~ By Bertha Henson ~
Many moons ago, I was on a panel interviewing a young woman who applied to be an ST journalist. She graduated from a reputable American journalism school, aced her writing test (by that, I mean she scored about 60 per cent – great feat!) and was articulate during her interview. She even had a portfolio of work, mainly travel pieces for a publication here. Seems like a sure hire – until I started making small talk.
“Wow! You were in Athens! I’ve never been there,” I said.
“I haven’t either,” she replied.
“Wait a minute, you have a piece here about eating dinner in Athens with this magnificent waiter hovering by. Clear night sky and all,” I said.
“That’s my friend,” she said.
Raised eyebrows do not suffice. It was a jaw-dropping moment for the three of us on the panel. That travel piece was a first-person account with plenty of I, me and myself in the article. She passed off second hand information as a first-person account? Her answer was that she interviewed her friend extensively, the information was accurate and her editor knew what she had done.
My fellow interviewer weighed in, basically amazed that some one from an American journalism school (I mean bastion of journalism right?) in a time when the Jayson Blair scandal was roiling the profession, could resort to such tactics. Her answer was that she desperately wanted a job in ST and she thought a portfolio would help her clinch it. I was thinking, Gosh, she doesn’t even know how to lie! Then again, I figure it was because she didn’t even seem to understand what she had done wrong; she was more concerned about telling us the lengths she went to to get to the interview stage.
So ironic. We would have hired her without her portfolio.
Anyway, we showed the young woman the door. She pleaded and pleaded. My fellow interviewer told her we couldn’t possible take someone on board whom we would have to check and counter-check. We’d be wondering if she fibbed or fabricated her reports.
It’s all about trust isn’t it? It’s not just about making sure that readers can trust that journalists report the facts.
Editors must trust that the journalists are telling them the truth too.
It’s not funny to have – or be – editors who cannot trust their journalists. Because the editor would be checking and counter-checking the journalists’ work, calling for notebooks, transcripts and checking with the journalists' newsmakers on what had transpired between them. That’s plenty of time spent.
Of course, there’s this layer of people in the media called sub-editors, whose role is also to do some fact-checking. Most times though, it is for accuracy – checking against past information, making dates and designations clear etc. But catching out a journalist who is determined to lie….? Tough.
That’s why I thought that STOMP fiasco about a content producer who uploaded the picture of the opened MRT door is so regrettable. Funny thing, I never expected trouble to come from in-house.
Over the years, I have wondered what would happen if a fake, scandalous, libellous picture was posted and STOMP and ST (despite prior disclaimers) had to take responsibility. STOMP editors have probably caught some of these fraud pictures before it went up. Still there were many instances when pictures posted even by the well-meaning don’t tell the whole story.
Like how an ex-colleague once had his picture posted on Stomp of him holding down a boy at mall. Postings came thick and fast accusing him of bullying the crying kid and what in heavens’ name was he up to etcetera. Fact is, he had caught the boy taking upskirt pictures and was holding him until the police got to the scene.
That’s the weakness of citizen journalism. Sometimes it doesn’t capture the context.
Like a man I know whose car was parked haphazardly in a HDB carpark and had the picture posted on STOMP. Again, recriminations came fast and furious. Fact is, the poor fellow was in a tizzy, running to get his pregnant wife from home to the hospital. Parked car badly for 10 minutes ya lah, but can be forgiven no?
But the current STOMP case takes the cake. The woman (I would never call her a journalist) was sacked. She conned her editors, posted a picture that she said was from a netizen named wasabi about an opened door at a station she never was at.
Then she brazenly tried to tough it out when SMRT came checking. Hey, opened door/moving train…safety issues no? She even stood by her story when her editor asked her about it. It was egg on the face for everyone.
One intriguing thing: She was actually interviewed by The New Paper first but it seemed it didn’t cotton that she was a STOMP staffer. It let her go by the name wasabi. I would have thought one big safeguard for any story is to know who is behind a name. It’s a standard check; due diligence.
Her lie would have been uncovered sooner because someone did the journalistic and professional thing – even if she didn’t.
This article first appeared on her blog. Bertha Henson is a former Associate Editor of The Straits Times.