My Say: Best practice in Malaysian journalism

The Edge Daily

My Say: Best practice in Malaysian journalism
By Eric Loo

Local literature on what constitutes “best practice” in journalism is relatively scarce. What’s available are mainly American journalism texts and case examples translated by local media educators, many of whom graduated from American universities, and less so, the UK. The translation of foreign texts and deference to “Western” media models as the universal benchmarks of “best practice” has along the way overlooked the work by award-winning local journalists and their impact on public policies and community life in their respective countries.

Malaysian perception of what constitutes “best media practices” is understandably ideologically polarised. The government sees the media as a state apparatus, a facilitator of “national development”. Civil societies see the media as the people’s advocate, closely watching those who govern.

“Best practice” is judged subjectively according to the state’s and civil societies’ expectations of what the media ought to be. Which leads me to my attempt at figuring out the characteristics of award-winning journalism in Asia — for instance, the Ramon Magsaysay Award in the Philippines and Developing Asia Journalism Awards sponsored by the Tokyo-based Asian Development Bank Institute — and if they do differ from the “Western” type which we are so familiar with.

My research aims to develop a typology of personal, cultural and professional attributes of award-winning Asian journalists operating in countries noted for their “press freedom” (such as India and the Philippines) and those noted for their repressive media laws (such as Malaysia, Singapore and parts of Indochina). We know all too well about bad media laws on the home front, which continue to block any potential award-winning journalism from happening in the newsroom. And with press freedom, there are many theories. In reality, press freedom belongs to the media owner who decides what are acceptable news values and coverage.

For a change, let’s look at media owners and editors, and how they plant the seeds of bad newsroom practices, which in turn produce a generation of bad reporters. Here’s how it works in the newsroom. Often, a reporter’s reward comes not from the readers’ recognition of his stories but from his editors and peers. Thus, instead of working to professional ideals and values, reporters — especially those just starting out — work to meet their editor’s approval of a particular type of stories. This predetermines the way some issues are reported.

Sociologists call this reading of the boss’ inclination, and thus, staying in the boss’ good books, “role cues”. These cues are communicated implicitly, and sometimes intentionally, within the structure. In the context of the media, that’s the corporate newsroom culture. This is how editors plant the bad seeds and in the process, the environment nurtures a generation of reporters who self-censor to conform to the editors’ discursive inclinations. And with the pressures of tight deadlines, reporters often, albeit unconsciously, conform to the newsroom culture to get by the daily news grind.

Self-censorship, however, is embedded in the news process regardless of where the media operates. But good reporters self-censor for good reasons — to steer clear of defamation, to avoid misrepresenting the truth, to be fair, meticulous and solidly accurate. It only becomes a worry when self-censorship is habitual and unthinking, when it’s committed more for personal rewards than for any ethical codes. Malaysian media history clearly shows that self-censorship committed out of learnt fear — in many cases, unjustifiable — only leads to legitimate issues being uninvestigated, the bigger picture compromised and the truth concealed.

The tricky question is whether Malaysian media laws have effectively repressed any potential of “best practice”, if any, from emerging in the newsroom. Or are the laws being seen as necessary to keep some editors and journalists in check? It’s hard to know the right answer. What’s clear though is that international mentions of award-winning journalism from Malaysia, especially after 1998, have so far spotlighted media reform advocacy groups, alternative online publications and media watch-dogging weblog sites. No mention of the mainstream media though. Which makes one think whether another cataclysmic political event is necessary to usher in another phase of professional value check in the mainstream newsroom.

Change from within the industry may be a long shot given that we don’t have a professional fraternity akin to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, where editors meet regularly to reflect on the standards of American journalism. Nor do we have a media or press council to arbitrate disputes between journalists and the people they cover — basically, an exercise in fundamental fairness — or to complain against journalists who the public feels are not telling the whole story or are currying favour with corporate leaders and incumbent politicians.

Indeed, the toughest critic of poor practice in journalism must come from within the profession, those who are most aware of the ethical decisions and practices of their colleagues. Which reminds me of a recent e-mail from a Malaysian journalist asking whether a media council is relevant under present conditions. I remember the Malaysian media council idea was bandied about in the late 1970s by the National Union of Journalists. Apparently, current discussions are being held back, as it was then, by disagreements on the council’s terms of reference, source of funding, composition of its membership and freedom the media council will need to carry out its tasks unimpeded by political and corporate patronage.

Understandably so, there are sceptics who say a council can only be effective in an environment where journalists and the people have strong faith in the media. I don’t think we can confidently claim faith and trust in the Malaysian media — at least not in the current regulated environment, ownership structure and affiliations between media, business and politics. Ironically, an ill-conceived and poorly represented media council will merely provide another level of government’s dictation on how journalists should behave and what they ought to report — for the sake of “national development”?

Best practice in journalism will remain a concept as long as the media laws remain, where journalists continue write safe stories while issues of political accountability, social injustice, public sense of right and wrong, corporate responsibility or public corruption and religious and race matters are most of the time considered out of bounds. Do we trust our media in telling us what’s really happening? I don’t think so. Nevertheless, trust and public confidence in our journalists can come about if Malaysians have access to a mechanism where they can nudge the media to become more accountable and credible. A media council, if properly constituted by non-partisan public members with appropriate media representatives, may just provide this mechanism, and in the process, give birth to best practice in the newsroom, with bad news culture gradually phasing itself out of the industry. At the end of the day, society only works well to the extent that journalists, acutely critical of their own professional ideals and ethical practice, are vigilant in keeping watch over the powerful and speaking up for the weak.

Dr. Eric Loo lectures at the School of Journalism and Creative Writing, University of Wollongong in Australia.

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