Be a good journalist or don’t be one at all
Writer: Wong Chin Huat
Published: Fri, 07 Sep 2012
It was indeed great to have the opportunity to teach many fine young men and women, a few of whom are now reporters.
When I first started teaching journalism, I was eager to see more students entering the field.
Now, my last advice to them was that “don’t be a journalist just because you don’t have other choices.”
There are some professions that I think one must opt for on first preference. Journalism is one. Education is another.
You either be a good journalist or don’t be one. Likewise, be a good teacher or don’t be one at all. You need an exit door at any time.
Why? Unlike running a restaurant or a factory, reporting and teaching have much far-reaching consequences. Your clients consume your news or teaching on a rather long-term basis.
I increasingly see journalism as public office, albeit unelected.
I can’t agree more with Thomas Jefferson who said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a second to prefer the latter.”
Media allows us to know what happens around us, to engage in debate and to form public opinion. Without media and free public opinion, collective actions will be dictated by the government, which is essentially backed by the apparatus of violence, namely police and military.
It is therefore tragic when some so-called journalists in Malaysia can fabricate news to serve their political master’s interest almost on a daily basis and yet talk about their biased reporting without any sense of shame.
Malcom Gladwell, the author of best-selling The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers wrote a 6,400-word disclosure statement in 2004 to discuss ethical issues a journalist encounters.
His former editor at the Washington Post, Leonard Downie, religiously believes in objectivity so much so that he does not allow his staff to accept gifts or meals from others.
More unthinkable to us, he will not even vote or allow himself to mentally contemplate his choice, because that would compromise his objectivity.
Gladwell himself sets a lower standard, namely fairness instead of objectivity. For him, if a reader cannot tell where the writer stands on a particular issue after reading an article, then the article is objective.
In contrast, fairness means that the reader can tell where the writer stands on a particular issue, but the writer will nevertheless “accurately and appropriately” represent the various opinions.
Dismissing Downie’s rigid position on objectivity, Michael Kinsley, the former editor of online magazine Slate, argues that journalists can have an opinion, but not a bias. And bias, for Kinsley, is “a failure to suppress your opinions or (if opinion is in your job description) to state and defend your opinions openly”.
To be accountable, Slate stressed the necessity of disclosure. And instead of abstention, Slate staff were invited to declare their voting intention.
And Gladwell himself was at pain to avoid conflict of interests in his work as a writer and paid speaker. He examined his work to ensure that it was not corrupted by money.
The American journalism is certainly not without scandal, but no scandal by journalists can go unnoticed or covered up by conspired silence.
Earlier this week, Time Magazine columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria was exposed to have plagiarised an article on the New Yorker Magazine. He has since been suspended, for a month, by Time and indefinitely by CNN.
Zakaria swiftly apologised, saying “that is entirely my fault” even though many suspected that it could have been one of his ghost writers (research assistants or interns) who plagiarised.
And you find a lively debate on his plagiarism from different angles, but no one is excusing him.
This poses a sharp contrast to the revealed plagiarism involving leader writer(s) of Sin Chew Daily, where so far angry netizens claimed to have found at least 27 copy-cat editorials spanning in the past two years.
The plagiarised sources have been almost all editorials on socio-economic issues quality presses in Taiwan, with detailed facts and figures. This suggests that the reason of plagiarism could be inadequate research support for editorial writers.
While the chief leader writer has immediately resigned to assume the responsibility, the top-selling Chinese daily has since only apologised on Facebook.
Refusing to admit the scandal before its claimed 1.4 million print readers, the newspaper only published a commentary by its chief editor stressing that the resigned writer is suffering depression and appealing for readers’ understanding.
For many, such attitude is partly the consequence of the virtual monopoly of the Chinese press by Sin Chew owner Tiong Hiew Keng after its effective takeover of Sin Chew group’s arch rival Nanyang Press through MCA.
With such monopoly, Sin Chew can afford not to be accountable and not worry about competition. In other words, market infallibility has bred arrogance and decadence.
I like to think that the problem could be also more general. The journalists lack a culture of self-reflection. When did you read last something like Gladwell’s “disclosure statement” or Kinsley’s memo on objectivity and unbiasedness from a Malaysian journalist?
I come across too often journalists who talk about why things cannot be done, rather than how things should be done. They blame the environment and excuse their own compromise.
Worse, some journalists would even defend draconian laws or censorship, citing the need for governmental control or political bias, defending their victimisers like victims of Stockholm Syndrome.
They could of course turn around and criticise me for being just an armchair analyst. After all, I am only a journalism lecturer, not a journalist. They would argue that I would not have to pay the price for being principled. They could be right.
But the question remains: what is the point of having journalists if they would misinform or even lie? Why should I be teaching journalists to do a bad job? At least, by not being a journalist, they wont do harm!
We would not tolerate bad doctors because it is individual lives at stake. Why should we tolerate bad journalists? Isn’t our public life at stake here?
Journalists should join the profession by choice, not by circumstance, or by default. Is it mere coincidence that the altar egos of two fictional superheroes, Superman and Spiderman, are journalists?
I told my students, like Spiderman, journalists have great power, and with that, comes great responsibility.
So they should really be a good journalist, or not be one at all. Do good or at least don’t do harm.
*Wong Chin Huat is leaving Monash University Sunway Campus to join Penang Institute as a research fellow.