Quah Zheng Jie, a 25-year-old student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) took to Facebook to call out national Chinese daily Lianhe Wanbao for fabricating an interview based on his COVID-19 experience.
The article in question is titled, “阻断措施期间足不出户 南大生不解为何染疫“, which roughly translates to “NTU Student does not understand how he got COVID-19 even though he stayed home during the CB Period”.
In a long note on his Facebook page on Sunday (10 May), Mr Quah first called out the title of the article, saying, “This is misleading because it suggests and perpetuates the idea that people can get COVID-19 even if they stay home. The clickbait nature of the headline which merely unsettles public confidence when reassurance is most needed.”
He slammed the publication for being “extremely irresponsible” especially in these times of heightened anxiety, given that their main audience are older folks who might simply take the headline at face value.
How it all started?
Mr Quah explained that he decided to use Instagram stories to document his journey to recovery from COVID-19 and to reassure his family and friends that he is recovering well and is being taken care of by the Government since he can’t see them while in quarantine.
Unfortunately, his Instagram stories were picked up by an “acquaintance” who is a Lianhe Waobao reporter. Mr Quah said that the subsequent interactions led to “distress and anxiety” on top of the discomfort and pain he is already experiencing while recovering from COVID-19.
The journalist for Lianhe Wanbao—which is owned by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH)—first approached Mr Quah on Instagram on 1 May to ask for his consent to use photographs that Mr Quah had taken and uploaded on his Instagram stories. The reporter was identified as “James”, though that is not his real name.
Mr Quah wrote, ““James” sought my consent to use photographs which I had taken and uploaded to my Instagram stories, meant to be up for 24hrs on the account, @quahzhengjie. I stated categorically to “James” that I do not consent to the use of my photographs or any of my personal information relating to my experience.”
Mr Quah shared several screenshots of the conversation showing “James” asking if he can do a “small write up” about Mr Quah’s experience and Mr Quah’s response saying no and that he doesn’t want to “dramatise” the virus.
“James” pushed and asked if Mr Quah would tell him “casually” what it was like inside the quarantine facility and whether he would share some photos of the environment and the food. The journalist also noted that he wouldn’t publish Mr Quah’s name or face.
Again, Mr Quah declined. He also directed the “James” to an earlier Mothership article which already includes photos that were the “same”.
In his note, Mr Quah said, ““James” acknowledged my refusal of consent. It is even more damning that he recognised my refusal but still went behind my back to use my content to fabricate his story.”
Despite Mr Quah’s refusal, this journalist went on to use Mr Quah’s photographs and details of his experience, including personal information in the Lianhe Wanbao article published on 7 May.
“In that article, “James” also claimed that he interviewed me. This statement is patently false,” added Mr Quah.
Called out on violating ethics of journalism
After the article was published, Mr Quah said he was mortified when a friend told him that her father has read the article and deduced that the journalist was writing about him.
He said, “This highlights how easy it was to identify me. A check with NTU also confirmed that I was the only 25-year-old male NTU student with COVID-19.”
Beyond simply using Mr Quah’s photos and details without consent, the journalist had apparently also built a “fictional picture” of Mr Quah, according to the note.
Mr Quah explained, ““James” had used my content I posted on Instagram stories, as a basis to make up an entire story including personal details on my family, my daily activities prior to the CB period, during the CB period, these were FALSE.”
He slammed the journalist for crossing the lines of ethical journalism, saying, “‘James’” conduct is a gross and serious violation of fundamental journalistic ethics.”
Mr Quah said he then called out the journalist on his Instagram stories and on Lianhe Wanbao’s Facebook page to raise his concerns over this “false reporting” and “illegal use” of his photos.
After doing this, the journalist became aware the Mr Quah had found out about the article. He reached out to Mr Quah on 7 May and referred to the incident as a “misunderstanding”. However, Mr Quah was not so forgiving, describing James’ excuse as “ridiculous” given that he has clearly refused the initial request.
Mr Quah added, “I refuse to believe that SPH Journalists do not understand what “No” means.”
Information was false
Lianhe Wanbao then changed the photo on the article to a generic image of D’Resort, which is serving as a Government quarantine facility. However, the journalists “work of fiction” was still up at the time of Mr Quah’s writing.
As such, Mr Quah said he reached out to the editors of the publication to highlight the issue.
The response he received was that an internal investigation revealed that the journalist has written the story based on Mr Quah’s social media posts and had made the “wrong judgment” to mention that Mr Quah had been interviewed although he had refused to do so.
“However, this disregards the fact that “James” had fabricated his own fictional work,” said Mr Quah in his note.
“The only things I have posted were about how I felt of my stay at EXPO and had since been moved to D’Resort. The article mentioned my family, my daily activities prior to being admitted to the hospital, where I lived, whether I went out during the Circuit Breaker Period. These are all FALSE information.“
He continued, “Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting, and interpreting information. Yet, from what “James” did, his fabricated tales have caused panic.”
On the Hardware Zone forum on 7 May, user buibuicheong shared images of Mr Quah’s Instagram stories in which he had apparently posted screenshots of a conversation he had with a friend where he notes that certain details in the article, like his surname, was altered.
Mr Quah’s friend also noted that the article is so detailed that it appears that he was actually interviewed. Mr Quah’s screenshots of the conversation were accompanied with comments that this was “quite scary” and “super unethical”
Mr Quah said that given there are only 6 NTU students with the virus so far, the article makes it easy for him to be identified as the person the story is about.
Causing unnecessary panic in the community
Expanding on the point of panic, Mr Quah noted that while the online article has been taken down, the printed version remains within the community and this “untruthful reporting” has impacted the wider community.
Mr Quah outlined the impact of the article:
- Causing unnecessary panic amongst the NTU Community (as seen from NTU Confessions)
- LHZB/LHWB Facebook posts which are now deleted, netizens who reposted the story speculated that even staying home is dangerous.
- Foreign news sites have also picked up on the story, even though it is not a factual story.
(As of 11 May 2020 2030, the story is still online.)
He added, “This story basically used my identity and my COVID-19 experiences to cook up an article that caused panic, and at the same time monetised by [Lianhe Wanbao].”
Mr Quah later commented in his note about how the journalist had chosen to sensationalise the pandemic.
“Not only did “James” make up this entire piece of fictional work. It is troubling that he chose to use it as a vehicle to sensationalise the COVID-19 situation with such a headline,” he said.
“I strongly believe that news must be factual, impartial, and accurate,” he added.
Mr Quah called out Lianhe Wanbao for being irresponsible in its handling of this situation by simply deleting the post and article without a retraction, apology or clarification.
Mr Quah has received backlash over the article
On top of the effect this has had on the community, Mr Quah also said this entire saga has caused him emotional and psychological distress.
He said, “I think no one is able to comprehend the shock I felt when I saw my own story being published on the news like that. I have been dealing with COVID-19, and not disclosing much about my experience to anybody because I wanted to avoid the attention, and avoid dramatising/sensationalising the virus.”
“Yet, I woke up from my rest to see my own pictures and experiences being circulated via the media, without my consent. It felt like a true betrayal of trust.”
Mr Quah said he has also received many “hateful” and “blunt” comments by various people online who speculate that he was being untruthful and non-compliant on contact tracing and circuit breaker measures.
“This adds on to the unnecessary stress that comes with trying to recover from COVID-19, being away from my family and friends for so long,” he said.