Categorised | Commentary, News

Reporting on Sibu

detective examining something while holding magnifying glass
Investigating frontpage stories
after the Sibu by-election…
(© clarita | morguefile.com)

(Corrected at 5.55pm, 18 May 2010)

THE day after Sibu fell to the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in a closely-watched and fought by-election, what kind of frontpage stories greeted Malaysians in the press?

With some newspapers relegating the news of the week to a second lead and others completely ignoring it as a front page lead, what can Malaysians discern about media independence and fairness?

The message is clear, especially when one compares the way the press reported Barisan Nasional (BN)’s win in the Hulu Selangor by-election with its loss in Sibu.

Reading the news

Here’s a pictorial guide to some newspapers’ front pages the day after the 25 April Hulu Selangor and 16 May 2010 Sibu by-elections. We’ve also included our own totally impromptu rating on the newspapers’ fairness in reporting the results. Readers are also invited to put their own ratings and contest ours, if they wish, in the comments section below.

 Berita Harian: Tawan vs menang 

berita harian frontpages side by side

Hulu Selangor: A victorious P Kamalanathan, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin are featured prominently.

Sibu: Professor Datuk Dr Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid being awarded the 2010 Academic Leadership Award at Universiti Malaysia Pahang is featured prominently. The Sibu results were relegated to the second lead story.

Fairness rating: D+


 Utusan Malaysia: Tumbang vs ??? 

Utusan frontpages comparison

Hulu Selangor: “PKR tumbang” screamed Utusan Malaysia’s headline following BN’s win in Hulu Selangor. This was followed up by four full-page reports and pictures on the by-election.

Sibu: “Hadiah Hari Guru” said Utusan’s headline following PR’s narrow but significant win in Sibu. The second lead was about Najib receiving an International Telecommunication Union award. The Sibu results were only reported on page four in a single article.

Fairness rating: F


 NST: Teachers Day 

Hulu Selangor: A beaming Kamalanathan, Najib and Muhyiddin surrounded by supporters featured prominently. The results occupied the entire front page.

 Sibu: A beaming Professor Ibrahim featured prominently, with the Sibu results made second lead. Apart from a candidate profile picture in the inside pages placed alongside BN’s Robert Lau Hui Yew and independent candidate Narawi Haron, no other photographs were published of DAP’s Wong Ho Leng.

Fairness rating: D+


 The Star: Picture perfect 


Hulu Selangor: Kamalanathan, Najib and Muhyiddin once again.

Sibu: (Corrected) Wong Ho Leng’s only appearance on the front page of a traditional peninsular Malaysia English and Malay language newspaper, although the caption focuses on Wong’s defeated opponent instead of him. It reads: “Lau congratulating Wong on his victory.” Nevertheless, The Star deserves some credit for even putting Wong’s picture, although tiny in comparison to Kamalanathan’s, on its front page.

Fairness rating: B-


Teachers vs election

As much as our teachers should be respected and revered, it is curious how annual teacher’s day celebrations could take precedence over the Sibu by-election results. And with all due respect to Professor Ibrahim and his award, what was his picture doing on newspapers’ front pages instead of DAP’s Wong Ho Leng’s?


The one appearance of Wong Ho Leng,
receiving congratulations from BN’s
Robert Lau
From a newsworthiness perspective, it is clear that the story of the day was the PR’s victory over the BN in Sarawak, especially following the PR’s loss in Hulu Selangor. Indeed, it was the topic people were tweeting and talking about all weekend. Teacher’s Day, while important, clearly wasn’t the hot news of the day.

This then raises the question of how newsworthiness is measured in newsrooms. For certain, there is no such thing as objectivity or neutrality since editors, journalists and even media companies carry with them their own personal biases and value systems.

But not being neutral doesn’t mean a journalist or media outfit cannot be fair, accurate and accountable especially when writing the news. The traditional media clearly were not in its coverage of the Sibu by-election, and that only reinforces certain things.

One, ownership by BN parties or BN-friendly parties was likely part of the decision-making process of what was front-page news the morning after Sibu. This only goes to show how important it is for political parties or politicians not to own the media.

Two, how can the traditional media expect to retain its credibility if it was so clearly lopsided in its reporting of two recently-concluded by-elections? Barring any major environmental disaster of tsunami-like proportions, would any credible newspaper in the world have omitted to mention the closely-fought Sibu by-election on its front page on 17 May 2010?

If Utusan Malaysia were to be honest, it would ask itself, how does relegating the big news of the day to the inside pages demonstrate that they will and can report fairly, whatever their political preferences? And if its readers cannot trust the paper to report fairly, how will the paper survive with other new media players competing for readers’ attention?

As it is, Utusan‘s coverage of the Sibu by-election, in contrast to the way it reported on Hulu Selangor, clearly demonstrates its lack of professionalism. Perchance, this situation has been brought about because the paper is owned by a political party — Umno — which has much at stake in the current political scenario? How else would one explain why Utusan‘s newsroom thought that it was more important for the public to be educated on gifts for teachers instead of the by-election results?

Handling bias

It is unrealistic to expect any news room to ignore its political leanings. The UK’s The Guardian for example is known for being partial to the Labour party. Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan’s piece entitled “101 reasons to love our Tory government” and “How to learn to live with Tories” for example, clearly reveals her political leanings.

The Daily Telegraph on the other hand, has, perhaps unkindly, been branded by some as The Daily Torygraph because of its partiality to the Conservative party.


Screencap of Guardian‘s front page,
6 May 2010

Political preferences aside, when writing the news, these newspapers did not resort to underhanded tactics of denying front-page space to any political party during campaigning for the recent British general elections. In fact, on 6 May 2010, the day of Britain’s general election, Guardian readers would have been greeted with a picture of Conservative leader David Cameron (right) on the front page of their morning paper. Interestingly, The Times, which is politically aligned to the Conservatives, had Labour party leader and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown on its front page on 6 May, albeit in a rather unflattering cartoon.

To put it simply, news is news, no matter who your editor may vote for or who owns your paper. And a rookie journalist would be able to tell you that “Goodies for teachers” is not more newsworthy than “Ho Leng wins Sibu with 398-vote majority”. favicon

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35 Responses to “Reporting on Sibu”

  1. tok dalang says:

    As you correctly pointed out, the newspapers concerned are owned by political entities, therefore the editors and/or publishers deem fit to publish what they want.

    You also left out The Sun which reported on Wong Ho Leng’s victory. That would make it a complete assessment of morning dailies (unless you didn’t want to count the free paper).

    My point is simple, newspapers have to stay relevant to their readers and if they decide to relegate the news of the day or the week elsewhere, perhaps that’s the readership that they have.

    Wagging the finger or pontificating about the media doesn’t make The Nut Graph an attractive read to more people beyond those who believe what you believe in.

    In that sense, you are the same as the newspapers that you criticise.

  2. Nienna says:

    Well, everyone knows that the most of the public newspapers in our country are controlled by the government. Despite that, they have the responsibility to report without prejudice on the happenings within the country. Newspapers in foreign countries do not fear the government as they have the freedom of speech to express the public’s feelings and get the message out to every single person who reads newspapers out there. However, freedom of speech is but a dream here.

  3. Ellese A says:

    I hate it when the pot calls the kettle black. Why didn’t you transpose media coverage of Malaysiakini and the Malaysian Insider? They are biased, untruthful and spinning half truths. Look at their editorials. They are pro opposition with coverage of BN only if it is negative. Similarly The Nut Graph and yourself but which I consider a lesser degree. Chin Huat only covers Pakatan. But who covers BN? Now you have the audacity to complain [about] our newspaper. Why not you start first by being fair and balanced? Walk the talk?

    ===

    Just a point of clarification – you said “our newspaper”. Are you an Umno member/leader?

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  4. Ellese A says:

    Oh yes. Why not also educate us on the Chinese newspapers. I’d like to see that too.

  5. Chen says:

    Waitaminute. The Star got a B- rating??? I must be oversensitive in spotting the unintended coincidence of a giant riot/chaos photo placed underneath the ‘SLIM DAP WIN’ headline. Sure, the Bangkok red shirt rebellion is the topic of the season, but imagine if it had been a BN win.

    Just sayin’.

    I wouldn’t have given The Star anything higher than a C-.

  6. Tecky says:

    Hohoho. We can see where ‘Ellese A’ is coming from. Nonetheless, he/she is entitled to his/her opinion. But it’s always revealing how someone frames a rebuttal or comment, and the reader sees it for what it is. Was there substance or reason … or just an attempt to defend the indefensible?

  7. Peter says:

    @Ellese A,

    I thought the newspapers highlighted here are the “mainstream” hardcopy newspapers accessible by the general public.

    It is a fair observation.

    Of course, as per your latest comment, I would also love to see the Chinese newspapers as well for completeness although I am not sure what you are trying to allude to (Chinese newspapers owned by opposition? Or are they just more objective?)

  8. Jerung says:

    The electronic media is very recent compared to the print media such as Utusan [...] Malaysia. All this while we’ve been exposed to the news carried by these “unbiased”,”thruthful” and “spinning the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” newspapers. So we cannot blame when all the suppressed minds are now making use of the ONLY effective means of expressing their version of “unbiased”and”truthful” news through cyberspace. So be fair and be rewarded fairly.

  9. Chen says:

    re Ellese A’s second comment, I too would like to view a study of the (mainstream) vernacular papers, but why this distrustful manner against Chinese journalism in particular? Classic case of being suspicious about what we do not understand, or a consciously biased take against the stereotypically commie Chinese?

    On an irrelevant note, I notice my comment was edited for correct capitalisation. While I appreciate good grammar and people who don’t +yP3 L!k3 dis, can’t you leave my casual comment be so long as there’s no swearing/offensive remarks? Kenapalah so controlling, ish ish.

    ===

    It’s house style. Sorry if it cramps your style. We do appreciate your comments.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  10. Ellese A says:

    To Shanon,

    Good try. I use the word “our” like your writer uses it in “our teachers”. I was referring to Malaysian newspapers like you refer to Malaysian teachers. On one hand I may interpret you’re casting aspersions on me but don’t know you well enough to judge. Btw The Star is not owned by Umno.

    ===

    Thanks for clarifying.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  11. Kong Kek Kuat says:

    Dear Ding, it’s interesting you wrote that The Times is politically aligned to the Tories. But this statement is rather invalid, because it is not who the constituents of a newspaper are, but what the newspaper is as an entity.

    I suppose you are trying to say “The Times, the majority of whose editors are politically aligned to the Conservatives”?

    Reading The Times every day (switching between the international edition, when it was available, and the UK edition at random), I find that they resemble people who are Lib-Dems who vote Tory because of sentimental values (they have this “bring back the good old days” sentiment), who cannot find any validity in the idealism of the Lib-Dems but yet cannot deny the validity of the majority of NuLabour’s arguments.

    Depending on the month and on current international and domestic affairs, and if judgement is based solely on the output of reported/written news/opinions published, I’d say The Times switches between Left, Right, and Centre.

    But, as a mass medium entity, I personally would place them on the Left in the context of NuLabour vs. Tories, as opposed to traditional Labour vs. traditional Conservative.

  12. awan gebu says:

    Wahahaha! I love how Ellese A is so unintentionally transparent. It’s so funny.

  13. Ellese A says:

    Dear tecky and Peter,

    The intent of the writer is to show how unfair the mainstream media is. There is no altruistic reason that they want a higher journalism standard of fair and balanced reporting. If they do they would also rate all the prevalent media including Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insider. And shouldn’t it also include The Nut Graph as well? If they had done that you can also see the fairness of these pro opposition media which is shameful as well. But apparently that’s not the intent. It is just to show the bad light of these ‘newspapers’. So who is the pot calling the kettle black?

  14. Sparks says:

    That’s why it’s essential for the opposition to use alternative and social media. They need a strong communication agency to not rely on traditional media.

  15. datoseri says:

    “The Star” is owned by MCA, the Chinese Malaysian elites. MCA is part of BN, which serves Umno.

  16. datoseri says:

    By the way Shanon, thanks for the comparison [of] which many of us know. It is always good to publish/relay this glaring fact to [the] wider readership so more will understand how biased the MSMs they subscribe to [are].

    ===

    Actually, the writer of this commentary is my colleague, Ding Jo-Ann. I’m the comments moderator on duty now.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  17. Chen says:

    Fair enough. When in Rome eh. I’ll do the same then. :)

    @Ellese A, quite right. Technically, Umno doesn’t own The Star, MCA does. Although, don’t they belong to the same political alliance? ;) If we go by ethics and news integrity, there’s the whole other debate on whether the people’s watchdogs should even be controlled/owned by political parties, considering the possibility (and reality) of credibility being compromised.

    It’s just like what the writer wrote: a rookie journalist would be able to tell you that “Goodies for teachers” is not more newsworthy than “Ho Leng wins Sibu with 398-vote majority”.

  18. Kong Kek Kuat says:

    For the benefit of readers here, Chinese-Malaysian dailies (since the day I could read Chinese) have been Centre-Right in general in the context of Malaysian politics and business.

    Unlike your newspaper, Ellese A [...], if Chinese-Malaysian dailies were to go Right [Chinese-Right, that is] like Utusan Melayu [misname intended], the majority of Chinese-Malaysians would switch off and turn to other newspapers just like some of my Melayu friends who abandon Utusan Melayu. (It is even called “Utusan Meloya” as a joke — though I think it should be seriously known as that.)

    Anyway, [if you see things] from a [...] neo-Umno perspective, I doubt you [would be] able to understand this mentality of the Chinese-Malaysians [...].

  19. mycuntree says:

    Yes, it sounds stale. But then this is Malaysia?

    I’ve said it many times before, but I’ll say it again.

    You want fairness? You want justice? You want your rights to be respected? You want honest and uncorrupted public servants and service? You want your religious rights? You want a decent low cost but quality education for your kids? You want a higher standard of living? And you also want much much more than what you have now?

    There is a chance that you can have all that! All you have to do is vote out the ruling Umno/BN regime. It’s as simple as that, to have that chance, that opportunity.

  20. clarice Silverado says:

    I disagree with tok dalang.

    Newspapers should report the news, without involving any personal or political judgement. Why on earth when the BN wins it earns a full front page, but not DAP?

  21. Chiang says:

    I think, the point the author is trying to make is that, regardless of a newspaper’s/journalist’s political viewpoint, or whether they are biased towards a certain political party, in terms of newsworthiness the by-election result should rightly be on the [front page] of Malaysian newspapers, particularly mainstream newspapers. Maybe the newspapers that the author has not included for display here did not try to duck from reporting the by-election result as headline news. So what’s the controversy?

  22. Gayathry says:

    In 2009, CIJ did a study to compare the coverage of the three by-elections by the English-language internet media (Malaysiakini, TNG and MI) using standards such as fairness and accuracy to analyse the stories. So it’s not true that the internet media is above scrutiny – I’m sure for the online news players, they welcome checks and public scrutiny. And they can take whatever stand they want, at least I know public money and political power is not used to fund and support them, unlike the traditional media. That’s the fact and that is at the heart of the problem.

    But the point here is that there is greater need to check on the mass media – the newspapers, radio and tv, that reach all the kampungs, bukits and tamans where often the internet has little or no reach. These big sources of information – whether one agrees or not – are biased and sometimes vicious with their racist reporting. They are doing a lot of damage to the people’s right to access accurate, fair and truthful information. And really, by the most basic and simplest standards of journalism, like newsworthiness, the newspapers fail. The inertia of the traditional media with regards to quality and ethics is worrying. That journalists defend that is even more worrying.

    [Note to editor: link to the study is here: http://www.cijmalaysia.org/content/view/476/7/

  23. Ellese A says:

    Dear Kek Kuat,

    The beauty of the internet is that we also have access to Chinese dailies albeit not the whole news. My reading of the Chinese editorial articles would place them to the left and certainly not centre. I admit however I don’t consider them extreme left. I have left a number of comments to the articles mainly published by the biased pro-opposition Malaysian Insider. A number of times my criticism were censored merely because I take a differring stand. (Mind you I have not used any expletives.)

    On the accusation of me being neo-Umno and don’t understand Chinese [Malaysians] here, all I can say is that I have always been consistently the only one out of three Malay [Malaysians] in a class full of Chinese [Malaysians] during my schooling years. I have always competed head on with them for top positions. I had only two best friends: one is Chinese [Malaysian] and the other Indian [Malaysian]. I’ve rejected the government scholarships given because I think I shouldn’t take it. Took study loan and paid every cent of it back. The only grant I took was the grant by Cambridge University. Now you tell me whether I don’t understand Chinese [Malaysians] at all.

  24. Ellese A says:

    To mycuntree, (this is an obscene name)

    I can easily ask the same questions and get BN as an answer. For example, your query on improvements on the quality of life here; all statistics from GDP to purchasing power parity or any UN reports on social studies would show BN has improved the live of all Malaysians multiple-fold. Try to be objective and sensible. Not all the things that BN had done is bad. BTW I’m also not saying that all that BN had done is good either.

  25. Sun Zi says:

    Now I know and my friends will also know which newspaper to read.

    Thanks for the report.

  26. Fisher says:

    The [traditional news]papers are beholden to their political masters. Without their “patronage” the papers will not get their license to print. In view of all the investment in the business, survival supersedes journalistic integrity. Until the media is free from the draconian publishing act, those [traditional media] managing editors will be running dogs, at the beck and call of their political masters. Wonder how they manage to look at themselves in the mirror everyday. Perhaps the opiate of title, money and luxury alleviates and soothes the troubled conscience. Sleep well the troubled soul.

  27. JK says:

    I’m working with DAP, and a relative of mine works in The Star. My story would interest everyone here.

    First off, allow me to clarify that everyone has different political orientations. We need to see the value in diversity and appreciate it as this is democracy.

    As I understand, that same relative of mine (and a quite a few colleagues) are opposition supporters. Indeed, remember that within a firm, there are too many heads with different political orientations. At the end of the day, it goes through the editor and the editor picks which story to publish.

    —————————-
    We need to understand that the person to blame here isn’t The Star or Utusan…It isn’t their editors either..

    It is the system that threatens individual reporters, editors, and firms when a story that paints the ruling collation in the wrong way will be removed. The system is too centralised. More so when funding comes from a certain party or a majority of your stocks are government-owned.

    ===========================

    As such, I respect the reporters and journalists of the alternative media more than the mainstream media. Why? Their pay is significantly lower…Ellese A, I’m pretty sure you’ve heard (or experienced) The Star’s huge bonuses…But not only are they lower, they are constantly harassed by the government (e.g. MalaysiaKini).

    Yet, they never fail to live up to the implied ethics code of a true journalist: to report at all cost. True, everyone is biased (because everyone has their own political orientation), but it’s also true that the alternative media has ‘freer’ say than mainstream media.

    Sadly, the same cannot be said for mainstream media journalists – again I am emphasising that this isn’t because it is their fault.

  28. Peter says:

    @ Ellese A,

    Just like to point out some differences and my personal thoughts as well:

    - mass media are owned directly by political parties (a practise which should be banned, IMHO). Your examples of Malaysiakini, Malaysian Insider and TNG are owned privately (by way of subscription/donation/adverts) and driven by a bunch of idealistic journalists and ordinary rakyat like us who wanted a place to highlight/discuss/be educated on issues and discrepancies. Not all is what it seems as reported (or lack of reporting in this case) by the mass media.

    - The “alternative” media in Malaysia owes its existence and viability due to the increasing demand and maturity of readers in search of different angles and analysis to issues. You can also say that it’s because our mass media is too un-analytical and “politically” correct that the alternative media is able to survive and thrive.

    - Unfortunately, even though growing in demand and maturity, “alternative” media penetration rate is still way much lower then when compared to the mass media (which is why they called it “mass”, duh!).

    It’s a shame that these mass media, representating Malaysia’s official news, are so *expletive* (self-censored) obvious in what they do, that it has impacted their credibility in international arena.

  29. ficklefellow says:

    I’m reminded of the ‘spot-the-difference’ game where kids circle out parts that are different from two seemingly identical drawings. In this case, however, the difference is so very obvious. And yet it’s funny how some of us grown-ups are unable to see how blatantly lopsided most of our msm coverage is when it comes to news that does not portray the ruling government in such a flattering light.

  30. ong bk says:

    Monitoring report on three mainstream Chinese paper and one English paper in Sibu is available here:

    http://sarawaknews.wordpress.com/2010/05/18/sibu-media-lag-behind-voters-sentiments/

    It is a report from the Sibu Election Watchers.

  31. the reader says:

    The above article clearly shows what is really happening, the [traditional] is biased, so [are] the TV [channels]. TNG, MI, Mkini are obviously not [traditional media but I’m not sure how fair they are, but they also say bad things about Pakatan.

  32. agado says:

    Shannon,

    I think one point Jo Ann failed to touch upon in her analysis of the English newspapers is that The Times and The Guardian both do not have fixed allegiances when compared to The Telegraph. Times is a centrist newspaper and Guardian left wing. Times which had endorsed Labour in the past few elections switched their endorsement to the Conservatives this time around. Guardian on the other hand, endorsed the Lib-Dems after having backed Labour.

    What this shows is that Times and Guardian both choose the best party which reflects its political leanings, not limiting it to just one party like the Telegraph. Times endorsed Tony Blair in 1997 as New Labour shifted to the centre, just as they now have endorsed the Tories who David Cameron has brought to the centre (Ian Duncan Smith, Hague, Howard were all right wing).

  33. Eugene says:

    Ellese A,

    You say Mkini and MInsider are biased towards the opposition? Show your proof before accusing. Jo-Ann has shown evidence against our hugely biased newspapers which only reaffirms why I stopped reading them long time ago. Whenever I do pick up a newspaper, all I read about is positive news for BN and negative or partial accounts about the opposition.

    Mkini and MInsider on the other hand, have news from their own reporters, and at the same time from Bernama which is also hugely biased towards the government. However, the news on Mkini nor MInsider does not lean towards any side and lets readers form their own opinion. Go do your own comparisons with the [traditional] media. Can they report fairly, especially with all the political intervention you openly hear about on our TV stations now? Unfortunately no, not especially when we have Utusan that continues to spout obvious racism and untruthfulness and still gets away with it.

  34. superelative says:

    @Ellese A

    [...] you seem to display [...] very little reflexivity when it comes to analysis and an almost superficial view of what’s ‘fair/balanced/objective’.

  35. Ghost whisperer says:

    Ellese A,

    Remember, two wrongs don’t make one right.

    Even if Malaysiakini is rather skewed in its reporting, that doesn’t make it ok for Utusan to be so. Besides, Utusan has been around longer than any electronic media. Being the ‘big brother’, it should take the lead in doing the right thing, be a model!

    The people deserves a balanced view especially in [the] mainsteam media. And I am speaking from the interest of [the] general public.


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