Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa has publicly criticized Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), stating that their annual Digital News Report employs flawed research which puts journalists and independent media organizations at risk, especially in the global south. Ressa’s criticisms were detailed in an interview published by The Guardian.
This comes as RISJ released its Digital News Report 2023 on Wednesday (14 Jun). The report, based on a YouGov survey of over 93,000 online news consumers across 46 markets, paints a picture of a news landscape transformed by social media, diminished trust, and financial constraints.
Ressa, an internationally respected journalist and co-founder of the media outlet Rappler, disclosed to The Guardian that she resigned from RISJ’s advisory board last year due to profound concerns about the methodologies utilized in the Digital News Report.
She pinpointed the report’s listing of Rappler, the work of which was integral to her Nobel nomination, as the least trusted media outlet in a survey conducted in the Philippines.
In the interview, Ressa told The Guardian, “Last year I resigned from the board because I thought it was horrendous that they went ahead with it and that it was weaponised and used against us, at a critical time. Government officials were quoting Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism to attack us.”
Despite initially deciding to keep her resignation private, Ressa felt compelled to air her concerns publicly this year after witnessing a lack of action in addressing them.
One of her primary criticisms of the Digital News Report, which is partially funded by Google, is its failure to consider the influence and effects of disinformation campaigns, particularly in countries where the government utilizes its powers to undermine free press.
RISJ’s website reveals that Google News Initiative had donated over £1 million (US$1.26 million) while Thomson Reuters Foundation contributed £0.4 million (US$0.56 million) for FY2021/2022.
Furthermore, Ressa pointed out that the report doesn’t adequately reflect the bias present in tech platforms that control news distribution, nor does it account for the damage wrought by disinformation campaigns.
She stated, “This ‘study’ is like giving a loaded gun to autocratic governments trying to silence independent journalists not just in the Philippines but in countries like Brazil and India, where information operations and the lawfare are used to persecute, harass, and chill.”
In response to Ressa’s comments, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the director of the RISJ, issued a lengthy statement, part of which read: “We are sorry that our work has been abused to attack her and her colleagues, and we are sorry to hear she has told the Guardian that she thinks our work and our methodology risks undermining media in the global south.”
He continued: “We deplore abuse against Maria Ressa and misrepresentation of our research…We believe it is robust. We have taken steps to mitigate abuse, push back against it, and will continue to do so…We always want to listen to substantial input. Based on the input we have received and the various reviews we have conducted internally, with our country partners, and with our Advisory Board, we stand by our research methods, the results, the team involved, and the country partners we work with across the globe.”
Extra special attention was given to the trust score recorded in the survey for Philipines in the Digital News Report 2023.
The report notes:
“Overall trust in news, boosted to some extent by the COVID-19 pandemic as Filipinos
came to rely more on the news media, remains stable at 38%. Many of the longest
established media brands such as GMA Network and the Philippine Daily Inquirer have
relatively high levels of trust but some independent outlets respected for their
reporting on those in positions of power are often actively distrusted by supporters of
the politicians in question and subject to coordinated harassment, so scores should
not be seen as a measure of the quality or trustworthiness of the content.”