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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

Society

Not fake news…but is it news?

I read the Straits Times report yesterday headlined “Study shows how savvy Singapore readers assess credibility of info’’with some amusement. It said that “the most discerning Singapore readers spent more time cross-checking with other sources than those who were less information savvy’’. 

The survey, by the Institute of Policy Studies, said that those “found to be more immune to fake news, were more attuned to how data and statistics could be manipulated, and more conscious of advertisement labels that appeared besides search results’’. 

I don’t know why there is this need for a study to state the obvious. In any case, are you savvy because you fact-check? Or do you fact-check because you’re savvy? 

Nevertheless, despite the fuzzy paragraphs, it’s good that there are  more discerning readers with higher order media literacy skills that go beyond assessing credibility based on “instinct’’, “look and feel of the site’’ and the placement of advertisements.  These readers also said that they relied heavily on what they felt were trusted sources, such as The Straits Times and CNA, and they often performed “rapid surveillance” by scanning news headlines. 

I assume that they are referring to the online versions of mainstream media, rather than the print copy or broadcast video. I make a distinction here because this trust in sources is a legacy of the myriad checks that traditional print and broadcast media have built up over decades. 

Do the same checks and ethical principles hold when it comes to their digital offerings? Or is the convenience of technology and availability of information (real and false) online, leading to a fraying of journalistic principles? I happen to think so. 

With the buzz over a $180 million per year handout to the SPH Media Trust to build, in particular, digital capabilities and delivery platforms, some questions should be asked about the editorial policies concerning digital offerings and how a credible media can maintain its integrity in the midst of a myriad news offerings online. 

For the profession, there is the challenge of remaining relevant as a source of news and information. 

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It isn’t just the media which is going digital, newsmakers are too.

The days of the “press release’’ being given out to the media first giving media time to assess them, are numbered. Often, newsmakers prefer to control the narrative by putting out their content through their own channels. 

Government agencies are leading the way with messages released on Facebook, speeches posted online and ministerial monologues on YouTube. Newsmakers have started to tell media to “wait for the Facebook post’’, expecting that it would be immediately broadcast by content-hungry media. 

The private sector is following suit. Banks do so when it’s urgent info that customers need to know about. And woe betide the transport companies if their tweets on train delays and stoppages are broadcast too late. In fact, why the need to set embargoes on publication or broadcast, when newsmakers can themselves press “publish’’ at a time of their own choosing?  

For the reader, it means immediate access to original content without a filter. Some online offerings are actually better presented than press releases because they eschew the formal, jargon-filled bureaucratese for a more conversational tone. They even look and sound like news. 

Instant newsmaking means a smaller role for the media, unless the media can show that it can deliver the news in a better way, or in an impartial manner shorn of all the propaganda and self-advertising that would be intrinsic in a newsmaker’s pronouncements and proclamations. 

It means that the media has to add a significant value to what other people can similarly access online, beyond just sticking a headline to the article or providing links to past content. It means throwing the ball back to the newsmaker’s court, by asking more questions of the online missive – just as the media would have done (or should do) with a press release. 

To remain a trusted media, it has to do more than just “Facebook reporting’’ to distinguish itself from all the other self-proclaimed news sites which are quick to say that they offer a platform for feedback and views that MSM does not – even if the sources are anonymous, dubious and the views are plainly without basis. 

Nor is online journalism the same as citizen journalism, which is really about eye-witness accounts of what has happened. They make for sensational reading, but not deeper understanding. A video of a fight is always interesting, even if a new one surfaces every other day. An eye-witness tells of the fight but not what happens after that, or whether these are gang clashes or symptomatic of a bigger problem. 

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That’s where professional media steps in, to put names to faces, addresses to places and tell you what happened before and after the video was taken. (It should hold fast to the practice of attribution rather than succumb to the trope that no one wants to be named or quoted.) 

To merely repeat what is already online is not, in my view, reporting. 

I would add that this is also the case for re-publishing FB posts by ministers and important newsmakers who merely reiterate or repeat messages, reinforcing the view that the MSM is a government mouthpiece. Why regurgitate when there is a perfectly good journalistic reason for non-publication? Like…there’s nothing, ahem, new? 

In the online space, journalists can break design rules to say upfront why some things are not reported even though they might have gone viral online. This will help readers understand what journalism is about, rather than have them believe in reports that are essentially the internet version of coffeeshop talk. Better still, to draw up – and make public – an ethical code on journalism practice here. 

Because SMT still has print media, it needs to tell readers how it curates print content, which is a lot less than what it has online. I used to think that the print version was always better than the online version because more brains would have been brought to bear on a hard-copy product which is the real revenue generator. I now think otherwise because an online story published early in the morning would, more likely than not, be re-produced in print the next day. When there are changes, it seems to me a case of interference in the editorial process, rather than about adding value.

Which brings me to the most important ethical practice of all : accuracy and accountability to the reader. 

Accuracy is the hallmark of journalism. Print journalists simply had to be accurate because errors cannot be erased from print. They require corrections or clarifications to be published later – much to the shame of any professional journalist. Editors will fight newsmakers who claim “mistakes’’ when what the newsmakers really mean is that they don’t like the way the report was written, think that they were put in a bad light or have some phrases that they wish they hadn’t uttered. I can tell you from an editor’s point of view that such haggling is emotionally draining and energy sapping.

The online space presents a different dilemma – how to resist the temptation of doing what the newsmaker wants, because it is so, so easy to correct online versions of news reports.  It is a toss-up between sticking to journalistic principles and wasting time and energy saying no, and placating a newsmaker quickly so that other matters can be given attention. 

Prime MInister Lee Hsien Loong used a phrase in Parliament about the importance of politicians having high ethical standards which could well apply to journalists: “All too easily – a slip here, a blind eye there, a fudge, a trim – and gradually things go downhill.’’  

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I know for a fact that newsmakers have taken to looking out for the first online version so that they can intervene and ask for changes in a later iteration. I know that sometimes they succeed in getting whole paragraphs “pulled’’ or re-written. 

Readers will only notice changes if they  bother to look at online updates of the same report, or compare online and print versions. Even so, they will still have a hard time figuring out the changes, because they are only told that the report had been  “edited for clarity’’ or “edited to reflect XX’’. And that’s only if they get to the end of the report.

And what about the readers who only read the report once, as most readers probably do? They are left with a false impression of the report or might have taken on board a mistake which has since been corrected. I recall that the earlier tradition on online corrections was to strike out the word or phrase and put the correct version in parenthesis. I rarely see it in practice now. 

A trust company has more reason to be upfront with its readers than a private or publicly listed company. It is dependent on the State and other donors to fund its operations, while it seeks to make itself a self-sustaining business. Readers who did not want to pay for the news are now doing so as taxpayers. They must be convinced that their tax dollars are well used. 

Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo listed three KPIs that SMT must meet to secure funding every year: total reach and engagement of SMT’s products, with a focus on their digital platforms,  specific reach indicators for vernacular groups and youths and the resilience of SMT’s flagship products to minimise downtime and disruption.

I would add a fourth : degree of editorial transparency and accountability to the reader. 

Written By

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

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