By Carlton Tan / Article first published on "Asian Correspondent"
According to The Online Citizen (TOC), Amos Yee’s mother did not file a police report to have her son arrested, contrary to a report in the Straits Times (ST) which suggested that she did. Mrs Mary also did not have her son declared to be beyond her control, as the Straits Times suggests; she merely said that she was unable to get through to him on some issues (and she also said that he behaved normally in other areas). This is probably one of the worst examples of misrepresentation by the Straits Times and a sad case of its failure to uphold journalistic integrity.
There are three problems here.
1) The statement by the “reliable source” plainly contradicts Mrs Yee’s police report. She never declared that her son was beyond control. By suggesting that she did, ST gives the impression that Mrs Yee wanted the state to take custody of her child, or something to that effect. But that is not true. She had in fact said in the police report that Amos behaved normally at home, and she was only unable to get through to him on the issue of his video and his blog posts. ST’s report is a blatant misrepresentation of the facts. It attributes to Mrs Yee a declaration that she never made and gives readers a false impression of her attitude towards her own child.
2) Who is this “reliable source” that said Mrs Yee filed a police report declaring that her son was beyond control? Anonymous sources should only be used when absolutely necessary. In this case, ST journalists should have approached Mrs Yee directly or tried to get hold of the actual contents of the police report, rather than rely on an unnamed source. This is not the first time ST journalists have relied on “reliable sources” to make spurious allegations, allegations that could have been confirmed by speaking to the principal participants. If TOC can do it, why can’t ST with its vast resources? When asked to clarify the source, the ST reporter denied public accountability, coyly asking Mrs Yee to talk to him instead. As if she would after that distasteful misrepresentation.
3) ST gives the impression that Mrs Yee has given up on her child and has adopted an adversarial attitude towards him. This impression is emphasised in the title of its article: “Mother of Amos Yee… says son is beyond control”. But this is patently untrue. Her police report was in fact a plea for help. She said: “I would like to seek the proper agency to help my son, to put him through counselling”. To twist a plea for help into a claim that her son is beyond control is a blatant misrepresentation and indicative of sensationalism.
The news report thus seems designed to attract views by playing on people’s disgust with Amos Yee and suggesting that even his own mother has given up on him. This is despite the fact that Mrs Yee’s police report clearly stated otherwise. In fact, according to TOC, “Mrs Mary expressed her displeasure to TOC that her police report and public apology appears to be associated or counted together with the other police reports lodged to have her son arrested.” The ST account therefore does not accord with the facts and appears to have been intentionally sensationalist.
Why does this bother me? Misrepresentations like these are not just unethical, they undermine public trust too. As an established news organisation, the Straits Times ought to know better. It’s repeated failure to uphold its integrity doesn’t just hurt its own reputation (which partly explains the 154th ranking in the World Press Freedom Index), it also hurts people’s trust in journalists in general. If trained journalists working for an established organisation with a long institutional memory repeatedly misrepresent the subject of their reports, what will people think of those who work independently or are part of smaller organisations?
In the end, unethical journalism deters people from coming forward with information or agreeing to interviews, which hurts the free flow of information and affects all of us. For all our sakes, I hope the Straits Times gets its act together.