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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

News Reports

Training the untrained

The thing about being employed is, well, you have to work….So here I am (physically) at Tembusu College in U-town on a Saturday, in a nice studio apartment, hammering at the keyboard, facing some trees. Not Tembusus though. And I forgot that on Saturdays, the residential college’s dining hall doesn’t open and had to contend myself with an expensive breakfast at the nearby 24-hour Starbucks. A breakfast that costs more than $6 is expensive in my books…

Yep, Starbucks is at U-town, so is Fish&Co, Subway, an Italian restaurant, a Korean one and Old Hong Kong. Cheap and good by working adult standards though I am not sure how many undergrads can afford a coffee at Stabucks everyday.

I am waiting for the start of Family Day or actually, waiting to see how a group of aspiring journalists will go about covering the event. This is assignment No, 2 and I am already thinking to myself: What did I let myself in for?

Assignment No. 1 took place on Thursday, a forum with four experts on that gigantic topic known as Climate Change. Truth to tell, I have never been too interested in this issue in my past life. Carbon credits, sustainable development (so glad I was to hear one expert describe it as mere rhetoric!), and all that diplomatic-speak about frameworks and conventions…sheesh. Just keep Singapore clean lah.

But, man, I had to be an instant expert on this. The great thing about journalism though is that, whatever the topic, the principles of reporting and writing are the same. But after being so long in newsrooms among trained people who share them, it was a bit of a shock to find out that I had to start from scratch with the un-trained.

I was glad to have good students; ready and willing to take advice and who would ask me questions. One told me that I had rocked all the assumptions about journalism she learnt in school when I suggested a different way of writing an article. “But is that a news story?” she asked. “Or is it feature?” Frankly, I never bothered about such distinctions in my former professional life. Every article is about story-telling, after all.

Another who was all wound up to interview the Forum’s chairman, Prof Tommy Koh, rang me before the forum started with what he said was a “tragic update” (very journalistic I thought). The Prof wasn’t turning up, he said. Never mind, I said, his article (to commemorate the 20 years since Prof Koh chaired the first Earth summit) was still good to go.

Another wanted some basic tips on how to ask questions – Go up to the mike, introduce yourself and ask the question, I said. What question do you want to ask anyway? Turns out he had some general idea but hadn’t framed anything yet.  (I find this a common problem – nobody knows how to ask questions anymore, and if they do ask one, it’s a general question like How do FEEL or What do you THINK?) Anyway, we formulated a proper question for him. I caught him rehearsing his one question in the college lounge before the forum started. I was pretty chuffed to see that he was the first one at the mike at question-time. Wow. Thick skin, I thought.

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Most of them didn’t have thick skins – a basic pre-requisite for a journalist. Or maybe they didn’t prepare themselves well enough for the trauma of speaking to someone they don’t know. There we were in the multi-purpose hall with the speakers already present.  There was still time to “get” them before they went on stage, I said. Go, go, there’s the woman you want to get. How? How to do this, was the reply. Guess it is not in everybody’s DNA to just go up to someone, introduce themselves and make small talk.

So I got up instead, hoping that the rest will follow. They didn’t.

Nor was it easy for the less thick-skinned to do a door-stop methinks. Go get a copy of that fellow’s slides at the end of the forum, I said. In the end, I got up myself because the expert was about to exit the building. The good news is, they followed and had their own interview with a couple of the speakers. I gathered that another student cornered an expert outside the hall on his way to the car. Way to go!!

They might be shy and not fast enough on their feet (not by my standards at least), but they sure are bright. They pointed out contradictions in the speakers’ speeches, and wondered whether some ideas made sense. I heard plenty of opinion, which is very good. If the College aims to raise the level of intellectual discussion, well, looks like it has collected enough mental matter to make it happen.

But hey, this is reporting, I said. You have an opinion, you write a column. You don’t like what he said, I don’t care. Is it worth reporting? Yes? No? What’s the most critical thing here? What? Will anyone WANT to read something like that? Then there was a general lament over my two-hour deadline for submission of reports. By the time we were done, it was already close to 10.30pm. And there I was thinking that undergraduates do not go to sleep especially if they live on campus….I mean, that’s how I lived my own undergraduate life.

Ex-colleagues who were interested to know about how the first assignment went have chided me for being too kind, soft and mellow. “Favouritism! You would have torn us a new one!” one of them told me.

But, hey, I am having a blast!

PS. My apologies to those expecting some kinda critique of current affairs. Sometimes I get into a self-indulgent binge.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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