Press muse – Love thyself, ignore thy neighbour

“He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals,” said ‘leading author and printer, satirist, political theorist, politician, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, soldier, and diplomat’ (so claims Wikipedia) Benjamin Franklin. Now that’s a top tip from a Founding Father.

But as alluring a maxim this is, I hate to see it realised. None less so than by the shameless self-aggrandisers in the news media. It’s like watching a visualised audio feedback loop on Hyperreality Central – journalists transmuting themselves into their own brand products, peddling them with the finesse of snake oil salesmen and squealing readers’ brains into mush.

“The Worldwide Leader in News”, flailing desperately in the wake of Fox News’ ratings, is a Narcissist extraordinaire. Whilst promoting CNN Heroes – the annual awards honouring individuals who make extraordinary contributions to help others – the network forgot that Anderson Cooper was merely presenting the awards and not winning them. Amid their coverage of the Lufthansa strikes just last week, presenters shared compelling insight into how their cameras are waterproofed for the assignment. And of course there was Haiti – their spectacular “look at me looking at them”-style coverage of the humanitarian disaster.

If you’re a CNN junkie, do catch the blobs of snot leaking from your nose. Save what you can of your brain.

The Straits Times too indulged in such public navel-gazing last Monday (22 February). They had just clinched six awards at the Society of News Design’s Best of Newspaper Design competition, coming through a diverse, international field of over 10,000 entries to emerge amongst the 1,102 prize winners. The result was an improvement over 2009, when they won nothing, and 2008, when they won three awards.

Few newspapers would pass up such a chance for some open self-loving. Suitably beaming, editors placed one of the winning photos up on front in the 22 February issue and filled more space inside with details of other winners and the competition itself. Which is just about fair.

Except for a sly little stunt Sujin Thomas tried to pull in his story (headlined “ST wins big at competition” or, as it should have been, “ST improves winnings at competition”):

“A total of 1,102 awards were given out this year, culled from entries submitted by magazines and newspapers published around the world. For individual entries, there are three award categories: Excellence, Gold and Silver.”

Anyone reading that without prior knowledge of the competition would naturally assume – given the order Thomas arranged them – that an excellence award was most prestigious of the three. But is it? The following accolades were presented at this competition: Awards of Excellence (1038 winners), Silver (54), Gold (5). Special prizes included Judges’ Special Recognition (2), Best of Show (none) and World’s Best Designed Newspapers (3). The numbers speak for themselves.

Hubris came on quickly at the Straits Times, it seems.

So quick that, as it turns out, on Wednesday (24 Feb) the paper again presented readers with a self-congratulatory front page lead. “Double win for veteran ST reporter“, the paper boasted, with a veteran 46-year-old journalist cutting a figure of maturity and poise in the accompanying photo. Senior regional correspondent Leslie Lopez had been named Journalist of the Year, and his piece on Mas Selamat’s arrest was hailed as the Story of the Year. That has to be something, hasn’t it?

Yes, if you could kindly ignore the details that emerge in the third paragraph – Lopez won the accolades at the Singapore Press Holdings’ English and Malay Newspapers Division (EMND) annual awards.

Here’s the lowdown. The Straits Times picked up 10 of 14 possible wins at an exclusive annual awards slugfest between eight of the SPH’s 17 newspapers. MediaCorp’s Today and SPH’s Mandarin and Tamil newspapers were not in the running by default. In essence, this was the kind of in-house morale-raising fluff that companies plaster all over their internal newsletters and office noticeboards. It ain’t the Pulitzers. Hell, they’re not even national awards, for crying out loud.

But SPH’s flagship publication and what some consider to be the newspaper of record in Singapore deigned the story worthy to lead its front page, tagged with another 1 1/2 pages of gushing coverage between the sheets. And with the license to self-indulge, the reporters turned on the style – self-aggrandisement in full, shamelessly cringeworthy, flow.

Now, I’m sure the journalists “have what it takes” to do well at their respective jobs and the winners richly deserved their accolades. Jessica Cheam and Desmond Lim, for instance, have proven their mettle at the international level – Cheam won the East Asia regional prize at the Earth Journalism Awards while Lim clinched two awards of excellence at the Best of Newspaper Design competition (the coverage in the Straits Times of their achievements were substantial, but still comparatively muted). Unfortunately for them, their editors cannot be trusted to report the news with a sense of proportion.

Why might the Straits Times be all too eager to wax lyrical about itself? Curiously enough, the answer may be found within the same issue – in a story right across the page in fact. “Mainstream media remains ‘a trusted source’,” the headline declared, as if printing claims in inch-tall fonts could add truth to rhetoric. Incidentally, the headline is also an anagram for “Insecure mainstream media longs for love” (no, it isn’t).

In the report, political correspondent extraordinaire Zakir Hussain unquestioningly echoed claims made in Parliament by Rear Admiral (NS) Lui Tuck Yew, acting Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts, who in turn was citing the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Statistics always look lovelier when adorned with context, so I sought out the background information about this survey which Hussain so dutifully omitted. Edelman’s Singapore study involved only 200 people, selected to meet the following criteria:

“college-educated; household income in the top quartile for their age in their country; read or watch business/news media at least several times a week; follow public policy issues in the news at least several times a week.”

In other words, the results were derived from a survey of 200 university-educated upper class citizens, aged 25 to 64, who follow business and political news fairly regularly. Does that sound like a representative sample of the Singaporean population? Clearly RAdm Lui and Zakir Hussain think it does.

RAdm Lui proceeded to trot out other cheerful data to demonstrate his case, reported Hussain. Newspaper readership, for example, apparently grew 5 per cent from 2008 to 2009. I’m not entirely sure how readership numbers are cooked up, but what I do understand is that circulation numbers have been taking a dump.

According to SPH annual reports, the total daily average circulation for its major newspapers (Straits Times, Business Times, The New Paper, Lianhe Zaobao and Wanbao, Shin Min Daily News, Berita Harian and Tamil Murasu) has fallen 3.79 per cent from 2000 to 2007. While the Business Times, Shin Min Daily News and Tamil Murasu grew their circulation from 2000 to 2009, the other publications all experienced a general declining trend (details in this table).

The Singapore population, on the other hand, has grown from 4.028 million to 4.988 million in the last decade. Print circulation has thus been falling despite a growing market size. To be fair, however, this decline may well be made up for by an increase in online readers, but only in the case of the Straits TimesBusiness Times, Berita Harian and Tamil Murasu – SPH tabloids have no real online presence apart from some poor excuses for news websites.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that the Straits Times hasn’t been pushing as much papers as it used to – its circulation fell 4.06 per cent in the last ten years, while the Sunday edition lost 4.94 per cent. The slide would have been more alarming if not for its bulk sales to schools which, according to deputy editor Alan John, have increased in the last few years.

A vote of no confidence by readers, perhaps? A recent Reader’s Digest online survey seems to suggest as much. The findings were, curiously enough, carried in the Straits Times’ last Friday (25 Feb), albeit with the damning detail buried in the last paragraph.

The magazine, after polling 760 Singapore residents, ranked journalists as the 30th most trusted professionals in a selection of 40 – trailing the likes of firefighters (1st), doctors (2nd) and police officers (11th), but beating out lawyers (32nd), politicians (39th) and real estate agents (40th).* While we shouldn’t read all that much into this decidedly limited survey, perhaps the Straits Times editors are sufficiently concerned – in their business, public sentiment counts.

Faced with ugly numbers, an increasingly discerning audience and growing rivals both print and online, the Straits Times have apparently accepted Franklin’s wisdom and cast humility into the wind. “Mirror, mirror on the wall,” their editors may well continue to ask. Hopefully they remember how that Grimm fable ends.

* Tessa Wong creditably included in her story some details on the survey sample – something Hussain omitted, probably upon seeing how inconvenient the truth was for his story.

~ by spiegel2071 on March 2, 2010.

2 Responses to “Press muse – Love thyself, ignore thy neighbour”

  1. […] that so? It is a claim similar to one made earlier this year (discussed here), when then acting information minister Lui Tuck Yew (he has since been appointed on a permanent […]

  2. […] Swell, nothing’s perfect; big deal. That shouldn’t deter government leaders or the press from citing this barometer in future acclamations of local mainstream media. After all, if past form is any guide, they were more than enthusiastic in citing less rigorously performed surveys that employed less representative sampling, like the Edelman Trust Barometer so proudly referenced by information minister Lui Tuck Yew. […]

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