“SEX, Jacky. It’s what people want to read! It’s what will sell the paper!” This is how my former editor at the first newspaper I worked in justified the images of sexy women and titillating stories in the paper. Often, it felt as if he could have gleefully continued with “Sex, and more sex!” as the newspaper’s circulation climbed.
Perhaps the “give readers what they want to read” formula works to some extent, because the newspaper I used to write for remains the country’s #1 English daily. And while I know there are objections within that newsroom about sexist coverage, the truth is, because newspapers are also business entities, increasing readership in order to draw in advertising revenue can be really important.
Which is why it was very refreshing and encouraging to hear Charles Glasser at an 8 July 2008 luncheon talk in Kuala Lumpur at a Bar Council- and Centre for Independent Journalism-organised training programme for media defence lawyers. A former journalist turned lawyer and trainer, Glasser is the high-profile media counsel for Bloomberg News. Glasser’s brief bio states that “much of his work involves training members of the media on how to exercise their freedom to speak responsibly.”
In his talk titled Working as Media Counsel in the 21st Century: A New Paradigm, Glasser said, “What is of interest to the public need not necessarily be in the public’s interest.” If ever an apt and succinct response was needed to the argument that the media need sex, women and salacious scandals to sell, this was it, I thought.
One of the core values and practices newsrooms should have, Glasser argued, is that the media needs to serve the public interest. “The public interest is not what the public merely finds interesting; the public interest is served when those with something at stake have the opportunity to learn facts that affect their health, safety, financial or physical security.”
And so, while a newspaper that focuses on what kind of model Altantuya Shaariibuu was, for example, may have pulled more readers, it really misses the point of serving the public interest if it doesn’t ask a far more important question: Who had the authority to direct special action unit personnel to blast her up with restricted explosives?
Public interest is also not served when the media only react to what’s new or current all the time. Yes, it’s true that the “news” is about what’s new, but when the media hop from one new issue to the next, what tends to happen is that older, unresolved issues tend to be forgotten.
A good example is the coverage on the Auditor General’s annual report. Every year, the media have a field day with the Auditor General’s disclosures of corruption and inefficiencies involving public funds. Every year, the issues are forgotten by the media within a couple of weeks, until the following year’s report. Older stories tend to end up smaller in paragraph length, and further back in the inside pages, until the issue vanishes from the media, and the public’s, consciousness.
At The Nut Graph, we hope we will be able to serve public interest ethically, responsibly and with courage. The nut graph is the paragraph that explains the point of a story. In a nutshell, it tells readers why something is significant enough that it needed to be written and published and read.
What is of significance to the public’s interest is not always what is new or what is salacious. While it may be riveting coffeeshop talk to keep abreast of the latest sodomy accusations against Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, does it really serve the public interest if the media allocates so much resources to the latest twists and trysts at the expense of other larger issues that need serious national attention? As unsexy or “old” as the issue of urban poverty may be at a time when sex scandals are the talk of town, do we serve the public interest when we report on the scandals and forget about the stories of social inequality that really need to be told?
This is why, at The Nut Graph, we plan to not just do spot reporting of the latest breaking news; we plan to also connect the dots for readers so that we can all make sense of what’s going on in and outside the country, and so that we can respond intelligently and responsibly as informed and knowledgeable citizens. And we plan to carry out journalism that is as ethical, fair and responsible as possible. Where we fail, we hope we will be held accountable.
Will we draw eyeballs to our site so that we can make The Nut Graph financially viable through income from advertisements? That’s left to be seen because it’s as much a decision by readers and advertisers as it is ours in managing the business aspect of our humble outfit.
What matters, though, is whether we, as journalists, can serve the public interest as the latest media in town. Our readers will be our judge, but as Stephen Covey states in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, it’s best to start with the end in mind.