Press muse – Friends with benefits

Don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed many an itchy back recently.  It’s an endemic and mostly mild condition, but occasionally it flares up and a kindred spirit has to swoop in to offer a comforting scratch.

Singapore’s traditional press, long irritated by new media upstarts, were fortunate recipients of a elaborate back rub last month. Home affairs and law minister K. Shanmugam spoke of its trustworthiness and fulfillment of key socio-political roles. Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong called on them to convince readers they remain “one of the most dependable sources of news, information and commentaries,” while lamenting the rise of new media that “will give rise to an increasingly individualistic…or ‘atomised’ society.” Information minister Lui Tuck Yew too cheered the local press for being “broad-based, reaching as much of the population as possible.”

There is, of course, quid pro quo in this public lovin’. In return, the traditional news media politely scratch politicians’ pathological prickly backs, declining to poke holes in their flimsy logic and ask difficult questions like how we let a fugitive slip through a supposedly watertight dragnet.

But as intimate as they seem, this relationship’s wide open – the media welcomes all comers bearing the right gifts. Take the following story, run by the Straits Times on Wednesday (1 December) evening, on youth attitudes toward the media in seven countries in the Asia-Pacific region. An excerpt follows:

Young prefers newspapers

WHEN it comes to news, teens and tweens here are still turning to newspapers and not the Internet as widely thought.

That is what a survey by Panasonic Asia Pacific found. Covering seven countries in the region, the online survey had 609 respondents between 10 to 15 years old. Some 100 of them were from Singapore.

Those surveyed said newspapers were their main source of news, followed by TV and websites.

Most of the young people surveyed – 66 per cent – also found newspapers more credible than blogs.

Very eye-pleasing findings for the traditional media, particularly newspapers, indeed. But, of course, the Japanese firm concerned is a client of a company wholly-owned by the Straits Times’ publishers (see: “About SPH MediaBoxOffice Pte Ltd“), and hardly a disinterested player in the corporate media industry.

It was, however, Singapore Press Holdings’ rival Mediacorp that milked the story for its worth, throwing in colourful quotes and illustrative numbers. Excerpts of the story, also published Wednesday, follow:

S’pore youths remain very much traditional news consumers

SINGAPORE: The young in Singapore are serious news consumers, according to a regional survey conducted by Panasonic.

The survey was conducted in conjunction with Panasonic’s Regional Kid Witness News contest.

Close to half of total youth surveyed said they read or watched the news at least once a day.

The survey involved about 600 youth from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

And, they rated traditional forms of media – such as TV and newspapers – top.

In particular, Channel NewsAsia spent some time boasting its superior street cred.

Youth also said showed a lower preference of seeking news and information from blogs and forums.

Singapore respondents particularly seemed more discerning about the trustworthiness of blogs.

“I like blogs and websites because I think it’s easier for me to access into it. Sometimes if I just want to check the accuracy, I think I just watch the news on TV,” said 14-year-old Loga Ragumathan from Sembawang Secondary School.

Another student, 14-year-old Calvin Leong from Sembawang Secondary School, prefers the newspaper.

“I usually go towards the newspapers. I find newspapers very reliable. The source is very very accurate [whereas] from blogs, you can get different opinions from other people.”

Having elaborated the media credibility gap, Channel NewsAsia broke down the survey results as follows:

Singapore youth formed 17 per cent of total respondents.

Ninety per cent get their daily dose of news from newspapers, followed by television (73 per cent) and online news websites (41 per cent).

In comparison, respondents in the region has television as the most common source (80 per cent), followed by newspapers (66 per cent) and magazines (40 per cent).

They also showed a low preference of seeking news and information from blogs, forums and sharing sites.

Only 36 per cent of Singapore respondents felt that news by bloggers is more believable than that in the newspaper.

Plenty of definitive detail devoted to a survey done by a consumer electronics manufacturer with merely 609 respondents, of which only 100 (or 103, depending on which story you read) are from Singapore. Unfortunately, there appears to be no publicly released documentation of this survey by Panasonic. But don’t let that stop you from passing critical judgement from the circumstantial evidence.

The survey’s small and questionable sampling reeks dubiousness of research aims and methodology, while the news stories bear the hallmarks of  ‘churnalism‘ – where public relations and advertising copy enters or even masquerades as news copy. Not that it bothered the Straits Times’ and Channel NewsAsia editors, clearly. But why not?

Veteran journalist Nick Davies believes commercial pressures placing a premium on volume over veracity may be to blame. Psychiatrist and science geek Ben Goldacre argued it to be a result of humanities-trained journalists’ lack of nuanced understanding of research methods. Perhaps they’re right. But I’m a cynical bastard, and I see this as the political economy of the mass media at work – a mix of conscious and unconscious collaboration, economic symbiosis and horsetrading.

Sure, I might have a chip on my shoulder in saying this, being an acolyte of the disparaged new media. But a spade is still a spade, and excessive extrapolation from a suspect survey done with weak methodology toward scarcely scientific purposes is still bad journalism. And despite the healthy prognosis from politicians and Panasonic, traditional media has had good reason to keep its friends close and happy.

Take the numbers from the recently released 2010 SPH annual report. Circulation for most of its major newspapers have slipped again from a year ago. The Straits Times’ daily average circulation in August 2010 fell to 365,800, down 2.3 percent from 374,500 a year ago, and a drop of 6.3 percent from 2000 – the only year in the last 11 that saw the Straits Times circulate above 390,000.

Only the Sunday Times (+0.05 percent), Shin Min Daily News (+3.6 percent) and Tamil Murasu (+5 percent) saw circulation increase from 2009. Many other SPH newspapers extended decade-long slumps – the Business Times, Shin Min Daily News and Tamil Murasu are the only papers showing in 2010 better circulation figures than in 2000.

Overall readership too fell slightly from a year ago, as seen in this imprecise trend graph from the 2010 annual report. English newspaper readership also dove slightly from 2009, according to another conveniently vague chart; in fact, there appears to have been no net growth in the decade since 2000.

No need to push the panic button, though; the political, legal and economic framework is still in place for continued SPH and Mediacorp dominance of the local media market. But, as I’m sure they figured, greasing palms with softball commentary and advertorials to win some friends with benefits won’t do them any bad. Not at all.


~ by spiegel2071 on December 2, 2010.

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