Terence Lee / Youth Editor
It all started with an apparent misquote – Ms Agnes Lin, a 20-year-old undergraduate, accused ST journalist Nur Dianah Suhaimi of twisting her words and portraying her as a money-sucking daughter of middle income parents.
But the clincher was this: Ms Lin thought it “silly” that her friend would not ask her parents for money. Ms Lin, of course, vehemently denied this in her blog, saying that she told the journalist no such thing.
When bloggers heard about this incident, most of them were outraged. They poured scorn on the state-owned paper, and some criticised its links with the PAP despite the incident merely being an issue of journalistic ethics.
One common grouse that many netizens have against ST is this: the Agnes Lin incident has not been the first, and it seems that neither will it be the last. But even as bloggers “group hug” and share horror stories over their own experiences with misquotes, journalists themselves are not having it easy.
It is certainly not fun to find yourself constantly short on time, and yet having to write as accurately and objectively as possible.
Having interned at The Sunday Times myself for three months, I can certainly understand the time pressure that drives journalists out into the hustle and bustle of Singapore city and back into the office until the wee hours of the night to polish up their stories.
Given the frequent rush for deadlines, it is inevitable that misquotes occur, even if they are not deliberate.Even voice recorders are not foolproof – it is not realistic for the journalist to listen to the whole conversation again and again and rewrite everything down as there is simply not enough time. There is also the challenge of weaving the quotes into the story, and the original meaning could also be lost as a result of editing the quotes.
The solution is simple of course – call the newsmaker to check the quotes. But what if the newsmaker cannot be reached, and offstone is just one hour away? What if the newsmaker approves the quote, but the editor decides to change it at 1159pm at night?
Having said that, I believe journalists must do their best to be as professional as possible, in spite of the pressures from editors, newsmakers, and the clock.
In this instance, both Ms Lin and the reporter have stuck by their guns. Both claimed that their side of the story is right. Ms Lin continues to say the she has been misquoted, while the ST journalist has her notebook as proof of the conversation that transpired.
But while the journalist may claim accuracy in her report, it is debatable whether she had been objective. A quick read of the article will give an impression that Agnes indeed a spoilt brat, but that is because it had left out certain facts about her: that she had already stopped receiving allowance and is already paying for her own expenses.
Also, scanning across the different individuals profiled in the story, it is apparent that Ms Lin is a ‘thorn among the roses’ – she was the only one still living it up, it seemed.
At this point, it is debatable whether the journalist has deliberately portrayed her as a stereotypical spoilt brat, and whether her editors have also been responsible for the apparent misrepresentation of Ms Agnes Lin. This is something that only the newsroom can answer.
While the journalist’s name may appear on the story, it is in fact the editors who play a large role in how the article shapes out, including its nuances. In fact, it is exceedingly rare that the first draft will be similar to the final product that comes out in the newspaper, unless you totally understand what the editor wants.
On another note, this incident has also revealed the intricacies of the relationship between the press and the blogosphere. In Singapore, with The Straits Times being stripped of the “fourth estate” role by the government, it seems like netizens are filling the void.
With a million eyes trained upon the The Straits Times, there is no doubt that more than a dozen misquotes will surely be found in the paper any given Sunday. How can a few hundred journalists – try as they might – possibly scrutinise themselves better than an army of netizens? While I believe netizens should be more forgiving when it comes to pointing out faults in the mainstream media, papers like The Straits Times should also be more open to the criticisms that come its way.
Said media academic Cherian George in an email interview with TOC:
“Smart news media worldwide don’t leave it to external watchdogs: they recognise the marketing value of having effective and well-publicised internal checks, like the Washington Post’s Ombudsman. They are also using their own websites to be more transparent about their newsgathering process. Increasingly, a more engaged public will judge the professionalism of news media by the level of public accountability that they open themselves to, especially when they make mistakes that hurt relatively powerless individuals and groups. Professional news media should want to progress along these lines, since they say it’s their ethics that distinguish them from mere bloggers.”
Instead of a widening gulf between the blogosphere and the mainstream media, there should be a convergence. The mainstream media should recognise the potential to enhance its own credibility by enlisting the help of netizens as citizen-editors and news-gatherers. It should also review its newsgathering process to see how it can do things better.
One model to glean from would be South Korean news website OhmyNews: It utilises the services of 50 or so trained journalists plus over 30,000 citizen reporters which submit up to 200 articles on any given day.
Even if bloggers choose not to serve the high call of being a citizen reporter, they should also see themselves as a watchdog of the media, and instead of mere media-bashing, serving to help professional journalists do their job better.
To say that the mainstream media can no longer be trusted for information is too harsh a reaction for a misrepresentation that occurred within a 10cm column space within the folds of a Sunday paper. Singaporeans are known to be extremely efficient and detailed, but there is also a tendency to be too focused on the details and forget the larger picture.
Yes, we should be critical of the mainstream press, but we must also be reminded of the realities in Singapore: where else can you get your daily dose of news about the local scene?
Unless there is a credible newspaper or news website that is totally independent from government bias, we must make do with what we have for now.