A tall tale on objectivity

In a tropical city-state, a politician is feeling the heat. His ministry has been accused by foreign media and local bloggers of inadequate policies in tackling homelessness. His personal credibility is under the cosh, as he had staked his reputation expressing an inclusive and genuine desire to help the needy.

But there’s a way out of the quandary. The floor of the House would be his stage; there he would be invulnerable. No one would stand up to him directly, questioning his assertions. Not yet, anyway.

At the parliament house, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, minister for community development, youth and sports, initiated his offensive. He laid out his facts, plotted a careful narrative with them, and alleged three tales of gross irresponsibility – against a homeless couple, against a foreign news agency, and against local websites. He told parliamentarians:

“Unfortunately Al-Jazeera did not bother to check the facts…The facts tell a very different story.”

“This is a clear example where a foreign media has failed to ascertain the facts. Some irresponsible websites have also caused these falsehoods to circulate widely on the internet.”

Criticise the foreigners, check. Imply that, unlike the mainstream news organisations, the local alternative media was prejudiced, check. Finally, he threw down the gauntlet:

“Now that the facts are out, let’s see whether these people who’ve been propagating falsehoods have the courage and the honesty to set the facts right.”

The die was cast, the machinery set in motion. And as he would have expected, the mainstream media bought it hook, line and sinker.

Within hours, Channel News Asia had produced a response. Its report, penned by S Ramesh, was emphatic. The headline declared, with little reticence: “Govt takes Al Jazeera to task for misreporting on homelessness cases”.

Perhaps Ramesh has a great sense of irony and wished to parody the claims Dr Balakrishnan and himself are making. Maybe he was simply and woefully oblivious. In any case, he himself had reported nothing beyond the minister’s statements made in parliament, and nowhere in the report did he offer the take of Al Jazeera, or indeed the couple themselves.

If he had tried to seek comment from them, the story would have reflected that with quotes, paraphrased comments, or at least state that those parties had declined to comment. If there wasn’t enough time to run those checks, then a perfunctory line like “Al Jazeera/the homeless couple could not be reached for comment” might have sufficed, until further details could be gleaned from them subsequently.

These are all journalism basics – simple things demonstrating effort at independent verification. None of the above was provided. Despite the exhortations of the minister, Ramesh patently did not attempt to “ascertain the facts”. His lede, in this light, was painfully ironic: “International news agency, Al Jazeera, has been taken to task for not checking its facts in its report on the homeless in Singapore.”

It didn’t have to be this way. CNA would have been better served with a headline like: “Govt says/claims Al Jazeera misreported homelessness case” or even “Govt accuses Al Jazeera of misreporting on homelessness case”. Either one would have conveyed the contingency in the veracity of the minister’s statements.

The grand old lady also pulled no punches with a damning headline – “Al-Jazeera report on homeless misleading”. But like Ramesh, Straits Times reporter Cai Haoxiang concerned himself only with reporting the events in parliament – despite being a contending party in the story, Al-Jazeera was a notable absentee from his piece, as were the homeless couple.

Editors at the Today newspaper were no less surefooted with their headline writing – “Setting the record straight on homelessness“. Assured as the headline was, journalist Leong Wee Keat appeared to have written the entire piece from the parliament press room (or more likely, from the Today newsroom armed with transcripts). The story reflected no independent attempt to “ascertain the facts” with the other contending parties. Despite having little more than the minister’s words to go by, he presented them as unquestioned fact. In all likelihood, he, like Ramesh and Cai, had simply parroted the minister without independent verification.

But the good doctor wouldn’t have cared for any of that. As far as he was concerned, it was all going swimmingly at the moment.

***

Two days had elapsed since the minister’s remarks. By then the accused had decided to reply. Al Jazeera released a statement reiterating the veracity of its report, while The Online Citizen published the first of two articles offering rebuttals to and clarifications of the minister’s statements.

But in the preceding time, none of the mainstream media outlets bothered with a follow-up. But it wasn’t for a want of material – there was plenty to go on for their reporters to run independent checks and provide more in-depth coverage. It seemed like they were waiting for a cue.

The ministry obliged with a counter-response to Al Jazeera and TOC. Today moved quickly, putting out a story on Friday. This time the paper was also more nuanced with its headline – “Al Jazeera’s defence ‘illogical’: MCYS“. The accusation of illogicality is clearly presented as a claim by MCYS as opposed to established fact.

Nonetheless, a fair headline doesn’t make for a good report. The story, strangely without a byline, included only reported speech from an MCYS spokesperson and quotes from Al Jazeera’s statement. If Today had attempted to speak to the couple, Al Jazeera or even TOC, it is not apparent from the piece.

On Saturday, the Straits Times returned to the fray, fielding Rachel Chang to summarise the affair to date. Her headline and lede describes a local website that has responded to Dr Balakrishnan’s claims. But rather oddly, she then proceeded to explain in detail over seven paragraphs what the minister said in parliament about Al Jazeera and the homeless couple. That wasn’t the news for this story – the headline, sub-head and nut graph were all about a “prominent local website” responding to the minister’s claims with counter-claims.

It was only in the eighth paragraph before TOC was named the website in question. And readers would have to get about halfway into the article – 13th and 14th paragraphs – to get any inkling of what the counter-claims were, before being treated to the MCYS counter-response against Al Jazeera.

Once again there was a significant silence – the couple’s perspective. Chang ended her piece revealingly: “The Straits Times understands that both TOC and MCYS remain in contact with the couple.” Like the other journalists, she had not spoken to the couple directly, or did not indicate that she tried.

Now, a full week after his sally in parliament, the minister still sits easy. He has yet to respond to the TOC rebuttals. He might, or he might not. Either way, no one is pushing him to do so, least of all the mainstream press.

***

The Singaporean mainstream press is a peculiar beast. It is at times capable of in-depth, analytical journalism (AWARE saga, for example), investigative work (NKF scandal), and even some limited forms of advocacy (charitable causes like the Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund). Yet it just as often reverts to a docile, self-indulgent self (see: Straits Times’ coverage of itself), especially when dealing political news.

Most strange, however, throughout this shape-shifting between its different guises, is their attempt to retain an (almost) exclusive claim to a pristine form of objective journalism. Something in those institutions still allows them to persist with this self-image.

It is an old myth, this objective journalism. Its genesis perhaps lay in the 20th century American mainstream press, which came to embrace it just about half a century ago. As Daniel Hallin recounted in his analysis of American media coverage of the Vietnam War, it is a self-image that found purchase during their transition into a corporatised and professionalised industry.

Modern news organisations were evolving from being overtly political institutions owned by politicians, businessmen and political parties, into corporate bureaucracies with greater editorial independence and minimal external influences. Gone was the old form of press partisanship, in came a sense of professionalism and purpose, and a somewhat naïve belief in objectivity.

At the same time, the relationship between the media and the state was being rationalized. “A sort of historical trade-off took place: journalists gave up the right to speak with a political voice of their own, and in turn they were granted a regular right of access to the inner councils of government,” Hallin wrote.[1] But that was not all – the trade-off also involved accepting “certain standards of ‘responsible’ behaviour” and “granting to political authorities certain positive rights of access to the news and accepting for the most part the language, agenda and the perspectives of the political ‘establishment’”.[2]

The Singaporean press too ‘traded’ for this governmental access and acceptance – albeit enforced upon them by law in the form of Parts III and IV of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA), which effectively entrench government influence in the ownership of local newspaper organisations. At the same time, the local press also accepted certain norms of Singaporean mainstream journalism – behaving as so-called responsible actors in the local political and social system.

But while the overall relationship between the American media and the state went one way, the relationship between journalists themselves and the powers that be went another. Given the influence of the Progressive movement over the professionalisation of journalism, Hallin noted that “an ethic of political independence has come to dominate the journalist’s self-image, and that ethic does, as conservatives have observed, contain a strong streak of hostility towards holders of political power.”

Journalists regard themselves as independent observers, perched above the political fray. The way to actualise this professional self-image is to be objective. That required three main qualities – independence, objectivity and balance. The first meant being free of political pressures and other interests, such as commercial and so on. Objectivity entailed the basic presentation of facts and not passing judgement. Balance was regarded as impartiality – declining to favour any position of any party involved in the story.

To produce such independent, objective and balanced reporting, a set of journalistic routines were developed. And it was these conventions, Hallin argued, that made the American media an unwitting instrument of the state. They include:

Use of official sources – American journalism at the time tend to rely on official sources. Firstly, the government produced a timely information flow, which suited the needs of the press. Secondly, this allowed journalists to get around the problem of objective fact presentation. Although it was thought that the ‘disinterested observer’ should not pick one version of the facts over another – it would be controversial and regarded by some to be treasonous to present the perspective of the other side. By deferring to the US authorities, they avoided the choice of which accounts of political reality to present.[3]

Focus on the President – whenever the President acts publicly, he is the focus of the coverage, his “newsworthiness” trumps that of others.[4]

Absence of interpretation or analysis – editorialising is forbidden, but this is problematic, as some kind of framework must be used in news presentation. This opened the door for official sources to fill the void, providing the meaning which the journalist omits.[5]

Focus on immediate events – there is a tendency to focus on the immediate events, covering discrete events that unfold over a day or less. A presidential speech for instance is news, whereas a gradual change in policy is not.[6]

But as the American press realised over the swinging sixties and sizzling seventies, this nominally objective approach played into the hands of savvy politicians who knew to feed and tame the media beast. Richard Nixon was one of them. Learning from the mistakes of his predecessors, he dominated the news cycle – inundating the news media with regular speeches, press statements, and pseudo-events like press conferences and policy briefings. With a notable exception of Watergate, what he contemptuously regarded as the hostile fourth estate was often adequately muzzled.

In Singapore, however, such sustained media offensives are not necessary. After all, the sympathies of the mainstream press are already secured via the NPPA. What is significant, however, is that such “objective journalism” conventions provide a veneer of impartiality to the self-image of the newspaper industry. Individual journalists can satisfy themselves that their work is “objective” and “neutral”. Newspapers can assert, with qualification, that they are producing unbiased journalism.

But in practice the result, just like in the American experience, proves the contrary. This is evident in the homeless couple news cycle:

Use of official sources – Dr Balakrishnan’s statement was accepted at face value and reported as such, unvarnished and unverified. Subsequent MCYS claims that Al Jazeera had used questionable journalistic tactics were also not verified through direct contact with the couple.

Focus on key political figures – Dr Balakrishnan and his ministry are the key players in this case. Their actions and reactions serve as the cues for media coverage.

Absence of interpretation or analysis – Homelessness was the key issue behind this entire affair, but yet none of the mainstream media outlets took the opportunity to expand into in-depth coverage. It would have been the perfect news peg around which to build substantive investigations, analysis, commentary etc.

Focus on immediate events – immediate and discrete events drove this news cycle – the initial parliamentary speech, the response from MCYS to Al Jazeera.

Such conventions are evident in much of the general parliamentary coverage as well. With notable exceptions in the form of extensive analytical coverage of the 2010 budget and a peculiar series of sketches by the Straits Times’ Chua Mui Hoong, press coverage of parliamentary proceedings consist of mere factual reports of speeches and debates, peppered with key quotes from key players. The newsmakers are left to speak for themselves, and the resulting journalism is often less illuminating than is satisfactory.


[1] Hallin, Daniel, The uncensored war: the media and Vietnam (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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~ by spiegel2071 on June 13, 2010.

One Response to “A tall tale on objectivity”

  1. […] muse – The numbers tell no story Remember when I said the Singapore media is a tad too dependent on official sources for authority and convenience, whilst smugly name-dropping Herman and Chomsky? Well, seems that […]

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