Malaysian journalism got walloped three times last week: the NST was whacked for a sudden burst of journalism, the Star for a sudden burst of frivolity, and all Malaysian journalism whacked for never bursting awake from its slumbers and always taking the easy way out.
Lim Teck Ghee at the Centre for Policy Initiatives, usually a level-headed guy, was bemused by the NST suddenly rousing itself and starting the new year — under a new boss, it should be noted — by suddenly realising that there’s Corruption At The Border! (Gasp!) Border police, Customs and Road Transport officers take bribes to close one eye! (Shock!).
Luckily Teck Ghee recovered from his befuddlement in time to realise that the NST is merely living up to its role as a creature of the PM’s Department and Umno’s information apparatchiks, and merely promoting the good (Umno-BN-government) side of the cause du jour.
On the other hand Khoo Kay Peng the commentator and analyst (and not the tycoon, history professor or journalist), was pissed off by the Star’s frivolous descent into investigating the root cause of Lim Guan Eng’s changing hairstyles.
He decried the lack of attention to serious matters more worthy of space in the country’s leading English-language newspaper.
Well, yes, that’s true. The press could do with a little more attention to serious matters and not rely on outside commentators and columnists to do the work of poking into big issues.
On the other hand a look at the “Most Viewed” boxes at all online news sites will reveal what actually is of interest to the general reading public. Most of them aren’t likely to be avid readers of the Comment & Analysis sections of the world’s leading newspapers — they don’t even subscribe to Aliran or MalaysiaKini, for that matter.
And a cursory survey of the day’s headlines in all Malaysian news sites will show an overwhelming preponderance of reports on politicians talking (as if they were all that mattered), and general shallowness and frivolity in news and non-news sections. As in the rest of the world popular newspapers far outsell serious newspapers and frivolity outsells seriousness.
Zaharom Naim the media professor, by way of shining contrast, showed the way ahead by focusing on the laziness that lies behind most Malaysian journalism. Zaharom’s point was essentially a criticism of the he said she said reporting and transcription journalism that lies behind almost all news reports. And Azman Azwan Azmawati of USM, speaking at the same forum, criticised the lack of context in most Malaysian journalism.
Valid points from all of them, not just for newspapers but broadcasting and online, too.
Little will change, however, until Malaysian journalists themselves are willing to acknowledge the essential truths behind these complaints, admit to shortcomings within the trade, and to rise beyond merely attacking the system or poor schooling, as NUJ general secretary V Anbalagan did in response to Zaharom and Azmawati.
Indeed, shoddy journalism has arisen from Malaysia’s warped political culture and institutions that prize conformity above excellence, and from a society that condones mediocrity. The Malaysian politician, businessman, or concerned citizen who demands that journalists uncover the dirt about their rivals or opponents all too often are also quick to demand that journalists cover up the dirt on themselves.
But for all that, Malaysian journalists would be failing themselves if they did not demand of themselves the same standards of excellence they demand of the rest of Malaysian society, whether in education, politics or government web sites.