New media versus old media? How about quality media?

May 11th, 2013 | by Alfred Siew
New media versus old media? How about quality media?
Internet
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There’s a rather unhelpful argument going on right now in Singapore, and it seems to be between new and old media.

On one side are professional journalists whose credibility depends on the stories they deliver daily. On the other, social commentators who run independent blogs, watching over the mainstream media for mistakes and highlighting them whenever one is spotted.

This past week, a picture in MyPaper, originally taken by a photographer from The New Paper, was wrongly slammed for being a fake because it depicted cyclists making a dangerous U-turn on a road.

Now that The New Paper has come up with clear evidence – in the form of various frames of photos – to prove otherwise, the criticism has quite rightly been turned on those who spread the photos online.

Yet, framing things in the old versus the new is hardly helpful. Instead, this is a chance for readers to better understand how we consume and produce media.

In this instance, folks in the mainstream media, who have faced endless brickbats – fairly or not – in everyday reporting, are rightly up in arms over a slur on their professionalism.

It’s a lesson too for those who frequently share the slightest suggestion of wrongdoing by the authorities, with whom mainstream reporters are often lumped together.

Yet, this is not a time for pointing fingers, but a great opportunity to re-access how we view information everyday and how we share that with the world.

After all, as media consumers, we are no longer passive dummies sitting in front of a goggle box, but are often active participants in a news event. Anyone with a camera and cellphone is a content producer.

Question is, are we prepared to play that role? Are we discerning enough to understand why the content presented to us is in a particular form? Can we be responsible in our media creation, given the technology tools at our disposal?

I’d argue that, given the limited media diet that Singaporeans have had over the decades, we tend to see things in black and white when it comes to the media.

Anything produced by the mainstream media – the “pro-PAP” Straits Times, for starters – surely has an ulterior motive to promote the government’s agenda. Conversely, what we get on “alternative media” must convey the truth that the mainstream media are too scared or useless to report on.

Sadly, this argument over the “fake” photograph merely reinforces these prejudices.

One question that surely should have come up is why. What’s in it for a newspaper to doctor a photo and put cyclists in a bad light, as it’s been alleged? Surely, a conspiracy theory has to pass that simple test.

Here’s another real-life example of media perceptions. During the last general election in 2011, I wrote a piece on why that was a watershed moment, when people had to take their votes seriously.

The post was widely shared on Facebook. Someone commented on a friend’s page when she shared it, that it was a great piece, nothing like the dross on The Straits Times. Later, he was quite surprised when it was pointed out that the story was actually written by a former Straits Times journalist.

Unfortunately, as readers, as the audience, we often pre-judge stories based on the medium rather than the actual content. Should we be always up in arms over new or old media? Why can’t we ask for quality media, whatever its label?

One of the first things to check is if the authors stick their necks out – yes, by putting their real names next to what they write.

The folks at The Online Citizen are one example. Agree or disagree with the blog, you have to say they’re standing by their story.

Another practice that readers should ask for is a clear corrections policy. When content producers – new or old media – make a mistake reporting or commenting on something, there is no question they have to apologise and correct the error.

Newspapers often print a small correction that many readers miss, but online, you can make the change and acknowledge the error openly (search for “corrections” in the Techgoondu search box to see our silly errors).

If you are able to level criticism at others, surely you can take the flak if you screw up. Even experienced journalists make mistakes over time – the only way forward is to take the brickbats, apologise and try to win back a reader with a solid story the next time.

As they say in the news business, it takes years to gain the trust of readers, only an error to destroy it. And indeed, therein lies the one quality that readers should seek – credibility.

It’s something won over time, with reliable, fair and accurate reports. It’s something earned, not by hanging a government-issued press pass on your neck or by labelling your blog as “alternative” media. New or old media, the content – not the label – should count most.

Ultimately, it’s the audience who has to make the difference. To get the quality media we want, we have to first discern what’s good and what’s rubbish. The change comes from ground up.

To be sure, it’s become harder to discern what’s real and what’s not. During the recent manhunt for the Boston bombers, both the mainstream media – including even the CNN – and the “hive mind” of self-styled Internet investigators wrongly guessed who the suspects were.

Yet, in the chaos, there is still good reporting. In sometimes awkward ways, people still manage to piece together all the jigsaws in the information puzzle we are presented everyday these days.

Mainstream media surely play a critical role being the boots on the ground. Has anyone asked who’s spending all that time in the courts bringing all the details on those sex-for-benefits cases these past few months? Yes, the court reporters who camp in there.

When the mainstream media don’t complete the loop, the online media sometimes take over. That was what happened with the recent AIM saga. Online blogs such as Yawning Bread and The Online Citizen took the lead and pressed for answers. In the end, the Prime Minister ordered a probe into the incident, with the report released just last week.

In our haste, we sometimes pigeonhole new and old media in pre-conceived boxes. The truth is there is a lack of understanding on how the media work in Singapore.

Anyone who is interested in why the Singapore media behave as they do should scan through a brief history of the media scene in the country’s post-independence years.

Critics often lament the pro-PAP mainstream media, perhaps assuming all its reporters are poor prostitutes or running dogs, to borrow a couple of well-used terms. Yet, there is little understanding of why things are what they are.

Cherian George’s short piece here should provide a primer. Also, a quick search on the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act will bring you answers on the type of media regulation in the country that reporters work under.

Good news is, many of those rules don’t seem to apply to new media – at least for now. You don’t need a newspaper licence to run a blog, for example. What has happened as a result is, in idealist terms, a returning of the power of information from the few to the many.

In reality, that has come with costs too. The unfortunate accusations levelled this week at Mohd Ishak, a photojournalist who has won acclaim from many colleagues and ex-colleagues, is one example of the down sides of popular opinion without fact-checking.

Yet, that should not force readers to take the side of either new or old media, but to see the value in both.

Observe the way newspapers report on the sentiments expressed on blogs, and how blogs comment on news stories in the papers, and you will find that there are more views, more debate, on crucial topics that affect citizens’ lives. That cannot be a bad thing.

Rather than see things in black and white, it’s time to read between the lines as a discerning audience and make sense of the grey areas.

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2 Comments

  1. Guest says:

    as traditional newspapers get thinner and thinner and more expansive, people will turn more and more to online sources like google for news, or the cable news channels.

    i don’t think it is necessary to see it as new media versus old media debate rather as one complementing the other. we see this happen with cnn, bbc, foxnews, cnbc, etc. where they are integrating the news together. however local subscribers to newspapers have to pay extra for online content from the same news provider, so in that sense i can understand why some people can or may be seeing or think of it as a separate media?

    then there is the question about quality media. here, i think it is important that we (as readers) separate what is reported news and what is opinion pieces. with the news on tv, or in the newspapers, much of it is supposed to be reported news, but the lines can some times be blurred when opinions are expressed. for example, i remember reading a review you wrote about samsung galaxy S4, HTC One or Sony Xperia. Interesting with articles like this, some will feel that an opinion needs to be express as to which is best, while others like me would only expect a comparison of features. the difficult question for journalists is the degree of opinion that can be place in such articles. if too little opinion is given, it is not a good comparison or review, but if too much opinion is given, it may seem more like an endorsement/ advertisement or a blog posting. the lines can some times be very grey.

    • Alfred Siew says:

      Thanks for sharing. Yes, everyone has an opinion and is free to voice it today. Many readers disagree with our articles – frankly, sometimes, not everyone in the team agrees either. Only when very clear cut cases present themselves – profanity, spam, personal attacks, racism – are any comments deleted on this site.

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