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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

News Reports

Our name-less culture

I have a hashtag, #berthablowsup, that I use on my Facebook wall. It’s a crowd-sourced moniker to help readers know that such hash tagged posts are my comments on the journalism that I read, not about my opinions on the issue at hand. Of course, there are some who can’t see the difference, and anyhow whack only. I am getting tired of explaining the difference.

There are some who simply disregard any point I’ve made to launch an ad hominem attack on me and my erstwhile relationship with MSM. Then there are those who quickly join the chorus of posters who are proud to pronounce that they’ve stopped subscribing, reading or viewing reports on local developments. Both groups are stuck in their silos and are, I think, pretty unreachable – or gone case. I am now hoping instead to reach those who want a greater understanding of the media, and give them pointers on how to read the news “critically” rather than just wash their eyes over the words.

Why should readers learn to read “better”?

Mainly because we don’t have much choice of reading material on local developments, never mind whatever anyone says about online options. The fact remains that only MSM has the resources to cover the Singapore beat well. The Singapore Press Holdings group has given up trying to make each of its newsrooms unique in the types of stories they cover and the perspective each holds. This is in the name of cost-effectiveness and harnessing synergies.

So, there is no need to read two SPH dailies because what appears in what would appear in the other sooner or later, like food from a central kitchen. One difference that has surfaced:  the English language newsrooms (rah-rah and bland) and the Chinese language newsroom (less rah-rah and spicy). You need to be bilingual.

I am glad that MediaCorp is still around to give the broadcast version. I am also pleased at  TODAYOnline’s continued presence, even in its emasculated form. Because I can countercheck whatever is in SPH with the MediaCorp side. Of course, sometimes, this doesn’t work because both sides are just as bad, and I have to look for original material to understand what has been said – or not said.

When I see standards slipping, I don’t just blow up, I want to cry. In this post-truth world, journalism standards must be set even higher. It’s not enough to say “we publish the facts; not fake news”. Readers and viewers shouldn’t be seeing work that is riddled with information gaps and grammatical errors. We shouldn’t be seeing ridiculous headlines or motherhood statements in big font that won’t make any reader read on even if the report is a gem. We shouldn’t have to do research to find out what had led to a particular news development, much less try to find original source material. You can just call up #berthablowsup” for a whole list of examples.

I believe that MSM must set the standard in at least one area: sourcing, attribution and verification. Who said what and are their assertions checked and double-confirmed? You don’t need to be a journalist to know about the 5Ws and 1H. Yet increasingly the first W, who, is being wiped off news reports.

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Journalism is about people, and people have names. Even dead people. What does it say about journalism in Singapore when you have a mother talking about something innocuous but only wanted to known as Ms or Mrs Whatever? It says that the journalist can’t be bothered to search among the hundreds and thousands of mothers who would be willing to be named. It makes the reader ask if Mrs Whatever is a real person or a figment of the journalist’s imagination. It also means that Mrs Whatever can say whatever she wants because no one can identify her.

So, there are good reasons for names. It adds credibility to the news report.

In fact. names are not enough for transparency purposes, at least, in the books of old school journalists. Age is added because it could explain why an older person’s view, for example, is different from a millennial’s view. Occupation also gives readers a better sense of the newsmaker’s perspective. For example, a cleaner is not going to view news about a pay increase in the same way his boss does.

So, the next time a journalist asks you for your name, age and occupation, do give. Help readers make sense of your view. Let them know that a “real” person is talking.

On the flip side, what does it say about us as a society if we are so unwilling to put our names down to what we say? That we are ”shy”? Or that we are “scared” in case we said something wrong? That our employer, family, colleagues will shun us or laugh at us and the G will somehow blacklist us? This isn’t the 1960s or 70s, it’s the new millennium.  Be bold, man. Put your name to what you say.

(I am beginning to see even more of this namelessness in my interactions with young people. Asked for their names, they usually just tell you which school, faculty or group they belong to. No one wants to stand out, by giving the name their parents gave them.)

I had started writing this column earlier but I decided that I must finish writing it today after I read a TODAYOnline report about a kerfuffle over a billionaire’s efforts to beautify common areas in Sentosa Cove. The billionaire declined to be named “due to privacy concerns for his young children”  – a reason that I think any parent can give whether they are rich or poor.  I mean, you can argue that criminals shouldn’t be named because of the impact on their children.

The report talks about “residents” yet, only one resident is named. What’s worse, it talks about an anonymous letter which appears to be the spark that’s burning up Sentosa Cove.  I do not know why the property’s management should even take seriously the complaint of a coward. Nor do I understand why TODAY should even give it any play. If the coward wanted publicity for his cause, he got it.

We have to get out of this no-name business. The media should try even harder to persuade people to identify themselves before inflicting their views on the reading public. It’s the message, not the messenger, did you say? But the messenger is an important part of the message.

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If a person die, die declined to be named – and there’s no other person to turn to to answer the question – then the media should tell readers why, instead of “he/she who only wanted to be known as”. Think about it. Why wouldn’t Princess or Spiderman be names people want to be known as?

Do I hear mumblings about the ”fear” factor? I can understand if speaking up would lead to loss of life, limb and career suicide, but too many times have I seen no names attached to views that are about innocuous subjects. The media should not encourage people to indulge in paranoia. Nit obody said journalism was easy.

Yet sometimes we see the media leaving out names even when they are given. I am referring to the myriad official and corporate spokesmen who make the news and usually have their names down in press releases. But they’re nameless to the public.

Journalists should never sacrifice name to save space, a reason which is especially inapplicable in the online arena. Putting names to spokesmen would make them conscious of their responsibility to speak intelligibly to the public. It puts a human face on officialdom and corporations. It is not a matter of being “shy”, it’s about the spokesmen facing up to their role as spokesmen.

Yesterday, I saw a news report that only named the chairman of the Public Sector Data Review committee, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean. I would be okay with it if not for the report adding that the panel has four ministers (unnamed) and non-governmental experts (unnamed).

It said: ‘‘The non-government members on the committee were chosen for their experience and expertise in technology and data security in their respective fields”. Okay, so who are they?

The committee is also supported by an expert group consisting of seven international experts and industry professionals.” Right, and who are they again?

What are readers to make of such information when there is no name? Take it on faith that they are really experts? Are we dive into the archives? Or is there some significance  in having seven experts instead of six or eight? In any case, the full list is here.

Of course, there are occasions when newsmakers simply won’t give names. And because they were not officially released (I am guessing here), no one dares even try to identify them. Like how there’s no attempt to find out which doctors were disciplined after Hepatitis B outbreak because the minister didn’t want a “blame culture”.

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Another instance was Mindef’s studious silence over the members who sat on the committee of inquiry investigating the death of actor Aloysius Pang. We are told that it would be chaired by a State Court-nominated Judge (unnamed). Other members, said Mindef, are “a consultant medical specialist, a member of the External Review Panel on Singapore Armed Forces Safety (ERPSS), a member of the Workplace Safety and Health Council, and a senior-ranked national serviceman”.

ST noted that “the statement did not name the members” but isn’t it more pertinent for ST to ask Mindef why? Why the secrecy? It doesn’t help Mindef’s case to shroud investigations in mystery.

I believe some of you reading this will say that I am expecting too much of journalists. I am not. These are time-honoured principles of good reporting, imposed to give readers a clearer picture of the world, including who said what. It’s about transparency and accountability, both on the part of the media and people who make the news. (And I am not even talking about anonymous sources here – that’s another column.)

We fall for fake news because we trust what we read, or we never thought that we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t be similarly  naive when reading G pronouncements and MSM announcements. That same discerning eye must be cast over everything we read. We must demand more, not less, information and the least that MSM can do is to tell us exactly who said what or did what.






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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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