Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) issued an open letter to readers earlier today (13 May) to share its side of the story and apologise to the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) student following the article titled “阻断措施期间足不出户 南大生不解为何染疫“ – “NTU Student perplexed at how he contracted COVID-19 virus” – in which the reporter was alleged to have fabricated an interview based on the student’s COVID-19 experience.
Earlier on 10 May, the NTU student, Quah Zheng Jie called out Chinese daily Lianhe Wanbao – which is owned by SPH – in a Facebook post, stating that the reporter had used his Instagram stories – that documented his journey to recovery from the COVID-19 – and fabricated an interview in the article despite acknowledging his “refusal of consent”.
Mr Quah indicated that “it is even more damning” that the reporter acknowledged his refusal but still went behind his back to use his content to fabricate the story.
The open letter, which was penned by the editor of NewsHub at SPH, Han Yong May, explained that the story was not fabricated by the reporter, but was written based on Mr Quah’s social media posts.
She remarked, “In addition, the story was not fabricated. The details were based on extracts from Mr Quah’s social media posts.”
“We sincerely apologise to Mr Quah, as we should not have attributed the story we ran to an interview with him when he expressly declined the interview request. This incident serves as a timely reminder to us, that we should constantly review our working procedures and reiterate to our colleagues the importance of adhering to journalistic principles and processes,” Ms Han wrote.
According to Ms Han, the newsroom management has conducted an internal investigation after receiving Mr Quah’s email on 7 May pertained to the issue. The management took down the article from its website and social media after the reporter admitted that he did not interview Mr Quah.
“We further explained to Mr Quah that the reporter had written the story based on Mr Quah’s social media posts, and that the reporter “had made a mistake and a wrong judgement to mention in the article that you were interviewed despite the fact that you said you were not willing to. We apologise for the wrong attribution and the inconvenience caused,” she asserted.
Ms Han also clarified that the news was not published by Lianhe Zaobao, but instead was published by Lianhe Wanbao. She stated, “As zaobao.sg carries the content of SPH’s three Chinese news dailies, readers and the public alike assumed that the article was carried in Lianhe Zaobao, which was not the case.”
In explaining the rationale of publishing the story, Ms Han noted that the reporter had worked on the story since mid of April when the ‘circuit breaker’ has started. She noted that there were untraceable COVID-19 cases in Singapore at that time, which then became the focus of their reporting.
The reporter, who is acquainted with Mr Quah, found his Instagram stories fit the news angle and contacted Mr Quah via Instagram to request for an interview. When the request was declined by Mr Quah, the reporter proceeded to use Mr Quah’s Instagram stories and his personal understanding of Mr Quah for the article, but the article was portrayed as an interview piece.
Ms Han clarified that the reporter’s immediate supervisor was not informed about Mr Quah’s refusal of consent for the interview, adding that the reporter has failed to follow the protocols and the company’s news reporting standards.
“The newsroom has in place strict protocols and procedures to ensure that our news reporting standards are upheld. In this instance, the reporter had not followed the procedures and protocols expected of all our journalists. As Mr Quah had declined to be interviewed, the reporter could still have written the article, making reference to the facts publicly available, e.g. public social media posts, but should not portray it as an interview piece,” she said.
Ms Han added that Mr Quah’s family circumstances and surname were changed to protect Mr Quah’s identity but the reporter was given no permission to do so. In fact, the reporter also failed to follow the company’s protocol to indicate that alias was used to protect the identity of the news source.
“These actions also constituted a deviation from our protocols,” she remarked.
Mr Quah in his second email had urged the newsroom management to consider dismissing the reporter, but Ms Han explained that the reporter is still new and just joined the newsroom two months ago.
“Although the reporter has indeed made a mistake, the reporter has been truthful in admitting his mistake and expressing his remorse for misleading readers and impacting the newspaper’s reputation. We need to carefully consider if there are mitigating factors for someone who is just starting off his career,” she stated.
If a reporter or staff is alleged to have violated any protocols or code of conduct, he or she has the right to a proper investigation process and hearing, said Ms Han, as she highlighted the company’s disciplinary system.
She hinted that an independent disciplinary committee will be set up to review the case and decide on the penalties for the reporter. Meanwhile, SPH will take responsibility as an employer by addressing the mistake and take measures to prevent further recurrences.