Monday, July 16, 2012

Compassionate Journalism

This is something that I have mulled about for years as a member of the profession, and I've finally decided to give words to those fragmented thoughts that have cropped up on and off in the course of work.

There's this common enough perception, that in the quest to garner readership and sell newspapers, we in journalism would resort to sensationalising issues and digging up the dirt on others. First of all there is no way we can sensationalise anything, if there is nothing to sensationalise in the first place, and if there is no dirt to dig up, we certainly would not be putting our spades to the task!

So to all those who keep grumbling about sensationalism, and the media giving them a hard time - usually all those so-called 'Important People', how about keeping your backyard clean first and not saying silly things - which of course will be reported!

When you're that high up, we assume you're smart, it goes with the territory, so when you let slip that you're not, it becomes news naturally.

My point is, when one is in the limelight, the light of the media will shine upon you mercilessly, that's a given. It is our job. Nothing personal. It sells, we tell. Plus the public have the right to know what you get up to. The problem with this country is that we don't do enough of that.

On the other hand, as a member of the profession, I strongly believe that our job is not solely about selling newspapers or getting hits for our websites. Sometimes a dignified silence is necessary. There are times when compassion is required. It wont gain us sales, but this business is not all about money. Anyone in this profession who thinks it's about $$$$$ all the way, is in the wrong line of work.

When silence is required

When Nayati Shamelin Moodliar was abducted, the police issued a gag order of sorts on the media. Understandably so - it was a kidnap case - a precarious situation. Literally every media organisation complied except one.

They played up the issue to the hilt. There were Nayati stories everyday, it irritated the police and inflamed the boy's parents. But what they cared about was sales. Not Nayati. Said paper would not have been any poorer if they opted to remain silent like the rest, but they went to town with it!

Yes I know they run many stories of poor suffering folk with numbers to call, for the public to donate. But when it comes down to it, they were not compassionate or understanding to Nayati or his family. These folks were just $$$$ to them.

There are things that the public needs to know, but there are things if not reported, will not make anyone the poorer for it. In my early days as a journalist, we had a part-time writer whose father was found dead under rather strange circumstances, some said he was murdered, others said he committed suicide.

Upon hearing the story, my editor assigned one of my colleagues to call up and interview the part-time writer, there was a possibility that the story would go on the front page. My colleague naturally was upset. What she wanted to do was visit the family and pay her condolences, not interview them for a front page story.

When she told our editor that she did not feel right doing it, he chastised her for being emotional and said there was no two ways about it. When she finally called the guy, he pleaded with her not to run the story. Said that the family was already grieving, and that further highlighting the matter would only cause tongues to wag and embarrassment to them.

She decided not to write the story and most of our other colleagues agreed as much. It was not merely because he was our colleague. His father was not a public figure, none of the other papers knew about it, it was not a public interest story at all.

Mind you this was not a story that was going to make a sensational court trial the way the Canny Ong or Noritta Samsudin case did. So why cause further grief to the family by splashing it on the front page. Well at least that was what we reporters thought.

When my editor came out of the evening meeting, he was pissed when my friend said she did not want to proceed with the story. It ended with her leaving in a huff. The story was carried as a news brief.

At that time, it made me wonder, if something had happened to me or one of my family members, would it become front page news too?

Well a few months later, a relative of the said editor was found dead under mysterious circumstances. A rival newspaper carried the story as a news brief. Many of my senior colleagues made a big hue n cry about it. Saying it was malicious and cruel, and that it would cause humiliation to the family.

It made me wonder why they failed to show the same compassion earlier, when a member of our own staff had to beg them not to run a story, and they still did - even that news brief was unnecessary.

Ideally our duty is to spread awareness on the issues that people should know of, matters of public interest, and also to keep public figures on their feet. But there are things if not known will hurt no one. Sometimes a dignified silence is of the utmost necessity.

Cultivating goodwill

People might pick up a newspaper or log on to a website that is dishing up the dirt, but they might not necessarily like you. And if you think Selling is more important than cultivating goodwill, you're wrong.

Some examples - The NST has not been doing as well as it used to in years yonder. Despite many revamps it still lags in sales. Why? Cause it can't shake off that image of being subordinate to the ruling party and the government.

During the recent Bersih 3.0. People on the street grumbled about the coverage of both The Star and NST. theSundaily and the Malay Mail received many kudos for what many deemed was balanced coverage about what truly happened on the ground.

The NST and The Star might seem like giants today, they are big organisations after all. theSun and Malay Mail might seem smaller outfits in comparison. But giants have been known to crumble when they are no longer relevant.

In journalism I believe, the future belongs to those who serve the public, versus those who bow to big corporations and the strong arm of the government.

In my opinion, serving the public means telling both sides to a story, we give you the facts, you make what you will of it. No spin doctoring. When something is not right, people deserve to know.

Restraint is also important, as in the case of Nayati. It gives us dignity and tells people that we are compassionate.

Call me idealistic, but I believe that the media organisation that succeeds in the future - is one that is liked and respected by people for the brand of journalism that it practices.

This ain't the old days when you just had the NST and The Star. In print and online there's much to choose from. Everyone is vying for a share of the pie, competition is tougher.

Of course I'm aware of the necessary evil of pandering to advertisers. But advertisers also want to advertise with media that has the higher circulation no? And even if you can't or don't want to fulfill some of their demands, can they afford not to advertise with you if your circulation figures are high....?  

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