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Be a journalist who cares

  • The scope of influence for a journalist should not be confined to the print media. As long as I know how to apply what I am good at, be it in print or new media, I can still become a journalist who really cares!

By Ho Lee Peing

Why did I go into the media industry and have spent the following 23 years in it until this day?

I have to start with the value of “upholding justice” I learned during my high school.

It was nothing much more than just a storm in the tea cup actually, but for a student like me, it was a valuable social lesson that I picked up.

Due to some reasons my team lost in a ball game. When our school decisively returned the trophy in protest, it gave me some kind of deep mental shock and inner reflection. Even anyone in the street would feel completely helpless, let alone young students like us, when we were being bullied and had no one to turn to.

I was thankful to my school, Sibu Catholic High School, and in particular the leadership of Rev Brother Paul Clet during my six years there. During each weekly meeting, the students not only listened to what the principal taught us, but also the current affairs and issues in places he used to study before, such as Sri Lanka, France, Rome and Switzerland.

What really drew my attention to current affairs news, or rather my interest in journalism, was the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989.

Brother Clet was from China, and it was natural for him to be concerned about what happened in that country even though he was then living overseas. Probably due to the nature of the incident's sensitivity, I could remember he never made very specific mention of it. However, the school library subscribed newspapers in various languages, including Sin Chew Daily which during those years had to be airflown from West Malaysia every day to reach our library newspaper rack.

I made use of the daily recess to visit the school library to catch up with the latest developments on Tiananmen, and this routine became a very much integral part of my life then.

In addition to newspapers, we also had a number of local and foreign periodicals featuring the Tiananmen Square incident. If not for the nod of the principal, such magazines, with their shocking pictures, would not have made it to the school library for students to browse freely.

What raised my curiosity then was how reporters on the frontline managed to get the first-hand information despite all the visible and invisible barriers stopping them, and why photojournalists were willing to take such big risks to snap those awe-inspiring pictures.

I only managed to get the answers to those questions through a book I am a Journalist, My June 4 Story I got a friend to bring back for me from Hong Kong this year on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

I went into the media industry not only because my teachers said I was suitable for this line, but also it was inexpensive at that time for a poor student like me to purse a journalism course locally.

Before long, my two-year stint at the journalism school was over, meaning I had to step into the job market and put all I had learned into practice.

There is a whole world of differences between what one learns at school and what he or she will encounter in real-life practice.

Less than six months into my journalistic career, there was this Coxsackie virus outbreak in Sibu that claimed the precious lives of some 30 young children. Reporting the incident was unlike reporting the usual community or government news, as our identity as reporters suddenly became very sensitive and awkward. The flow of information was not as instantaneous as it is today, and by hook or by crook we had to find a way to get the first-hand information despite the official gag orders and expulsion by hospital staff.

Back in those days I was one of a handful of reporters in town who used emails and had access to the Internet. For the first time I discovered how vast and resourceful the information network was, and it should serve as a highly treasured channel for news sources if we knew how to filter and verify the countless pieces of information made available to us.

I also had the unforgettable experience of being rejected by the victims' families who insisted that reporters on the frontline were highly dangerous people and that they could not afford to be infected again.

That was when, for the first time ever, I realized that reporters could be very unwelcome people actually.

War journalist Susanna Cheung, whom I look up as a role model for this industry, wrote several books that have inspired me to strive to become someone like her, vividly depicting the society around us through her acute senses and clever use of words.

Having been in this line for so long, I have witnessed the heyday of the print media as well as the many trials and tribulations it has gone through. I used to have a hard time coming out with a convincing answer when asked about the future prospects of the print media, until my brief conversation with critical care doctor Ooi Hean several days ago.

Dr Ooi, who has always read my column on the newspaper, advised me to exert my professional social responsibility (PSR) role because he was very certain my articles could help many underprivileged organizations.

Staring at his serious expression, I suddenly came to the realization that the scope of influence for a journalist should not be confined to the print media. As long as I know how to apply what I am good at, be it in print or new media, I can still become a journalist who really cares!

(Ho Lee Peing is Sin Chew Daily Deputy Executive Editor, East Malaysia.)

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