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Kosmo!‘s offence

THE media are at it again. Sensationalising the news, reporting inaccurately and unfairly, and worst of all, having no regard for the personal damage a report may have on a party.

The latest of irresponsible and unethical reporting was in Kosmo!‘s 27 July 2009 edition that front-paged celebrated filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad who passed away from a stroke the day before. The story in itself had a journalistic logic to it. It was for a section called Di Sebalik Berita. It interviewed people who knew Yasmin previously, in another life. It described who she was before she became an acclaimed, award-winning film maker.

Mind you, the Kosmo! reporting was even more rigorous than what entertainment magazine Mangga Online attempted to do to disclose the same information they had about Yasmin. So, what was the problem with the Kosmo! report? 

The problem wasn’t the lack of journalistic rigour or even shortage of empathy involved, as one protest letter against the Kosmo! report pointed out. The problem was the lack of journalistic ethics involved in both the Kosmo! and the Mangga Online reports.

Sex sells

But should we be surprised? No, and yes.

No, because media companies understand what sells. As two former editors have reminded me before, “Sex sells!” So, for guaranteed sales and profits, sensationalism, salacious reports, sex, sexy women, and scandals will all work on any given day.

Emma Watson
Emma Watson(© Mathew Blaney/Flickr)

This is true of both the so-called alternative online media as it is of the so-called mainstream media. Just compare the reporting on Manohara Odelia Pinot — how she is described and the questions asked of her — with a 27 July 2009 New Straits Times report which describes Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame as maturing from a “geek” to a “siren”.

Media companies, like any other enterprise, need to be profitable in order to, at the very least, stay afloat. And if sex and scandal sell, and we know they do, it shouldn’t be surprising that Kosmo! and Mangga did the kind of reports they did on Yasmin.

What’s reprehensible isn’t that these media try to make a profit. What is reprehensible is that they try to do it at the expense of a person’s rights to personal choice, privacy and identity, or to their security and safety.

What is appalling is that in some media’s pursuit of profit, under the guise of rigorous journalism, editors remain oblivious or uncaring about the impact of their reporting. Not just on someone who has already died, and hence has no right of reply, but on her family. We are after all, a nation where the state has the power to penalise Muslims for personal choices they make. And both the Kosmo! and Mangga Online reports not only do nothing in the public interest to justify the kind of reporting they did, they could potentially jeopardise Yasmin’s burial and her family’s rights in the eyes of the state.

Kosmo frontpage apology headline says 'Keluarga Yasmin, Kosmo! mohon maaf'
Kosmo front-page apology, 30 July 2009

Commendably, Kosmo! issued a front-page apology to Yasmin’s family on 30 July. But that doesn’t negate the argument that its unnecessary exposé of Yasmin’s identity could have been avoided if the newsroom was guided by the principles of ethical reporting.

Laws don’t work

Mind you, the reporting on Yasmin aren’t the only instances of unethical reporting that has taken place over the past few weeks.

On 8 July, two Catholics lodged a police report against Al Islam magazine for going undercover at a Catholic mass and partaking of the holy communion for an “investigative” report about Muslims purportedly converting to Christianity. The Catholic community was understandably outraged, as were several Muslims, at the lack of ethics demonstrated by Al Islam.

And then on 20 July, Bernama revealed that a Harian Metro report, headlined Restoran Berahi, about an erotic restaurant, was fabricated by two reporters who were subsequently called in by the police to be questioned under Section 8(A) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA).

cover of al-islam issue that ran catholic mass story
Cover of Al-Islam

On the very same day, Tamil-language newspaper Makkal Osai ran a report about the launch of the Human Rights Party by Hindraf leader P Uthayakumar which has been described as “false and malicious”. At the very least, based on Uthayakumar’s letter of complaint, it would seem that the Makkal Osai report was grossly inaccurate.

That’s quite a few unethical reports in such a short span of time. Which is really troubling. And surprising considering that every time the government tries to justify having media repressive laws such as the PPPA, they say that it’s to ensure the media report fairly and responsibly.

Quite apart from the inappropriateness of treating unethical reporting as a crime against the state, these recent examples demonstrate that having media repressive laws isn’t really the solution, is it? Additionally, we know that these recent examples are not the only instances where sensationalist and irresponsible reporting have occurred in Malaysia.

What does this tell us? It tells us that despite these laws to control the media, the media can’t be stopped from reporting unethically whether it’s on women, religion, transsexuals, a political party or any other issue. For example, just think of the numerous complaints that have been recorded against Utusan Malaysia for its questionable reporting.

In any case, how would the PPPA resolve an issue of unethical reporting such as the articles published by Kosmo! and Mangga Online? And should law enforcement be tasked with ensuring that professional codes of ethics are adhered to?

These examples show that media repressive laws don’t serve the function the government claims they do. These laws only ensure that the media cannot report fearlessly and independently on vested political interest and power. And ironically, that is exactly what prevents the media from reporting responsibly.

The truth is, so long as the media in Malaysia choose not to adopt a code of ethics to demonstrate their commitment to responsible, fair and ethical reporting, citizens can expect more of the kind of reporting we’ve seen in recent weeks. Profits alone will be motivation enough, especially if the media know they can get away with what they’ve done without being held accountable. Indeed, for that reason alone, the protest letter by journalists and former journalists against Kosmo! is an important gesture — it is one way for media practitioners to hold their peers in Kosmo! to account.

But is that enough? As a media professional, I believe that we can only be held accountable through a code of journalistic ethics. Other internationally-recognised media around the world voluntarily adopt these codes. Why shouldn’t we?

If only we would, then those who don’t uphold such ethical codes would be shamed, lose credibility and legitimacy, and be taken to task by their professional peers and the public. That might just make earning profits through unethical means painful enough for some media to rethink their business strategy.

At the end of the day, protesting against Kosmo! shouldn’t just be about Yasmin and her family. It should be about upholding journalistic principles and public interest. But that can really only happen if media practitioners, the government and the public care enough about what really is at stake. Favicon

Jacqueline Ann Surin believes that it is in the media’s own interest to adopt a code of ethics to ensure continued credibility. She believes that media repressive legislation, like capital punishment that has proven to be ineffective against drug trafficking, does nothing to address the real issues at hand.

See also: 
What media freedom, prime minister? 
Where’s the BN’s commitment? 
Controlling the media

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13 Responses to “Kosmo!‘s offence”

  1. Sivin Kit says:

    I’ll keep it short, Jacqueline.

    You said what’s on many of our minds better than we could.

    Preach it sister!

  2. Sam says:

    If a piece of legislation is exercised on targeted groups and protect government-friendly groups, then we can have all laws in the world and achieve nothing.

    Just see how Utusan is protected by the government. What has it done to Al Islam?

    Woe betide if a vernacular paper had done the same thing.

  3. chong cheng hai says:

    A standard Code of Ethics adopted by all media organisations, traditional, alternative or otherwise, is good on paper. Who will be the police and what will be the punishment, that’s the question.

  4. Ritchie says:

    Kosomo’s […] journalism should not be the benchmark to sanction oppressive laws against the media. We are a nation where instutionalised media by the goverment regime, for the regime rules. Yes, we need to address abuses like that of Kosmo! and Al Islam firmly — the tension is in how to resurrect a breathless media without killing it in the process.

  5. Sonia says:

    Thanks for a pertinent and balanced review of the issues involved.

  6. Since a journalist’s first obligation is to seek truth and report it, why is this article in Kosmo! a breach of journalistic ethics? Because even if it is true, it violates another principle that journalists are obliged to uphold:

    Minimise harm — ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

    According to this principle, journalists should:

    * Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
    * Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
    * Recognise that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
    * Recognise that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
    * Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
    * Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
    * Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
    * Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

    (From the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics)

    In the case of Kosmo!’s article, the people behind it have violated this principle in at least four ways:

    1. They have treated the memory of their subject, a recently deceased person no longer able to tell her side of the story, with disrespect, making allegations that may (given prevailing societal attitudes, prejudiced though they may be) diminish how she is remembered by Malaysians, and expose her family to odium.
    2. They showed little compassion to her family and scant regard for the potential harm to her aged and frail mother.
    3. They did not demonstrate any overriding public need that could have justified such an intrusion into their grief and privacy.
    4. The mode in which they presented their report suggests that they have pandered to lurid curiosity, perhaps motivated by the need to sell newspapers.

    Therefore, I believe that Kosmo! has breached journalistic ethics, and should be held accountable for it.

    Also, expressing outrage at Kosmo! while ignoring flagrant journalistic misconduct everywhere smacks of double standards and hypocrisy.

  7. Azizi Khan says:

    Kosmo!, Utusan, Mangga all these mainstream Malay media are trashy gossip magazines at best. You get more informative reporting reading Gila Gila! (Is that thing still around ?)

    They have [no] ethics and they have no credibility to aim for. They might as well be reporting alien (the flying saucer kind) kidnapping.

    To appear relevant to the masses, they employ people like Awang Selamat to strike fear and uncertainity in the heart of Malay [Malaysians]. Besides, it keeps a whole group of Umno supporters employed so they know which side their bread is buttered.

    Jac, the more online media keeps reporting “the other side of the story”, these gossip magazines will just sink into oblivion.

  8. zamorin says:

    I think the US media is a bigger farce, think “embedded” journalists.

  9. crap says:

    TNG should be concern about its own journalists and reports, rather than highlighting other media’s weaknesses. As if TNG is so perfect in all its reporting.

  10. Lam says:

    What are you saying? The info tarnishes and damages Yasmin? Like all the others, you feel this is something so shameful that no one must know. Like the others too, you have condemned Yasmin’s group of human beings. The family and also her husband love her for whatever she was, and they are not ashamed. The prejudice and ridicule perpetrate with the intensity of outrage expressed by the journos, who also are on a crusade to hammer it in . . . that this group is an infringement on society, and unspeakable. Btw I am a ‘normal’ senior citizen with married children. I regret so much that you and your colleagues express so much shame and insist that we share your view that this must be a ‘closet’ affair. By forcing an apology, the journos have soundly condemned Yasmin’s group.

  11. ariffjunior says:

    Great article! I agree with you on many points Jac,

    Tabloid magazines sell on sesationalism. Like Kosmo, several prints around the world have landed in hot water because of the lack of journalistic etiquette, such as the UK’s Daily Sport. I believe you can’t turn to these magazines and get reliable news. Its hard to tell what’s true and what’s over-exaggerated in tabloid news.

    And yes, Sex Does Sell.

  12. Jelly says:

    Inaccurate? Which part of the Kosmo! report on Yasmin was inaccurate? Insensitive, maybe but accusing them of being inaccurate is pretty arrogant of you.

    It’s funny how everyone is trying to be a hero for Yasmin. Her family didn’t make noise, Yasmin herself when she was alive embraced her sexuality and was always proud to talk about it. Dig a copy of Jelita from two years ago and read how open Yasmin was about her sexuality. She was proud of it and encouraged others to do the same.

    What Kosmo! did was share the part of Yasmin that many people didn’t know of and [I] hope it inspired those who are in situations that Yasmin once was [in] to go ahead and make that difference for themselves and not for society.

    Shame that everyone lobbied for an apology. Kosmo! did all the mak nyahs and the transgendered community a huge favour. All of you took it away from them.

    Go bask in your self-absorbed glory.
    Hi Jelly,

    Thanks for your feedback. Actually, the point of my column wasn’t that the Kosmo! article was inaccurate. In fact, Kosmo!’s reporting was rather rigourous and by that, I mean that their journalism was faultless except for the ethical dimension to their reporting — which was the point of my column.

    Media ethics demand the following: if we know that reporting something would jeopardise one’s safety, security or rights, or violate one’s privacy, we should refrain from doing so unless there’s clear public interest involved.

    And while Yasmin may have been previously open about her sexuality, my experience was that she did choose to be private about it with the media when I first knew about her. To the best of our abilities, we respected her right to privacy, not because we wanted to judge her and others, but because she had a right to privacy.

    And just for the record, not everyone, journalists included, signed that protest letter against Kosmo!. Because not all of us believed that the protest letter clearly articulated the principles involved.


  13. teej says:

    Yasmin Ahmad’s (bless her soul) personal choice is exactly that , her personal and private choice.

    However, she has negated some of her privacy by virtue of her being a public figure. And as I understand it, one particular personal choice has been on public record for some time (even though it’s not on her wiki page, curious selective editing that) so , ethically it wouldn’t be considered an intrusion into her privacy as she has admitted to it previously and a good number of people in media and advertising know about it .

    And while I disagree with the response against Kosmo! (the article wasn’t salacious, it wasn’t malicious and it wasn’t gossipy which for Kosmo! is quite an achievement to be honest), I agree with one possible consequence highlighted by Jacqueline in her article .

    “they could potentially jeopardise Yasmin’s burial and her family’s rights in the eyes of the state.”

    All the self-righteous media and advertising people are jumping on the wrong ethical bandwagon, doing a disservice to the beleaguered transgender community and to Malaysians as a whole. They should point out that due to the repressive tendencies of the Malaysian government towards its Muslim subjects’ personal choices and Malaysian society’s discriminatory outlook against transgenders, queers and heck, anything we find strange and different, we would rather not see that factoid about Yasmin in print.

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