments, ‘eto, roll soundbite. That’s being truthful.

In terms of not neutral, perhaps, she means, for example, she was a war correspondent for a long time. You can’t be neutral if you see someone shooting someone na obviously helpless, and then you report it. Siguro ang ibig niyang sabihin, lalagyan mo rin ‘yan ng puso. One person killed is one person too many. Ako, I would add na, and I remember si ACJ, [broadcast journalist] Angelo Castro Jr. told us this a long time ago … and I’ve always thought this way, long before I came here — we do not express our opinions, in public or on the air. We don’t. I don’t. That’s because people don’t care about what you think about something.

You know, there’s this word, we use it in Discovery Weekend, which is another interest, an apostolate of mine. It’s marriage preparation. There’s this term we use when we teach dialogue for couples. So that you can listen better to someone, you have to bracket — you bracket how you feel about anything or something, and set it aside. You have to visualize yourself doing it. So I will bracket what I think and feel about this topic I’m interviewing — chak! [makes transferring gesture] — set it aside. Diyan ka muna. And I will talk to you, ask you questions, listen to you, probe, give you a chance to explain. That’s how you deal with your own opinions. By bracketing, you don’t allow thoughts and opinions to get into your reporting. So you report on what he or she said. Your questions will reflect that you are listening to someone.

As journalists, our job is to do the interviews well. Some people think, how do you do good interviews? Oh you come up with really great questions, but actually the most important skill about doing interviews … do you know what it is?

Bracketing?

No, apart from bracketing. Bracketing will happen when you …

Listen.

That’s so important. You listen because that’s where you get your follow up questions. If you listen to me well, you will pick up on the little clues I drop. One of the best things you have to be as a journalist is to listen well.

Pia Hontiveros "It is true, we should be truthful — we report whatever we see. If someone said something, we report that he or she said it, in his own words," Pia Hontiveros says. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Do you think journalism here is experiencing an “existential crisis,” what with fake news and journalists being accused of being biased?

We know ourselves. We know if we are being truthful. We know if we are exercising truthfulness in our reportage. We know if we are lying. I know. And I know I am fair., I know I have bracketed my opinions, my thoughts, and emotions about any and all stories. Sometimes people ask, how can you talk to ganito, ganyan? Because that person does not like the person I talk to … eh ano naman, I won’t talk to him because I don’t like him? Eh siya naman ‘yung newsmaker of the day. Paano ko naman na hindi siya kakausapin, eh trabaho ko ‘yan, diba?

So I know I did my work well, I got all sides, I ask fair questions. That’s the only thing, really, that matters.

The only defense we’ll have is if we do our work well. Doing your work well means being fair, being balanced, bracketing, listening well, asking good questions, asking fair questions. Just keep doing that every single day. Just keep doing good journalism every single day. And no matter what anybody says — as long as at the end of the day, you’ve done good journalism — do it every day. Stay the course. Remain unfazed. People will always say things.

Do you think journalists are adapting quickly enough to the immediacy of technology, as when citizens posting news become main sources of news?

Let me clarify. We don’t just get the news from them. We see it, we verify it first. We call the authorities, or if there is a team near the area — [we tell it] to go check this, confirm, call whatever authority. So they become sources of information, pero we need to check. In the same way, anything and everything we hear, before we air it, we verify, we check.

T.V. crews cannot be all over the place all the time. And there’s a lot of netizens who like doing that. We’re lucky nga that they’re there, the minute that there’s a fire, 30 seconds later, someone’s already posting about it.

How do we aid readers and viewers in making informed opinions?

By being truthful. By giving them all the facts necessary. By reporting it properly. By giving a story context. Context is explaining the history why something is like this … kunwari the twin explosions in Quiapo … give a little context, a little history. On April 28, there was another explosion … give as much information as possible. You can’t decide for viewers or readers eh. Who are you, God? You just report kung anong nangyayari. Let people decide on their own. It’s their right.

 

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"News Night" airs weekdays at 6 p.m. on CNN Philippines.