berthahenson

Feeling Stomped all over

In News Reports, Society on June 26, 2012 at 1:44 am

This Stomp fiasco brings back so many bad memories. Many moons ago, TNP had to apologise to ex-DPM Toh Chin Chye for saying that he had been charged with drunk driving. The whole stable of SPH newspapers had to get on its knees and apologise on page one, not on one day, but on several. The reporter was sacked and a couple of his superiors were removed from decision-making positions. A disciplinary inquiry took place which looked at the system of checks would should have prevented something like this from happening.

Suffice to say that it had to do with a reporter noted for bringing in the big scoops, a star whom editors believed in. It had to do with one anonymous source whom the reporter had past dealings with and had always delivered the goods so to speak. It had to do with keeping the story under wraps to prevent word leaking out to rival media. It had to do with getting the story out before the G could enter the picture and complicate matters. It had to do with editors who DID raise questions but decided to go with the judgment of the reporter.

In the end, the story turned out wrong.

I was in Australia when the news (or rather not news) broke. And when I returned to Singapore, I was given marching orders to go to TNP to fill the gaps left by the editors who had been disciplined and sidelined. Oh, I kicked and screamed all right! But in a newsroom, the editor points a gun to your head, and you go.

It was a subdued newsroom and I was given the leeway to re-organise and start new practices in it. I brought quite a lot of the ST systems to bear. A paper as old as ST has honed a robust system of checks, with high discipline standards and areas of accountability for all levels of staff.

Orders also came down from bosses – no more unidentified sources, at least two sources needed in a story, and there must be official confirmation of the facts. The rules were tightened considerably, and some journalists chafed that they look more aimed at killing stories, than getting them published. But they were good rules to ensure journalistic standards. Never mind if you lost the scoop, make sure you get the story right. Plug every hole. Account for every fact.

These are the sort of standards that distinguish a professional journalist from a blogger or a citizen journalist. Don’t just report stuff that’s circulating online or offline. Verify. Verify. Verify. Even if you get accused of “hiding” or “covering up”, never mind. Check first – and get the story right. It might well be that the rumour online/offline is false and fabricated. Then the story should not be run. Never mind if people saying you are “covering up”, you do not run the story simply because, there is NO story.

It’s been some time since the Toh Chin Chye saga. The people involved have been rehabiliated or have moved on. In the meantime, there is this thing called the Internet which is complicating journalists’ lives.

News or whatever is masquerading as news gets out faster.The faster it circulates, the more it assumes the status of truth.  The fuddy-duddy MSM will have go through all the lines of checks to suss out the facts. In the meantime, it is hit by barbs about being slow, late or self-censorship. Still journalistic standards must be held. Like who is really the person behind that email handle (real name, age, sex and occupation please). Is the so-called source a real source or a massive fraud? Is the picture doctored? If not, what is the source of the picture – who took it, when and where? Should this or that Internet poll be trusted or should you just poll people yourself? Is that really the person’s view or is someone else using his name? Does the fellow have an agenda, something to lobby for, axe to grind?

Only when all the bases are covered does something online make it into MSM. Tedious but necessary. Because people (most I believe) trust that what makes it into print is credible. It’s not as though MSM hasn’t broken great stories because of stuff online. Remember graffitti on MRT train? It came from a video posted online. ST, which broke the story, got the fellow who posted it, checked with police, SMRT and all manner of sources before deciding to run the story. And what a story!

Ironically it was about SMRT….

So MSM fails on several levels over the Stomp fiasco. Frankly, Stomp is just a collection of pictures contributed by people. And what gets posted should remain just that – contributions online. To get something from online to offline, those checks must kick in.

Yet, newspapers still carried that Stomp picture first. I don’t know why. Obviously, they didn’t think about the source of the picture, who posted it, and whether there is really any chance that doors can be left open while a train is moving. Hold your horses, hold the story, get the full story from source, wait for SMRT to check – and the story should not even have seen the light of day. It would have been another instance of MSM doing its checks, found the story false and not worth publishing.

Of course, if in the process, if it found its own staffers wanting, then disciplinary measures should kick in. Sack people. Demote. Suspend. Remove bonuses. Clean up the house. And heave a sigh of relief that you weren’t publish-happy.

I am terribly upset over the Stomp fiasco. Anyone who is or has ever been a journalist should be. Ethical standards have to be maintained, ingrained in all levels of journalists if I am to trust whatever MSM is saying. It’s wrong to fake stuff. And its wrong to let stuff through without checking. It’s not just Stomp which should clean house, the newspapers have to do the same too. Social media has made life harder, but really the checks are still the same. Maintain them.

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  1. I wonder how many people remember the Toh Chin Chye episode. It happened such a long time ago. Frankly speaking, SPH newspapers shouldn’t think in terms of scoops since they have a captive market. What matters is credibility, which. all said and done, SPH publications have. By the way, I am enjoying reading about your experiences as a former Straits Times/TNP editor. Won’t you be writing about Project Eyeball too?

    • Hello Abby,
      I won’t bring up the past unless it’s relevant to the present. So I guess Project Eyeball remains in the outer realm of consciousness.

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