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Let’s not even talk about quality journalism

One day, I am going to post something controversial on my Facebook wall, and see whether it gets picked up as news. I know it’s common to share posts online, even if they are dubious and incredible. But it should not be common for FB posts to make it into the news media. Unfortunately, FB “reporting” is becoming, well, common.

If my post does make it as a news story, along with other posts commenting on the original one, I will issue a denial. I never posted that, I will say. It was my nine-year old nephew who did so. Then the outcry will be about how the post was set to “public”, and hence, it’s fair game. How would anyone know that the poster wasn’t me? My answer will be: The journalist should have verified it with me before attributing it to me. I keep wondering if anyone checked with Prof Tommy Koh whether he really posted that one-liner on challenging the constitutionality of Section 377A that has opened the debate on the criminalisation of homosexual sex. Everybody assumed it was him. What a laugh it would be if he said that it wasn’t him, but his grandson.

The current angst over the proliferation of fake news skirts the issue of what constitutes journalism. And I mean journalism, not even quality journalism – which is what the parliamentary select committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods keeps referring to as a counter-measure to fake news. The key principles of journalism (basic or quality) are verification and attribution. Only with both then we can say that we have the facts or something close to the truth, because the sourcing is unimpeachable.

I have always hated the term “citizen” journalism, because it degrades the journalism profession. So a controversial photograph by a citizen “journalist” makes the rounds and people immediately leap into comment mode. This isn’t journalism; this is an eye-witness account of something that happened. A journalist would have dug into the whys and wherefores to present the complete picture, and not just talk about what he saw or heard. Then comments would be tempered by more information, and not just based on knee-jerk reactions.

Yet, too often we see news stories that are made up of a whole lot of FB posts strung together – and no notification to the reader on whether they have been checked and verified with the source. We see online petitions making the news without being given a clue about who started it. Readers seem take it on faith – that somebody else has done the checks and it must be true.

Increasingly, it appears that news must be something that has appeared on social media, has got online tongues wagging or has gone viral. Preferably with a video. You would think that nothing newsworthy happened in the pre-Internet era and the “irate netizen” is a new species of human being. Yet, at the same time, there will be those who say that these “irate netizens” aren’t representative of the whole or the silent majority. Nobody knows – because the people whose job it is to find out the views of the silent only reported the vocal ones. So easy. They are all online.

So, yes, I am distressed at the way FB reporting seems to have taken over news media, including traditional news media. The reporting on the fallout of the meeting between the Singaporeans and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad was a Facebook affair. You get the sense that journalists were watching for a post to appear from anyone of the protagonists – so that they can quickly write it. It is fastest fingers first.

The G has got wind of this technique, too, which is why some announcements and views are on Facebook. Journalists are probably primed to watch out for them so that they can “break” the news first. Also, some newsmakers have mastered the art of writing on FB, adopting a conversational tone that is accessible to readers rather than the jargon of press releases that their public relations people dreamt up. For journalists, it is a Godsend to have quotes that can be cut-and-pasted without causing readers to stumble over polysyllables.

Then the job is done.

The job is NOT done. If journalism is about FB reporting, then any Tom, Dick and Bertha can do it. It takes a facility with the English language and fast fingers. (I have both). Beyond taking the trouble to verify the post (which any intern can do), the journalist’s job is to go beyond the obvious, by asking for clarifications, elaboration and motivation. These should be reflected in the article. Even if they got no answer, there must be an assurance that the requisite checks were made.

It cannot be that the reading public must take journalists at their word. There must be transparency about the reporting process to legitimise the writing. That is why a named person is usually accompanied by age and occupation, to assure readers that this is a real person, not a cooked up quote, among other things. That is why expanding on survey methodology is as important as reporting the results of the survey. That is why the context of a newsmaker’s words is important, like whether he said something in a speech which meant he was prepared to make the point, or an interview, during which the words could have been pried out of him.

Increasingly, there is the door-stop interview, where newsmakers actually invite journalists to pop up somewhere to talk to him because he is already prepared to say something. I see much fewer instances of “ambush” interviews where the journalists corner newsmakers at public events for comments. If there were more, then the journalists didn’t say that they had exercised the initiative to do so.

Journalism not an easy job

Basic journalism is hard to do. It is what distinguishes professional work from the work of online commentators and eye-witnesses. I will be first to admit that I rely on the reporting work of traditional media to write commentaries, but I am beginning to wonder if I should. Many of us already have access to FB posts. It also doesn’t take a genius to find the original press statement and the original survey that was published as news. Those who don’t have the time to read might appreciate a filter which summaries and gives key points. But those who do will find that there is very little value added by the journalist to the original piece of information.

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