Monday, 14 May 2012

Lowest of the low in journalism - Eric Loo

‘Oh Carol, I’m a bloody fool; darling I love you, so you treat me cool.’ That was what I thought I heard from the radio. That was how, as a kid, I sang Neil Sedaka’s 60s hit until I checked out the lyrics in an old musty songbook. 

Oh, journo, you’re a bloody fool when you sing your political master’s tune without a bother to check the original script. And, bloody guttered is your paper when it falsifies, fabricates and intentionally misrepresents to peddle a political message.

Just like Utusan Malaysia in its May 1 article, and repeated the next day in New Straits Times (NST), which turned an Australian senator, Nick Xenophon, into a xenophobe. NST retracted and contritely apologised after the senator, with hearty support from Malaysians, threatened to sue for defamation. Utusan apologised on May 12.

Utusan's and NST’s falsification of Xenophon’s speech delivered in the Australian parliament on Nov 17, 2009 marks the lowest of the low in journalism standards. Any educated sceptical reporter will ask “Did I hear it right?”

As in real life, always assume that there are alternative views. Each ‘fact’ can always be countered if you research and talk to different sources. Any reporter with a modicum sense of accuracy and fairness will know to cross-check with the original source the veracity of controversial political statements. It doesn’t take much effort these days to Google search. 

Sure, journalists are not infallible. Lapses in ethical practice and news judgment happen due to the short news cycle and thus the rush to judgment, misattribution of sources, misquoting, and, in the Malaysian newsroom culture, editors slanting the news on cue by the authorities.

Errors happen often because journalists deal with human sources who see the world through tinted glasses. But, as ‘professionals’, journalists are duty bound to check and verify. Failing which are reports that are based on assumptions, generalisations and biases exacerbated by a lack of context.

NONEFor instance, the video clip of a traffic policeman drawing and pointing his gun at Bersih 3.0 protesters. What provoked him to draw his gun? Was he attacked by the protesters - as this video from the BBC news report showed? See the parts deleted in the Malaysian mainstream media version?

A moment captured on a smartphone cannot possibly tell the whole story. Context is often compromised. These days with the deluge of user-generated contents online, facts and fiction converge. We, the public, need to be more critical, and sceptical, of both the mainstream and online media reports of the Bersih protests.

‘If in doubt, check it out’

Errors happen when journalists report what they think they heard. The tried and true principle of reporting is if in doubt of what you heard, check it out. If you can’t, then leave it out. 

Errors happen when journalists misinterpret the underlying meaning of words. For example, it’s commonly written that counter-terrorism agents resorted to electrocuting prisoners to extract information. The fact is you cannot extract information from someone who has been electrocuted because they’re dead.

china press and nude ear squat report controversy 040106Errors happen when journalists fail to differentiate between facts, opinions and claims. Errors happen when journalists turn speculation into specification. For example the well-known nude squat gaffe by China Press (Jan 10, 2006) , which broke the story of a phone video recording of a woman held for visa violations being forced to do ‘nude squats’ while in police custody. The paper identified the victim as a Chinese national, who turned out to be a local Malay.

One of the funnier examples of media gaffes was The Independent newspaper of London in an article about Mahatma Gandhi. It ran a photo of Ben Kingsley, the actor who played him in the film, instead of the real Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Or the Chicago Tribune, in one of its Sunday Travel sections, which in an infographic incorrectly placed the Atlantic Ocean near San Francisco. The city is beside the Pacific Ocean.

Or, the word ‘pubic’ instead of ‘public’; ‘would’ instead of ‘could’; ‘you’re’ and ‘your’, ‘their’ and ‘there’; ‘quiet’ and ‘quite’.

For a list of media errors, follow ‘Regret the Error’, a blog founded by Craig Silverman, former managing editor of PBS Media Shift, and current adjunct faculty member at The Poynter Institute.

A site hosted on the Freedom Forum based in Washington DC, also keeps track of journalists caught for plagiarism and fabrication - the most well-known being Stephen Glass who cooked up stories and quotes as a young upstart at The New Republic in New York from 1995-98.

His exposure was turned into a movie, Shattered Glass, released in October 2003, about five months after Jayson Blair, an intern at the New York Times, was caught out for plagiarising stories and fabricating quotes about American soldiers in Iraq.

Another good resource is Media Watch broadcast every Monday evening on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Its host, Jonathan Holmes, noted in February 2010 that “the power that journalists have to criticise, shame, ridicule or expose other individuals and institutions is very seldom used to scrutinise each other”.

“The watchdogs - the Australian Press Council and the Australian Communications and Media Authority - are slow, legalistic, and relatively toothless. By contrast, Media Watch is swift, and when necessary, brutal.” Malaysians need a similar vigilant and brutal media watch body.

Avoiding future gaffes

How can Malaysian journalists avoid future gaffes? Common sense really. Always clarify, cross-examine and verify with the original source what you hear, read or see. Just because Najib Abdul Razak or Hishammuddin Hussein says it does not necessarily mean it’s accurate or true. Know the different languages, euphemisms, generalisations and ‘double-speak’ of politicians and special interest groups. 

Malaysian journalists’ deference to authority and inclination to give more space to sources whose views confirm and reinforce their own biased view of the world poses one of the most insidious attack on media integrity and cheats the people of their right to fair, truthful and accurate reporting. 

Indeed, we need an independent Institute of Journalists proposed on World Press Freedom Day on May 3 at the National Press Club  to teach and train future journalists, which apparently the NUJ and local journalism schools are not doing too well.

ERIC LOO left Malaysia for Australia in 1986 to work as a journalist. He currently lectures at University of Wollongong, Australia, and also mentors international journalism students via UPIU.com, run by United Press International. He edits a refereed journal Asia Pacific Media Educator published by SAGE Publications (New Delhi) and conducts journalism training workshops in Asia. Email: eloo@uow.edu.au

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