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.
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(© 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 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
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.
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.