Pinky Webb on the art of asking questions, avoiding bias, and controversial insights

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How do you remain fair and objective in the face of highly divisive viewpoints? We asked Pinky Webb, journalist and host of CNN Philippines’ freshest news interview program, “The Source.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Pinky Webb, the host of the news interview program “The Source,” is a formidable interviewee as she is an interviewer, reporter, and newscaster. The program, which recently airs on CNN Philippines’ 9 a.m. timeslot, had her, so far, go head-to-head with newsmakers such as senators Leila De Lima and Richard Gordon, and with cabinet secretaries Delfin Lorenzana and Jesus Dureza as well. She delivers the news a few hours later in “Balitaan.” For both programs, which air daily, we see the same Webb who, along with Pia Hontiveros, gracefully facilitated the 2016 vice presidential debates, for which they both recently received a Special Citation for Exemplary Work as Host from the 6th EdukCircle Awards.

Roles reversed — when she sits down to be asked questions, and not to ask them — Webb answers inquiries thoughtfully, sometimes pausing to remember a name or to compose her thoughts properly. She speaks with both conviction and nuance, and more than anything, is slow to pass judgment (if she makes one at all), whether on the topic of journalists having a stand, or citizens making hasty conclusions in a social milieu that’s overflowing with raw, unverified information. “I just think accusations can be thrown easily in this world,” she says. “So I take a step back and look objectively and fairly as much as I can.”

Coming from Webb, it sounds like good advice, not just for journalism but for life, something that can bear repetition in the cacophony of pundits constantly standing by for the next sound bite that will banner the evening news. As she converses with CNN Philippines Life in between her programs, Webb tells us how she helps move stories forward with “The Source,” what she knows about the art of asking questions, and with whom she would like to have a one-on-one interview in the future, given the chance. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

"I’ve had past experiences in my life that taught me to be neutral, to not believe anything I hear, to not believe anything people tell me," says newscaster Pinky Webb. Photo by JL JAVIER

Does “The Source” always strive to be current, or does it feature people who make a difference, but are not in the news?

I know what you’re saying. For now, it’s been people who are in the news, who are newsmakers. But newsmakers naman don’t necessarily mean people in the political scene, right? It can be newsmakers, for example, somebody won in some film festival … those are people we’re very willing and open to interview as well. It’s any newsmaker whether it be entertainment, politics, business….

You interviewed senators De Lima and Gordon last week. How was it interviewing two people perceived to be on opposite sides of a particular issue?

That was the point of the interview. We had Secretary [now Senator] Leila De Lima, and to balance it out, we had to get somebody [neutral] … for example the chairman of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights. Secretary De Lima is on one side of the story so we wanted to get somebody… Hindi naman against her, hindi naman for her, but somebody on neutral ground. So that’s why we had Senator Dick Gordon. That was our initial telecast, first day of “The Source.”

In "The Source," Pinky Webb goes head-to-head with newsmakers. Previous guests include senators Leila De Lima and Richard Gordon. Photo by JL JAVIER

Did they meet each other at that time?

No. But I believe it wouldn’t have been a problem back then … When Senator Gordon took the helm, I’m sure as co-senators they would have been respectful of each other. There’s not much animosity then between them. It was really Senator De Lima and Senator Cayetano. That’s a different story.

"Let me just say that I think it’s okay for journalists to have a stand ... But when you’re a newscaster, you’re a reporter on air, you cannot make a stand, because it colors the way you report the news."

How does the Q&A format help further the objectives of the show?

I personally try to get the questions that I think a lot of people would want to know. And really if you do enough research, you would be able to ask the questions that matter, what matters to the public. They don’t necessarily have to be intelligent questions, they don’t have to be clever questions, they just need to be questions that will take you somewhere, will give you an answer, will take you to the next step. So if you do a lot of research, you’re able to move the story forward, and how that helps us is we inform the public. We give them fresh insight, new insight. And even here in the newsroom, we’re able to move the story, actually.

So it’s just like being a reporter out there and interviewing a newsmaker. Here they come to us, and we interview them, and the essence is really trying to move the story and allowing the public to have a better understanding of whatever topic it is.

Is there any kind of limitation to the Q&A format?

It’s not a limitation, but it’s a conscious effort not to ask questions that are absolutely biased. You can’t do that. We’re also not asking leading questions. Especially … I write the questions, so I’m very careful that they’re not construed as leading or biased.

How do you do that?

With the help of my producer. [laughs] Because a number of times, quite frankly, I write a question, and my producer gives me back the question and says, this is leading. You can’t ask it this way. So I get guidance. And for now my producer is the boss [Armie Jarin-Bennett, CNN Philippines executive vice president and managing editor]. So she helps me a lot, because I’m used to asking a certain way, and she sees my questions, she really looks into them, and says, well, you can ask it better this way, there’s a better way to ask it. And I listen. It helps me.

In light of the obligation to be fair and neutral, do you think a journalist can still make a stand on significant issues? Or is that out of the question?

Oh my God, that’s so hard. [laughs] You see … how do I say it? I don’t know how to say this. Let me just say that I think it’s okay for journalists to have a stand. Especially there are platforms that you can … like number one, you’re a columnist, you’re an editorial writer, obviously you’re going to have a stand. So yes, I respect that. You’re a radio broadcaster, that’s okay to take a stand. But when you’re a newscaster, you’re a reporter on air, you cannot make a stand, because it colors the way you report the news. For journalists who make a stand on Twitter, do I respect that? I do. Do I [make a stand]? I don’t. [But] I respect journalists who do, because … we’re human beings, we’re obviously going to be swayed one way or another. As long as you’re not being paid, as long as you’re a clean journalist and you have a sense of what is right and what is wrong, and you have enough information, that’s fine.

“I just think accusations can be thrown easily in this world,” says Webb. “So I take a step back and look objectively and fairly as much as I can.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Personally, how do you uphold neutrality?

I’ve had past experiences in my life that taught me to be neutral, to not believe anything I hear, to not believe anything people tell me, that played a big role in me trying to be very neutral. Because I like to believe I am very neutral, and my past experiences consciously and unconsciously helped me with that. What I’m referring to is my past experience of my brother going to jail. That’s the one. Number two is, I’m just not quick to judge.. It’s not easy for me to believe one person or a particular accusation. I try to look at it in all sides, as much as I can, because it’s only fair for the person being accused, and the person accusing.

With regard to taking a step back and looking at all the information objectively, how does a show like “The Source” figure in a time when viewers can get their information from a direct source or a trusted intermediary, like a journalist they follow on Twitter?

We have a team and we brainstorm who our guests would be, and who would be a nice partner on the same show. For example we have a guest who’s very controversial, we think of someone who can play a neutral ground. Parang for Senator De Lima, we had Senator Gordon, ganon. But sometimes that doesn’t work easily, sometimes you won’t have two guests in one show. So if you have someone who seems to be leaning on one direction, you have to get that person [going to the other direction] the next day. We strive to be very impartial, and to do that we have to be very careful about it. But sometimes — it hasn’t happened though — you won’t be able to get your dream guests, the right combination. When that happens, you try to make up for it by doing it the next day.

It’s also a responsibility to the audience. You did say social media’s very active right now. You want people to know that this show will give you context the best way we can.

Are there any persons you haven’t talked to yet, but you wish you could interview?

The president, ‘diba. I also want to talk to Cardinal Tagle [the Manila Archbishop]. Both gentlemen.

Why Cardinal Tagle?

I want to get his take on the current condition of our country, he hasn’t really talked. I’m just interested to pick his mind on how he feels, [how] Catholics should be reacting to what’s going on, what does he think about the war on drugs, siyempre the possibility of reinstating the death penalty … siyempre I know his stand, but I want to know what advice would he give Catholics, [considering] there’s a lot of fights going on in social media … you know, some spiritual enlightenment.