MSM: You don’t need the G’s help. Really

In News Reports, Politics on July 12, 2014 at 4:17 am

There’s an interesting column in ST today calling for a re-think of the role of the media. The key issue is whether the role of the media is to strengthen the public trust in the G and if so, how to go about doing it. The writer sort of skims over the question of whether this should be the role. Instead, he plunges more quickly into how this should be done – if so.

He talks about the old knuckle duster approach of ex-PM Lee Kuan Yew and the gentler hand of the G these days, focused more on cajoling and persuading journalists and editors to “do the right thing’’ (my words). There is a mention of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, but he does not call for a re-look of this piece of legislation with its annual renewal of publishing licences and allotment of “management’’ shares.

Instead he asks that the Government “help strengthen public trust in the media’’. It can do this by being forthcoming with data so that the media can do a better job of reporting and analysing the news, he said. Then he segues into how the MSM must be a thought leader that contributes a diversity of views – without saying what role the G plays in this regard. Instead comes an exhortation that the G should “respect and trust’’ MSM journalists to act in the interests of the nation, and give them a wider space to operate in.

It’s an old familiar rumble. MSM would never call for a re-look of the legislation or any regulations that govern them. I doubt that any editor or publisher would let such questioning of media rules see light of the day. It therefore has to resort to asking for the G to be more transparent with information and wield less of a big stick when it publishes more “controversial’’ views. As for what sort of “persuading’’ and “cajoling’’ is done, just go read my ex-boss’ book, OB Markers.

But I think the writer has got the wrong end of the stick. There is really no need to ponder over whether it is MSM’s job to strengthen public’s trust in the G, even less how the G can “help’’. It is MSM’s job to strengthen the public’s trust in the media by professional reporting that would make BOTH the G and the people turn to it as a conduit of information and views. That has always been the role of journalism, unbeholden to any institution or in need of outside “help’’. Both the people and the G must trust the media – it is the mediator, middle ground for both sides to connect with each other.

The writer laments the criticisms levelled at MSM, calling some of them unfair. I agree. The MSM is fair game precisely because it is so closely identified with the G – that’s why I really don’t think the writer should be asking the G for “help’’. So there are plenty of online rants about MSM being biased towards the G and having a pro-G spin. Most of them are just that, “rants’’. A word from the wise (namely, ahh, me) to young journalists who are disheartened: Pay them no heed. There is only one thing the MSM journalists should consider: and it is whether you have done the best journalistic job you can, especially in the business of asking the tough questions which seems to be an increasingly rare trait.

But MSM must take seriously legitimate complaints about its work. Whether they are about grammar mistakes, factual errors or lack of perspective in reporting. This is no longer a field in which MSM plays alone; there are too many sources out there that serve as counter-checks. Keep professional reporting standards high and people will trust you. So will the G. No need for any help. Just help yourself.
At the risk of preaching/teaching/over-reaching, I would like to suggest the following steps for MSM :

a. If the G doesn’t want to give you info for any reason, you must always tell readers you asked for the info and say why it wasn’t given. This is to make clear to readers that you know what your job is about. There is a temptation to ignore this because the journalist’s job is to give information you’ve gathered. So nothing gets said when nothing is gathered. But in many instances, you should also show that you’ve tried especially if there’s a big hole in your article which the readers expected you to fill. Do this often enough and, perhaps, the G will be shamed into telling you the next time.

b. Even if the G doesn’t want to give you data, go around it by asking experts or near-experts to give an estimate/guess-estimate. If it is wrong, the G will correct. If the G doesn’t correct, then the G is complicit in abetting the circulation of false info. Very soon, the G will realise that it is better for it to fill in info gaps, than let others do it for them or speculate.

c. Name everybody in your story, INCLUDING spokesmen. Again, the temptation is to keep stories short and say ministry spokesman or agency spokesman instead of naming the person. G spokesmen will be more aware that they are talking to “people’’ if they are named. And held accountable to more people than just their bosses. It is also rude for a spokesman to think that he/she doesn’t owe the reader a name.

d. More on names…for goodness sake, try and name everybody in a story instead of resorting to quoting Netizen rubbish123 or porkypig. It’s plain sloppy and gives the idea that that was the only “appropriate’’ quote that you can get. And by the way, please go beyond getting the views of 20somethings because it is becoming too obvious that young journalists are canvassing their friends.

e. Try not to go for label headlines on G news that don’t give news. Motherhood headlines like Parliament wraps up debate or So-and-so on need for social defence isn’t doing you any favour. (And I’m not even saying how the G comes out looking. Nag, nag, nag.)

f. Avoid the temptation to “rah rah’’ G news. It’s enough just to report the facts without any adverbs or adjectives to dress them up. All you need to do is remember that you are not writing advertising copy. Serious. It works wonders if you can discard phrases like how people can LOOK FORWARD to something or will WELCOME something or say that they CHEERED something. Just report facts.

g. Have a proper policy on what should remain online and what should go into print. I have yet to hear any media say how it selects news that emanate from the online sphere for print, which I assume is still the anchor medium. So what is the MSM definition of viral? This is important because it saves those online from guessing WHY something made it into print/and why something didn’t. Stops people speculating on whether there are other motivations that aren’t clearly “editorial’’ behind the choices.

h. Even as there are online posters who castigate MSM, the media should also stop painting online views as just noise and rubbish from a “vocal minority’’. It doesn’t make you any friends and a careful look will show that there are plenty of views online that are far better, deeper and richer than most letters the MSM print. So acknowledge that there are good views out there as well.

Anyway, that’s my one cent worth. Journalists can take it or leave it. No skin off my nose. Really.

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