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Malaysia views: Good journalism no longer appeals to readers?

  • Good journalism has become increasingly unattractive to the audience under the powerful siege of bad journalism.

By Liew Wui Chern

Having been in the journalistic line for so long, a question that I have always been asked is: what is news, and what makes “good journalism”?

For so long I have been thinking that this question is rather interesting. Good journalism should sum up what is most ideal for journalism. The entire journalistic system and production chain -- from the tips received, to reporting, editing and publication -- have all been operating impartially within the most sensible, morally acceptable, professional and precision-demanding journalistic framework.

Additionally, good journalism is about inspiring the readers, exposing and rectifying acts of corruption, overseeing government operation, and voicing out injustices within our society, to become a watchdog the villains will dread.

This is the most ideal scenario in journalism. Although I don't think I have penned any good news throughout my journalistic career, when I teach my students, I will invariably instill such a philosophy in them so that these journalists-to-be will have a very clear idea of their positioning and obligations in future. Of course, it is beyond my control whether they will eventually put this into practice one day, because to be honest, I personally do not think today's media industry and audience are capable of digesting such a profound ideal.

Take our most familiar Malaysia for instance, the readers here are very much more attracted to sensational news characterized by its violent or explicit content.

As the audience is more inclined to this kind of news and reporting approach, local mass media are carrying more and more news on violence and conflicts. Content presentation and headlining have become increasingly sensational too in a bid to capture the attention of new generation readers. Such content is the exact opposite of what makes good journalism, where academic theories are concerned, or what we call “bad journalism”.

This phenomenon has gained in momentum following the rise of social media, especially when any individual can actually build up his or her own media brand. The entire information market will inevitably be plunged into the whirlpool of vicious competition, making it all the harder for regulators to control the quality of news. As a result, large numbers of content farms, plagiarists and fake news factories come into being.

In other words, today's information market is not only inundated with bad journalism, but also “fake news” and “headline news”. Such articles are fact-distorting, plagiarized, excessively sensational, exaggerated and inappropriately headlined. Sadly, these are the ones that have commanded the most attention on the social media. And most importantly, such audience engagements have tremendous appeals to online advertisers.

Media organizations in Malaysia are confronting unprecedented challenges arising from such a trend. Against such a backdrop, orthodox good journalism has become increasingly unattractive to the audience under the powerful siege of bad journalism.

Sure enough some may argue that the current political climate has somewhat contributed to the unpopularity of good journalism, too. For instance, Singapore has enforced a quasi-authoritarian approach in information management. Content that is perceived to be seditious, overly sensational and exaggerated will come under the watchful eyes of the republic's communications and information ministry, which is known for the region's strictest control over the spread of misinformation.

Although the public may consequently relinquish their freedom of criticizing the government, a stable administration will ensure expanded space for (extra-political) good journalism.

As for Malaysia which has seen a change of federal administration for under two years, there are already signs pointing to more liberal expression freedom. Unfortunately, the political turmoil has further complicated the information market, and the authorities remain unprepared for media challenges.

The highly intricate information market and intense consensual confrontation have created a favorable environment for the propagation of fake news and bad journalism in an attempt to crush a political rival or divert public attention from some highly controversial issues, and these make excellent topics for gossips.

With bad journalism becoming increasingly prevalent nowadays, room for the survival of good journalism is destined to constrict further. As such, I always tell my students good journalism has become a rare commodity because the local media industry appears to be starting to attune itself to the audience's preferences and slowly give up the production of high quality news that constitutes good journalism, instead going after production speed and audience appeals. Such a “rushy” content production model has deprived a journalist of the time to contemplate the depth of journalism.

What is more worrisome is that this phenomenon seems to have developed into a global trend, as I have heard from fellow journalists from regional countries like Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as Taiwan, Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom, that they are also encountering the same problem of bad journalism and fake news dominating the information market.

In other words, safeguarding the integrity of good journalism is posing a major challenge to the global media industry. And the elements that make up such a challenge are highly convoluted: a shift in audience preferences, media organizations' pursuit of advertisements, unrestricted information dissemination channels, availability of information devices, and resurgence of media manipulation, among others. Tackling one specific factor alone will not alter the status quo.

In view of this, I urge media workers in this region to constantly keep in mind what used to draw them to this profession. Some of you might have joined this industry after pursuing a course in journalism, and I would like you to look back at all the expectations “good journalism” once promised you.

As a former journalist and now a media education worker, it has never crossed my mind that orthodox journalism should be led by the nose by audience preferences. The media industry has an irrefutable obligation of inspiring the public and enhancing their awareness. We must stand united and take the initiative to tell these people what “good journalism” is, and help them nurture the ability to filter out unauthenticated news and bad journalism. I always believe it is not that good journalism does not appeal to the readers, but rather the supervisors.

(Liew Wui Chern teaches journalism in Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman Malaysia.)

 

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