“Please go back to the facts.”
“When you don’t have facts, you don’t have truth. You don’t have trust.”
“Facebook is biased against facts.”
Maria Ressa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, 2021
On October 10 this year, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that the 2021 Peace Prize would be shared by two journalists – Dmitry Muratov of Russia and Maria Ressa of the Philippines – “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace”. The pair work in two of the most dangerous nations in the world for reporters, where members of the press have been killed and their murderers have gone free.
This was the first time that journalists received the Peace Prize since 1935 when the award went to pacifist writer Carl von Ossietzky for exposing Germany’s secret re-armament. In recognizing Ressa, the selectors hailed her use of the “freedom of expression to expose abuse of power, use of violence and growing authoritarianism in her native country.” The Philippines has had a remarkable trajectory from dictatorship through popular uprisings that toppled two presidents to raucous constitutional democracy that has recently slid back into strongman-style rule – yet, by no means a unique story in Asia and other regions of the world.
Ressa has distinguished herself in recent years by her activism and advocacy for truth. As co-founder and CEO of the news website Rappler, she has underscored the value of painstaking in-depth and investigative reporting. Since winning the Nobel Prize, Ressa has repeated her call for fellow journalists to celebrate and persist in practicing “fact-based and evidence-based journalism” – in other words, just plain old-fashioned journalism. “If you have no facts, you can’t have truths; you can’t have trust. If you don’t have any of these, you don’t have a democracy.”
Fact-based journalism has been under siege as newsrooms worldwide struggle against the onslaught of misinformation, disinformation and fake news. Advertising has moved to the tech platforms. Audiences for traditional news outlets are falling. As the news ecosystem is upended by rapid technological changes and brutal market forces, the Nobel for Ressa and Muratov is a boost to journalists in their commitment to go back to the basics of providing authentic news and information for the good of society.
The journalism of verification
In this so-called post-truth era, the value of facts and their very existence have been called into question. The relentless 24-hour news cycle means that newsrooms go for speed and quick clicks, often at the expense of facts and their own credibility. Surveys in several counties have shown that the public trust in news organizations has been in decline, as the line between opinion and fact based on solid reporting has blurred.
In their seminal book The Elements of Journalism, first published in 2001, American journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel warn against “the journalism of verification” being taken over by “the journalism of assertion”. They write: “In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other forms of communication – from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art… Journalism alone is focused first on getting what happened down right.”
Kovach and Rosenstiel were prescient in understanding that technology would be the main culprit in “weakening the methodology of verification journalists.” They foresaw that as the internet became a dominant force in people’s lives, journalists would “spend more time looking for something to add to the existing news, usually interpretations, rather than trying to independently discover and verify news facts.”