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CNN International's Ivan Watson on Fake News, Politics, and Social Media

'Don’t cut corners, don’t fib, don’t play with the quote. All you have is your reputation.'
IMAGE JL Javier
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Ivan Watson, CNN International’s senior correspondent, has covered the Marawi War, the Hong Kong Protests, and China’s military expansion in the West Philippine Sea. Esquire Philippines sat down with Watson to talk about fake news, politics, and social media.

ESQUIRE PHILIPPINES: You covered a lot of disasters, war, and calamities. Tell us about your experience in seeing the best of people in their worst of times.

IVAN WATSON: In those worst of times, in those crises, we tend to see the best and worst sides of humanity, and the worst sides are these conflicts, where people are deliberately hurting and killing each other, stealing and using force to get what they want. But then you’ll find and encounter brave and idealistic people in the midst of that, who are trying to help their fellow sister or brother, man or woman.

ESQ: Let’s talk about social media, and how it has affected traditional news reporting.

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IW: Well, as a journalist, social media has provided new ways to gather news. Starting about 10 years ago, I encountered, for the first time, where we were gathering images from the ground in turbulent situations in countries that we couldn’t get into because of visa restrictions. It can complement our information gathering, that’s on the one hand.

Photo by JL Javier.
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With images, the immediacy of social mediathat the tornado blows throughand somebody’s got a phone, you can see immediately. In the past, journalists would have had to be there. But now, you can find that on Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook. On the flip side of that is that we found that those avenues can amplify gossip and just outright lies, and you have to dig through that while using it as a potential resource.

That frankly is what we used to do before there was social media was around. If you go through a village and there was an earthquake or a bomb that happened, I ask somebody, "Hey, what happened?" and this guy says "A bomb blew up and this guy got rocketed into a tree." You’re like, "How do you know?" then the man is like, "I didn’t see it myself, but my friend told me’.

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You know, we used to fact-check face to face, but now, that guy’s like, heard his friend say something who heard his friend say something, it can get amplified a million times without that initial fact-check. And then those stories can get a life of their own.

And we’re also dealing with the challenge of reporting when there are these kinds of bubbles of people just reinforcing each other’s biases, accepting unverified stuff as truth and gospel and as fact. As a reporter, social media has given me new platforms to tell the stuff I see.

Now I can share as I’m working on a story on Instagram and Twitter as I go along. The same old rules of journalism apply: I got to be careful, I got to account for every word I say, there are new ways to reach new audiences that way.

ESQ: With the advent of mobile phones and more widespread Internet penetration, we thought that people having more access to information would allow them to make more sound choices and judgments. Apparently, that is not the case. Where did we go wrong?

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Photo by JL Javier.

IW: It’s pernicious. Their control on propaganda and spin on fake news are still there. I think reporters have a responsibility to cut through that and try to maintain journalistic ideals in our reporting. I hope that the consumers of news have an awareness that there’s a lot of garbage out there. You have a responsibility to be able to pick between unverified hate-mongering and professional fact gathering and storytelling.

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"If the Russian government is going to be training people on how to be journalists, I wish they would work harder to protect their own journalists from being murdered."

ESQ: But that’s the point, isn't it? Many people have lost the ability to discern what is real and what is not.

IW: To make it even harder, as technology gets better and you just make fake videos of real people, you know it would get more dangerous. But if you go back a couple of decades before the Cold War with the Soviet Union and Communist rule in Eastern Europe, citizens of those countries knew that their state radio and television channels and newspapers were full of propaganda. They were basically lies. They knew it at that time because it didn’t match the reality of their lives on the ground.

People in freer society have a responsibility as citizens to recognize that there might be a difference between an obscure blog and reputable news organizations, which can make mistakes, which can have biases, but aspires and is trying to protect its reputation. People may not like or love journalists, but these are people who risk their lives and really believe in their craft and their profession.

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ESQ: In the news recently, it said that Russia will help train Philippine state media on proper news reporting. What can you say to that?

IW: Okay, I lived and worked in Russia, and have met very brave, very committed journalists who have paid with their lives for their work. Unfortunately, tragically, in Russia, there is a pattern of brave journalists who investigate the establishment and abuses who end up suffering very tragic ends—falling out of balconies, getting shot and murdered in the stairwells of their apartment buildings.

If the Russian government is going to be training people on how to be journalists, I wish they would work harder to protect their own journalists from being murdered.

"Don’t cut corners, don’t fib, don’t play with the quote—all you have is your reputation. And the moment you get caught making something up or exaggerating something, and from then on, you’re going to be the guy who makes stuff up. Don’t hurt yourself early on in your career."

ESQ: Do you think the press is an important pillar of democracy?

IW: Absolutely.

ESQ: Why is that?

IW: I believe that the press has a responsibility to challenge authority and serve as a watchdog in society, and to hold authorities accountable. It does not mean that journalists are infallible, it does not mean that journalists don’t make mistakes or have no biases, there needs to be transparency in journalistic institutions as well.

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But I think that when you lose your ability to question your leadership and your government, then that gives government and leadership full freedom to do whatever they want, and they already have a great deal of power. I kind of see like voting the citizenry power and control over their leaders. Journalists’ role is to provide voters information to make their decisions when they come to the ballot box. But it’s a responsibility that I feel very passionate about, even if it’s a strange profession.

Photo by JL Javier.
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ESQ: What advice would you give to aspiring journalists, to young people who could be future journalists like you?

IW: Write. Write. Get as much practice as you can. Write. Even if you’re going to end up in television, live video blogging, whatever it is, writing is the first skill to really hone. The other advice I often give is the only thing you have is your reputation.

Don’t cut corners, don’t fib, don’t play with the quote—all you have is your reputation. And the moment you get caught making something up or exaggerating something, and from then on, you’re going to be the guy who makes stuff up. Don’t hurt yourself early on in your career.

Those are the two lessons that I try to give people. Practice your writing skill and protect your integrity.

CNN Philippines' “One Small Act: Daring to Build a Sustainable Future” hosted by Ivan Watson and Mitzi Borromeo aired live on October 15 and will have its replay on October 23 at 11 a.m.

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