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Civil society and netizens need to be mainstream press's watchdog, says Clarence Chua.

The war between bloggers and journalists rages on II

Clarence Chua / Guest Writer

The ST-Agnes Lin episode reveals the danger of unobjective journalism and how it should be dealt with

Unique insights! Instant recognition! Appearing in the papers has long been occasion for a spot of trumpet-blowing, but a new wind is rising, wafting away many would-be interviewees from The Straits Times’ journalists – for fear of their views being twisted in print.

Its source is the recent Agnes Lin tempest, where ST reporter Nur Dianah Suhaimi, in a Sunday Times article, had cast the NTU undergraduate as a spoon-fed adolescent bent on gratifying her bourgeois ways.

In a follow-up interview with The Online Citizen, Ms Lin highlighted, point-by-point, what she felt was blatant character fabrication. But Ms Dianah stands by the quotes in her journalist’s notepad – so who are we to believe?

While it is a case of the journalist’s words against the interviewee’s, it should never have come to this. As an influencer of national discourse, the duty to objectivity falls squarely on Ms Dianah. Yet her responses to TOC display a dangerous nonchalance towards this imperative.

Worrying Replies

Replying to TOC about whether the original interview and article was done fairly, the young reporter said, “Definitely. I might have left positive material (about Agnes) out due to space constraints, but there was a lot more information on her that wasn’t flattering which I left out too”.

Compare her retort to Singapore’s information minister confidence about the national broadsheet’s “ability and commitment to provide accurate and credible information with thoughtful analyses and objective commentaries”. Lee Boon Yang, speaking in late 2007 at his ministry's annual cocktail reception for foreign and local journalists, said that mainstream newspapers and broadcasters had, to their credit, "professionalism and objectivity".

Ms Dianah’s response to TOC flies in the face of this assurance. A piece could be completely accurate yet utterly unobjective, if it lacks a balancing point of view. In her caricature of Agnes The Spoilt, Ms Dianah failed to include at least one instance where Ms Lin had paid for something herself – despite knowing, among other things, that she self-funded her Bangkok trip.

Even Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter – silver screen’s greatest villains – are granted some redeeming qualities. Movie-goers can connect with them for that sliver of deliverance; none was given to the hapless Ms Lin.

The result: widespread scorn, descending to an online threat to rob the 20 year-old to ‘teach her a lesson’. A journalist piling on the dirt – while knowingly omitting the positives – displays not only barefaced disregard for “professionalism and objectivity”, but threatens the emotional and physical well-being of interviewees.

In the days after the ST report appeared, Ms Lin had cried herself to sleep, distressed at this exploding enmity. Ms Dianah’s lack of contriteness – and transference of blame to netizens for this – is both audacious and naïve:

“I certainly regret the distress this has caused her, we never expected this to happen, and we understand this has caused her some trauma. Still, she shouldn’t be worried about what people online are saying about her because a lot of netizens aren’t held accountable and can be quite nasty.”

She later said she only wanted to portray the ‘carefree’ side of Agnes, but she fails to realise that how the article is written and how it is considered is directly linked. Ms Dianah’s imbalanced, skewed construct of Ms Lin directly caused the distress.

In the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI) where Ms Dianah and I graduated from, every undergraduate is taught to trawl the proverbial seabed to net the most suitable interviewees for the story angle. In simpler words, if the interviewee’s profile is ill-fitting, kill it.

But Ms Dianah herself admits her piece on Ms Lin is stunted, causing it to degenerate into incompleteness and inaccuracy:

“This put me in a quandary. I couldn’t say she was paying her bills through part time work, as her tuition grant guidelines prevent her from moonlighting,” said the journalist. “I also couldn’t reveal that she was being given an allowance under the tuition bond as she had explicitly asked me not to, so I chose to leave it out”.

Without going into the specifics of the matter, Ms Dianah compromised essential information to fulfill the ‘sheltered kid’ archetype. Such a portrayal grates against “credible information with thoughtful analyses” – it should not have been cleared by the editor, much less written. To ask whether Singaporeans can trust the ST’s editorial policy with their reputations is apt.

Checking the snowball effect

Writing skewed articles and settling on an ill-fitting interviewee: honest mistakes or second-rate work ethics? A few of my ex-classmates now working in the mainstream media shrugged when told of the Agnes story. Why kick up a fuss when this is something that happens all the time? The attitude, summarized, seems to be: “it’s always been done like that.”

This oft-heard refrain detracts from the key performance indicator of the job: to deliver under demanding circumstances. Confirmed Mr Leslie Foong, the former Editor of the Straits Times, in a quote taken from the Singapore Press Club website:

“Whether in writing news stories or features, properly trained journalists check and double-check their facts, set these in context, work in relevant background information, insist on objectivity and balance, organise their material so their account flows smoothly and logically...”

Judging solely from Ms Dianah’s responses, she misses many of these ABCs of the trade.

The more critical observers are universalising the lack of trust they feel towards Ms Dianah to the whole of ST. Yet others say that’s too harsh a reaction: “For every one misquote,” commented Mr Terence Lee, an NTU undergraduate who co-wrote the TOC piece, “there must be ten others that are accurate”.

But the snowball effect is real: one rolling imbalanced article will gather many more, if left unchecked. That the ST is the monopoly English daily here adds to the descending spectre – if throwing journalism ethics out of the window is a systemic habit, readers will surely lose trust and affection for their ‘beloved ST’.

Given that the national broadsheet is here to stay regardless, civil society and netizens need to step up to help be its watchdog. Considering ST’s lack of a Washington Post-style Ombudsman, this group should practice their own ABCs of the Fifth Estate: analysing, brooding-over, and constructively criticising the press.

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