Bad news

I can’t seem to read newspapers normally anymore.

There was a time when I could simply pick up a paper or click on links on a news website and just read stuff. Most critical faculties would then desert my brain, causing its temporary regression into a pulsing, synapse-laden sponge that allows the passive inflow of information which are mostly unfiltered by any analytical processing.

But those days are past now.

Now, when I pick up a paper and skim through the news pages, I’d go: “Deary me, the sub must be blind to miss this typo” or “What is this paragraph doing here? It adds nothing to the story!”, or if I’m feeling charitable, “How the fuck is this news??!!”

Fortunately, emphatic 120-decibel rants within your mind registers nothing in your immediate physical environs. Otherwise, I would suffer the indignity of a newspaper-reading Asbo at best, or be writing this from the safety of a cushioned-wall asylum cell at worst.

I couldn’t tell you when I flipped this mental switch. But this automated pedantism sure as hell is ruining my news reading experience. It’s so tiring. Picking at the story, second-guessing the numbers, lamenting its inanity, even just noting the odd grammatical error all push the blood pressure up a smidge, draining hair of its colour ever so slightly.

I’d like to think that I’m not being too alarmist to fear a health risk from this obsessive compulsiveness. Yet once you go…well you know what. So, caught between a rock (early death) and a hard place (passive acceptance of insidious indoctrination), I thought blogging might provide a…ehem, third way.

Before I launch into a therapeutic rant, it is worth pointing out that I’m not providing an exhaustive review of the Singaporean press. I am but a flawed specimen of humanity with deficient eyesight and a flaccid personality; if I fail to decry something spectacularly stupid in the papers, chances are I genuinely missed it, rather than me cherry picking my targets in the service of some dark unfathomable agenda.

I start with an easy target (who doesn’t). The New Paper, which might reasonably be described as Singapore’s Daily Mirror, deigned it newsworthy to devote page eight, in its entirety, to a selection (well, just three) of photographs catching world leaders as they displayed “unusual hand gestures”.

Here’s a gem in their rendition of the delightful art of speculative journalism: “In another shot, [Obama] appears to be patting Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet on the back. Or perhaps Mr Obama is simply trying to steer his peer out of a photograph she had walked into?”

“It’s hard to tell from a single frame,” they conceded, almost bashfully, adding: “Remember that misleading image from July this year where the US President appeared to be admiring a woman’s behind during the G8 Summit in Italy?”

“A video released later made it clear that Mr Obama had been glancing down to help someone down a step.”

How honest of them to let us in on the vacuousity of the entire affair right when we are about to finish reading it.

But you might be able to accept that The New Paper was playing to its audience – dumbing down its coverage of the APEC summit to reach its readership. Although there is much to be said about being a good product (like the Daily Mail) doesn’t mean being a good newspaper, I might grudgingly cut The New Paper some slack. On the other hand, I have much to indict a relative newcomer on the media scene for, and given its aims and intentions it cannot lay claim to the tabloid’s “good product” defence.

The Temasek Review describes itself as “internet newspaper which aims to provide an independent, balanced and unbiased coverage on socio-political affairs in Singapore”, and asserts that they have no links to “any political party or commercial entity.”

They add: “Our news coverage and opinion editorials are written from an unique and independent perspective to set you thinking and analyzing in order to gain a deeper understanding of the issues involved.”

Very noble aspirations. And I wish them well, for they do provide some form of alternative to the mainstream papers (The Straits Times, Today and The New Paper). But their news writing? Bloody hell.

If the mainstream papers have an intrinsic and systematic bias in their reporting, at least they couch them in journalistically sound news writing. In contrast, some of the Temasek Review’s news correspondents (all anonymous, except for columnists) are prejudiced and proud.

The Temasek Review distinguishes clearly, in its categorisation and layout anyway, between “opinion” and “news”. But really, what they manifest as are “opinion” and “opinion masquerading as news”.

Take their story about the fallout from the pharmacists’ mistake in administering an overdose of chemotherapy drugs to two patients (Here is the Straits Times’ story with detailed background info). The lede is something to behold.

“Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan had dismissed the likelihood of worker fatigue as a cause for the medication blunder at Kandang Kerbau Hospital which has taken the entire nation by storm.”

Ah…there’s nothing quite like using unqualified exaggeration to start a news story. Hyperbole is never a good bedfellow when the virtue of a news story is in question. And it doesn’t get any better – nowhere in the story is it mentioned when and where the minister made this statement. Cardinal sin comes to mind.

An earlier version of this story goes even further off the wall, bouncing deep into the realm of editorialisation.

“Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan had finally spoken up on the serious medication blunder at KKH, minus the apology.”

It goes on to tell you that the minister made his statements “today”; the correspondent is a tease and prefers you to speculate when exactly and where this speech took place. Why should he or she care? His or her primary concern is to lynch Mr Khaw for his failings as health minister, not really to tell a wholesome news story.

So much so that he or she does not deign it necessary to tell you when the two patients were originally given the overdose – which to a new reader is important information, as it would allow him or her to judge if the time lapse between the incident and Mr Khaw’s statement was unnecessarily long – if the “finally” in the lede was actually warranted in the spirit of political criticism, even if it remained an inexcusable journalistic faux pas.

Even if the Temasek Review correspondent had no desire to churn Straits Times’ copy or provide unnecessary repeat background coverage, there was still a fundamental need to provide basic facts to the story to make it accessible to a new reader. A news article cannot be written with the presumption of foreknowledge on the part of its readers. 

For all their lofty goals about editorial independence and desire to provide a genuine alternative perspective, the Temasek Review will do well to report the news properly to begin with. Well-intentioned or not, gratuituously slipping opinion into news does no one any favours, least of all to the Temasek Review itself. Despite their self-righteous criticism of the mainstream media, the Review’s news writing standards are decidely woeful; no better than the amateurish rambling I have had to deal with as an editor of my university newspaper.

That is not to say that the central spirit of their enterprise is misguided or flawed. Hardly so. What I am saying is, however, please get a sub-editor. In fact, grab a news editor too while you’re at it.

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~ by spiegel2071 on November 17, 2009.

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