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News Reports

Thrown to the dogs Part 2

 I have been thinking through what the ST Readers’ Editor said in Monday’s edition defending the commentary which mentioned North Korean Kim’s uncle being eaten by dogs. I know I’ve written about it before, chiefly to say that the ST could have got itself out of the mess if it had simply written a news story on the stories being circulated on the mode of execution first, and then do a commentary later.

But I am not satisfied. Because the ST’s defence of the commentary including turning journalism on its head. Some people have written about it already so maybe I am not adding anything new. But let me just go over the piece line by line. Bear with me please because ST’s defence is like a cabbage, many layers of overlapping big and small leaves. Have to peel off.  

MR CHING Cheong, a Straits Times senior writer and an old China hand, didn’t see it coming and neither did his supervising editors when they signed off on one of his regular commentaries about East Asia which the paper published on Christmas eve last month (“Jang’s execution bodes ill for China”). His piece lit up the Western media shortly after the new year but not in a way he meant because they were piqued by its peg rather than its point.  

In other words, no editor saw anything to worry about. Funny. If the anecdote about the ravenous dogs is new, surely it would have been worth a story on its own? News instincts should have kicked in, as it did for the foreign media – unfortunately. There is nothing wrong with being piqued by the peg rather than the point. In fact, many news stories have been developed from pegs contained in long-winded features, because the writer did not see their news significance.

After a few paragraphs reprising the supposed execution by dogs, the article goes on to say:

It wasn’t so much the horrid tale that prompted Mr Ching to use it in his commentary but the fact that the story was picked up by Hong Kong’s Wen Wei Po newspaper which Mr Ching knew to be a proxy for purveying China’s political attitude. Forty-eight hours later, The Global Times, another Beijing proxy, launched a second broadside by rebuking Pyongyang for the primitivity of its political system. The two timed attacks convinced Mr Ching that China was signalling that it had had enough; Beijing was recusing itself from the thankless task of tamping the lunatic unpredictability of East Asia’s political wildebeest on behalf of the world.

So the defence is that it wasn’t whether the content was true or false, but Wen Wei Po’s decision to publish it in all its grisly detail. The writer “knew’’ Wen Wei Po to be a proxy of China, so the assumption is that Beijing either directed the publication or at least closed one eye. Note that this is an assumption. I find it incredibly funny. It is like how ST has always been tagged as a G-controlled newspaper and mouthpiece of the G. Does this mean that whatever is published by the ST is a reflection of G thinking or direction? Surely, even the ST editors would disagree with this. The writer has no way or knowing whether Beijing did or did not have a hand in the hungry hounds story. It was an assumption. The same kind of assumption that ST dislikes being used on itself.

As for the second piece of “evidence’’ of Beijing’s displeasure, the Global Times did not mention the hungry hounds in its editorial. So an assumption must be made that accusations of “primitivity’’ refers to the mode of execution. If Beijing really wanted to signal its displeasure, it would have done better using its unabashed up-front People’s Daily. Wen Wei Po? What’s that?

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Then the ST got nasty…

Until Mr Ching’s commentary, major  Western media were oblivious to the story. Blame it on the long festive holiday out West or the likelihood that most journalistic grunts manning the frontlines of Western media cannot read  Chinese. If they did, they would have caught the story in  prominent Chinese-language publications like Hong Kong’s Apple Daily and Taiwan’s China Times which had published it well before Mr Ching included it in his commentary. A third possibility, that the West ignored the story because they knew it wasn’t true, is unlikely. If they had, then the major media on both sides of the Atlantic would not have subsequently gobbled up the story virtually unverified, the very same reason critics scolded  The Straits Times for doing. In the United States, NBC News, The New York Times, the New York Daily News, online’s The Daily Beast and the Washington Post ran or reacted to the tale. Ditto the Daily Mail, the London Evening Standard and the Guardian in Britain. These publications copied the story from Mr Ching’s commentary, and largely credited the tale’s traction to The Straits Times.

It was unnecessary – and unworthy – of a paper like the ST to take such a swipe at fellow professionals. Perhaps the Western media did not run the story not because they were too busy carousing or can’t read Chinese or that they “missed’’ it, but because the ST had chosen to run it. Perhaps, they viewed ST as an authoritative source on Asia and decided that if ST had used the anecdote, maybe there was something to it after all. So, it seemed the Western media’s trust in ST was misplaced in this case.

The article added that HK’s Apple Daily and Taiwan’s China Times had run it too, way before ST ran the commentary. Now this begs the question of why the writer did not include these “sources’’ in the commentary – or was it because they were not “Beijing-backed’’?

It was unfortunate but understandable that they mined Mr Ching’s article for the news they missed, rather than for the reason ST published it. News drives media content and commands a hefty premium on readers’ attention. So, the first sniff for media professionals like editors and journalists when they hunt for content globally is usually directed at information, raw and reflexive, rather than analysis which requires focus and reflection. What could be meatier than a bizarre, undiscovered anecdote about men being used as canine fodder that ratchets up the imagination and reels in the reader; and plausible too, given Pyongyang’s Kim-quilted reputation for Caligulan depravity? Thus was Mr Ching, and ST, caught in the crosshairs of criticism for rushing to print without verifying the “truth”.

This is damn odd. Of course editors mine for news, not analysis. That’s why they print news first, and do their own analysis later. Unlike ST which in this case fused both. And then the article goes into the existential question of what is the truth….a huge cabbage leave. Or is it fig leaf?

But the truth in media is as much a function of opinion as it is of fact. These two elements meet in the newspaper, sometimes with conflicting consequences, as Mr Ching’s article showed. Readers often think that newspapers must publish only the ultimate Tao – unimpeachably verified facts – and if they do not, editors and journalists are being tardy and unprofessional. In fact (and this is technically an opinion, see what I mean?), truth is often as nuanced as the currently proverbial fifty shades of grey. In practice, getting the facts to tell the truth can be next to impossible anywhere.

So many words but what do they mean? Do readers really expect the truth? Or just the facts? If it is indeed the case that readers expect the Tao of truth, there would be no newspapers at all. That is why news media have a clear distinction between fact and opinion. A commentary is an opinion or analysis based on facts. The only fact here is that Wen Wei Bo published the story. Is that piece of information enough for the writer to build a case? No, because he cannot show that China directed it. Was Kim’s uncle killed by dogs? The article does not say yes or no, but sought to cover itself with the distant “according to Wen Wei Bo’’. Is it too much for readers to expect that the writer point out that this was the story supposedly put out by Wen Wei Bo, which did not state how it got the information? So ST is reporting hearsay.  

It virtually is in a closeted state like North Korea.  Also, facts may not necessarily be accepted as the whole truth and nothing but, even if they are certifiable. The reason is that a publication not only reports what happens, it also publishes what it – or any number of people – thinks happened.

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Now, really! This defence would cover reporting gossip, rumours and speculation. So if enough people think that the G is really out to do in the poor, would ST publish this? Or if enough people think the Little India riot was caused by discrimination against foreign workers – and that’s why it happened. Would it publish it, like the New York Times did and got a rebuke from the G? You might as well depend on social media for all your “news’’ if so. Hmm….    

The truth can be opaque in nations with an open media as well. Otherwise, the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy should no longer be a story that remains muddled and addled by the lack of “truth”, 50 years on. The only certifiable truth is that he was shot dead. The rest remains, well, opinion.

Except that a commission of inquiry was held and certain facts were ascertained. Any major controversy would have its share of conspiracy theorists – but do major newspapers publish them because they “believe’’ them or enough people “believe’’ them?

If one were to read Mr Ching’s commentary from the first word to the last, it is plain that he was offering an opinion of what the latest political tea leaves were presaging about China, not a definitive news report about how Jang was killed..

Ah. But if even professional journalists are confused about whether he is offering an opinion based on the facts, what more the laymen?

To be sure, the article should have offered a clearer layer of caution apart from scrupulous attribution. Given the incredulity of the tale, the article should have declared the story’s lack of independent verification

Here’s where the “sorry’’ should have come in.  It didn’t, enmeshed as it was in this whole tale of what is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Could the ST have fixed the story?  Yes. For example: A grisly tale was published in Wen Wei Bo over the death of Kim’s uncle. The newspaper, widely known to be a mouthpiece of Beijing, claimed that sources told the newspaper that he had been torn apart and eaten by dogs. Whether this is to be believed or not, the fact that the newspaper published showed one point: China is upset by North Korea. (Except that there is no evidence to show that China had a hand in this…) Then follows yet another cabbage leaf…

Still, the critics who insist that ST should have established iron-clad validity prior to publication should also ask themselves why they would dismiss this version of events, and believe the first. Both were premised on assumption, not factual verification.  If truth in publication is predicated solely on facts, no account of the way  in which No. 2  was executed should have seen print. Every version thus far is based on conjecture. Pyongyang’s official version did not say how he died, only that he did. Even if a formal description had been issued, could it be believed? It would have originated from the same official agency  which reported as fact that Kim Ill Sung – founder of Pyongyang’s communist dynasty and the current Kim’s late grandfather – was conceived divinely and saved the world by the mere fact of his birth.

So if Pyongyang said he was devoured by dogs, would anyone believe it? It’s immaterial. The fact is that it came from Pyongyang, not a newspaper citing unnamed sources. You have to take what the “authority’’ says at face value. It’s the same if the G arrests people under the Internal Security Act because they are deemed security/terrorist risks. The media can ask for evidence. If the G doesn’t give up proof, the media will have to take what the G said at face value and leave it to the readers to decide. Quoting Pyongyang and quoting Wen Wei Bo is not quite the same thing.

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 It is true that a newspaper’s duty and credibility depend on getting the facts right. It is equally true that the inability to verify the accuracy of a story may still require a newspaper to run it because of the tale’s portent. For better or for worse,  this is the Tao of media practice, which is the daily grapple in deciding how to offer readers an informed, best guess about what happened and why, when there is no factual way of knowing. That was what Mr Ching did and ST published, as most reliable  newspapers would.  

So many cabbage leaves by now to obscure the fact that ST should have just apologised for not making its commentary clearer.  Or at least issue a clarification.  The thing is, this “defence’’ has given short shrift to the work of  journalists, which is really verification, verification, verification. It is a hard slog. And honourable work. If something cannot be verified, you do not print. Full stop.  As for publishing an “informed, best guess’’, I am appalled. Because it makes the work of a professional journalist no different from my current hobby, blogging.     


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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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