Earlier this week, I set my class of undergraduates an assignment: draw up a Code of Ethics for journalists in Singapore. It was the culmination of 13 weeks of seminar work on media ethics. What was confounding to them was that, except for a code of professional conduct put up umpteen years ago by the Singapore National Union of Journalists which focused on the desired attributes of the individual journalist, there was no such published code for journalists, at least not one that takes into account the social, legal and political milieu here, much less the technological advances since.
What newsrooms have are house style guidelines and Standard Operating Procedures. House style defines the way stories should be written, right down to nitty-gritty details like how to write an address. Is it Blk or Block? (It’s Block) And whether there should be a Dr in front of the name of a person who has a doctorate as an honorary title? (No).
SOPs, at least from what I have learnt in The Straits Times, talks about how to approach newsmakers for comments, dealing with sources and managing tip-offs. It’s a practical approach which underscores the need for fair-dealing and balanced and objective reporting. On ethical issues, there are some bits that are in the company manual, which I believe all big corporations have as well. They usually refer to corruption, bribery and fraud.
But journalists should be held to a much higher standard than a company employee who doesn’t face the people at large. This is because their work involves “trust’’ on the part of the people who consume it. Their work can lead to all sorts of consequences – readers and viewers can end up being better informed or misinformed, they make decisions based on them, have their feelings aroused by what they see or read. The academic term is media effects.
The media is also a mobilisation tool, as governments the world over know. The levers of control are varied. They can cover ownership, licensing laws and regulations on expression. We know all this in Singapore. We can cite a list that covers NPPA, POFMA, libel laws and other legal restrictions on expressions that harm the public interest (widely defined). More restrictions are in the offing, such as circumscribing hate speech.
Then there are the invisible OB markers on what is considered an appropriate comment and topic to discuss publicly. That’s more difficult to navigate.
On its own, laws and regulations are justifiable. Nobody wants an irresponsible media which can tear society apart. But everybody wants a media which, while operating within the law, can tell the truth, or at least give the facts. And which can give a range of views besides the dominant one. To have this happy state of affairs means that the media should be insulated from political or commercial pressures, or at least be partially fenced off from them.
In Singapore, the mainstream media never really had to deal with commercial pressures until the past 10 years or so. The Singapore Press Holdings group was minting money so much that it could afford to turn away advertisers. Of course, readership and technology changes have made this sort of rejection a chimerical. The advertiser is king, especially since most readers no longer want to pay to read and think information should be free.
Political pressures, however, are omni-present. One unique feature of Singapore that differentiates these pressures from those in other countries: it has a BIG government in a SMALL country. The G is involved in almost every aspect of our lives. Running to the G to solve every little problem is part of the Singaporean DNA. This means almost all aspects of public life worth reporting need official input. It also means that every news report will have implications on people’s perception of the G – because people believe that the G is behind everything even when it isn’t. Is it any surprise then that there will be political pressure on how news is presented to readers?
In my personal opinion, any minister who insists that the G does not interfere in news operations should be POFMA-ed. It’s an open secret that some ministers – and even some low-level civil servants – believe that they know how to do the job of journalists better than the professionals. This is a syndrome that afflicts governments everywhere. The difference is how the media navigates this relationship. Should it be uncompromising, and take the knocks as they come? Or should it accept instructions posed as “requests’’? How far does journalistic integrity extend?
Commercial and political pressures aside, there is also the individual’s journalistic integrity. No number of newsroom safety nets can catch a reporter who wilfully fabricates information and conjures up sources. The speed at which reports are supposed to be churned out, as well as the paucity of newsroom manpower to do check facts, mean that slip-ups will occur. What’s worse is that those slip-ups can be easily corrected as well in the online sphere, without having to acknowledge that they occurred.
There is a survey which looks at journalism ethics worldwide published in 2016. I found the Singapore results based on interviews with journalists interesting.
First, I doubt that journalists had at the back of their mind a code which they had actually perused. (I don’t think many will recall the SNUJ one).
Second, even if they did, I wonder at their response on adherence to ethics which is described by the survey authors in the Nanyang Technological University as “quite flexible, with only just over half of respondents saying that journalists should always adhere to ethical codes’’. The authors added that a similar proportion said that “ethical decision-making should be context-specific rather than a matter of principle’’. How pragmatic is that!
It’s common to hear journalists and non-journalists spout Western-centric ethical principles which place freedom of speech as the top priority. The supposed gold standard is the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of ethics which puts down four key principles : Seek Truth and Report It, Act Independently, Minimise Harm and Be Transparent and Accountable. Each principle is broken down into clauses, including some which are probably anathema to this G, like, having a “special obligation’’ to be a watchdog over public affairs.
In the 2016 survey, the journalists here said that their primary role was to monitor and scrutinize political leaders, followed closely by reporting facts as they are. I wonder if the first is wishful thinking or simply mouthing a western view of journalists as a watchdog. It doesn’t bear out in practice. The journalists themselves admitted that this role was hampered by regulations influencing news gathering and lack of access to official information.
The role they’ve conceptualised for themselves conflicts with another study published in the same year which focused on what readers want of journalists. This says that the media should let people express their views, promote tolerance and cultural diversity and analyse current affairs. Scrutiny of political leaders ranked lower.
The authors, also from NTU, made an interesting point about the people’s “peculiar expectation of journalism’s role in Singapore’’. “ It is expected to be both critical and supportive of the government. This is not unlike Singaporeans’ peculiar stance with their government: criticism of the government coexists with a strong pro-government attitude.’’ I took heart from this. It is possible to be a loving critic, as Prof Tommy Koh once said.
In Singapore, the media has an unstated covenant with the G, encapsulated in the words of Lee Kuan Yew many decades ago: “Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of Singapore, and to the primacy and purpose of an elected government.’’
It is an unequal partnership that has to be negotiated carefully. There’s no guessing who’s the boss. The level of subordination is dependent on the will and commitment of journalists and editors to make readers their cause – or their “over-riding needs’’. The second bit on the “primacy and purpose of an elected government’’ is more thorny for editors. Does this mean it has to be pro-Government or pro- whichever political party which forms the government? One ex-editor gets around this by declaring that the media is “pro-Singapore’’. You can see the tension here – where different parties have different expectations of their role.
Too many things have happened since the days when that edict was passed down. Besides technological changes affecting the way news is communicated and written, there will be a fourth generation leadership in charge of a population that is even more literate, more widely-travelled and who wants a say in the country’s development beyond voting once in every four or five years.
A new pact should be developed encompassing cherished journalism values and parameters governing the profession’s relationship with key stakeholders.
This pact becomes more pressing because journalism values are slowly being chipped away with the proliferation of online sites intent on grabbing eyeballs through all sorts of experiments. Reportage based on facts, verified and attributed, appears to be giving way to biased commentary and unsupported views which are lauded by others as eye-opening.
Despite protestations to the contrary, I think the quality of journalism has degraded, with even basic house style and SOPs thrown out of the window. Whether this is due to lack of “drilling’’ in the newsrooms, or sheer negligence and disregard for the rules, or the army of new recruits not yet socialised into journalism, I cannot say.
But it would seem to me that now is a good time to wipe the slate clean given the changes to the media landscape. I am referring to the establishment of the SPH Trust, the non-profit entity which will be setting up a company to run media operations. By its very nature, a Trust signifies the need for public involvement, not just in monetary terms, but also in the values and quality of journalism that is expected.
I had great hopes that the NPPA would not be applied to the media company, but it is clear that the G doesn’t intend to loosen the reins. And while much has been made about how journalists do not need to care about shareholder interest in a non-profit entity, the flip side is that this is because operations are likely to be financed in large part through grants from the Government.
One principle in the western codes worth emulating is the need for the media to be transparent and accountable. This means respect for the readers’ questions on editorial decisions and processes. Journalism is no longer a one-way process nor can editors presume a “take-it or leave-it’’ attitude towards readers. Increasingly, journalists need to interact with readers who want to be involved or understand the process. It would also help to demystify the profession, allowing the members of the public to understand the news-gathering operation. It would also remind journalists that being in touch with the needs and wants of the people is part of the news-gathering process.
So with the greatest respect, I offer up my class’ proposal for the perusal of journalists and anybody else who believes in the power of the profession to do good. It’s not exhaustive, of course, but if it could spark discussion, we’d be happy enough.
Except for a code of ethics written by the Singapore National Union of Journalists many years ago, there is no updated code for journalists in Singapore. In truth, the SNUJ code is not circulated among journalists here, and remains an unread piece of paper. Journalists usually take reference from a Western-centric code, which may not be suitable for the Singapore social and political milieu. We believe that a code would provide guideposts for quality journalism in Singapore, and be useful to readers/audiences who want to understand the mission of journalism. We have written the principles so that it would be in line with the current SPH mission to “inform, educate and entertain.’’
The SPH Media Trust will, in all probability, have its own charter and governance rules on transparency of donor funds and usage. Our effort is intended for the journalists in the company that the Trust will be setting up for media operations.
We believe that this Code can also apply to any journalist or media operation in Singapore.
We propose the following:
Role in national building : As a Singapore media company, we recognise that we play a major role in nation building. Besides working within the boundaries set by the law, we will be cognizant of the moral and social values that shape us as a multi-racial, multi-religious society. The contents of the Singapore pledge applies also to the media – to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality. We want the same end: Happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.
Quality journalism: A strong and responsive media is necessary to build an informed citizenry capable of making good judgments for themselves and for the country at large. We are committed to informing citizens of news they would need to lead useful lives, as well as access to a diversity of opinion. We must keep pace with an educated and globally exposed citizenry that expects a high standard of analysis grounded in fact. A high standard cannot be compromised even as the medium of communication, such as online news, changes.
To do the above, we need to be clear about our relationship with our key stakeholders:
- The Government
We believe in a mutually beneficial relationship between the media and the Government based on respect for the role each party plays. While we acknowledge that the greater role of nation-building falls on the elected, the media has the responsibility to bridge the elected and the citizenry to forge a consensus on values and policies that benefit the nation. The media benefits from access to official information and viewpoints, which are needed to explain policies and interests effectively. The Government gains from having a professional and reader-centric presentation of policies and messages that can be easily understood.
We acknowledge that a successful media company would need to be profitable to sustain quality journalism. This would be dependent on donors, advertisers and subscribers. To retain credibility, we must stand firm against outside interventions for personal or corporate gain. Advertising and sponsorship of reports must be labelled prominently. It is important that we promote editorial independence as a key factor to retaining readers’ trust and for our continued relevance.
We maintain the respect of readers by presenting them with quality journalism that answers their needs and wants. This also means being transparent with them over editorial processes and decisions, maintaining feedback mechanisms and declarations of conflicts of interest. Their trust in our work has to be continually earned.
Ethics – Code of Practice
- Information, attributable and verified, is the foundation of journalism. Accuracy cannot be sacrificed in the pursuit of news.
- Information and opinion sources should be credible, and where possible, named
- Fair and unbiased reporting includes giving the right of reply to those affected by the news as well as prompt correction of errors.
- Information-gathering should be upfront and aboveboard, and should not be at the expense of an individual’s privacy
- To meet readers’ expectations of journalism, information that is unavailable or denied should be identified in the reports.
- Reports and commentaries must be grounded in the Singapore context and/or for the benefit of the Singapore reader.
- Discussion of contentious issues must be aimed at forging a consensus or representing the views of the middle ground of readers.
- Reporting a diversity of opinions should be encouraged with the aim of raising reader awareness of minority opinions and presenting them with a realistic view of Singapore society and beyond.
- Respect for key national institutions should be cultivated but not at the expense of transparency and accountability
- Reports that focus on softer side of life must not erode the moral standard of living that we aspire towards
- Refrain from the blind importation of cultural and social values that are at odds with Singapore’s need to maintain a cohesive society
- Stay sensitive to the racial, religious and linguistic mores of the different ethnic groups and work towards building a national identity
To maintain adherence to the code, we advocate the establishment of a Readers’ Editor, who will investigate and make public egregious transgressions.
Alternatively, if the code is adopted more widely, a Media Council which readers can turn to, can be set up with the involvement of interested and expert players.