(Pic by Mateusz Stachowski / sxc.hu) NOW and then, journalists should engage in a little navel-gazing. Caught in the tide of chasing news deadlines, we forget to take time to question the methods we employ in news gathering, writing and presentation.
What is at stake when we don’t question our own practices is our public credibility, because readers are not necessarily limited just to the market segment our publications cater specifically to.
This is what Al Islam magazine has probably discovered after its article Tinjauan Al Islam Dalam Gereja: Mencari Kesahihan Remaja Murtad caused an uproar among Catholics.
It may have thought that the article, which appeared in the magazine’s May 2009 issue, would only be read by Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Muslims. It is informative of the vacuum some vernacular publications believe they exist in.
Precisely because nothing takes place in a vacuum, the episode is a timely reminder of the need for sound journalism ethics so that reporting is inclusive rather than exclusive.
No need to hide
The article raises two controversial points:
the writer’s participation in the holy communion ritual as a non-Catholic, and
going undercover in church to gather information for the article.
Point one is a matter of basic respect for another’s religion. The danger is that arguing over this can degenerate into a Muslim versus Christian or “us versus them” debate. Judging from certain comments to The Nut Graph‘s news reports on Al Islam, and from reactions on Facebook where the reports have been circulated, some people already have a sense of being under attack.
Let’s try to move away from that. Giving the Al Islam reporter the benefit of the doubt, he may have been plain ignorant about the do’s and don’ts involved when visiting the house of worship of another faith. He may have thought it necessary to imitate what everyone else in the church was doing so as not to have his cover blown.
Which brings us to the second point about going undercover to get a story. Was there really a need to do so?
Houses of worship are places that are open to all. And there is no compulsion to participate in the rituals if one does not believe in them. That is in keeping with the spirit of religion. As such, the Al Islam reporter could have sat through the Catholic mass and made his observations without the need to be undercover, and without the need to participate in the holy communion. He could then use his observations to support part of his story on the alleged conversion of Muslims in churches.
The problem is, the entire story was based on that undercover visit with no attempt to source information or comments from other credible and invested stakeholders. As it turned out, there was no evidence of Muslims converting to Christianity in the church the writer went to.
Gayathry Centre for Independent Journalism executive director V Gayathry notes that Al Islam should have taken its questions on the alleged conversion of Muslims to the church authorities. It also should have stated the basis of such claims in the article.
It is important to stress that what the journalist set out to do — investigate the claims of conversions — is a legitimate story angle. What is under dispute is the ethics of how he went about attempting to get the story.
Driving a wedge
The ethics of undercover journalism have long been debated. The tactic has certainly attained some degree of glamour in the light of exposés that have toppled the powers that be. Tehelka.com is famous for exposing corruption in India’s defence ministry, and its undercover stories ultimately led the defence minister to resign.
Gayathry notes that most cases of justifiable undercover journalism involved public-interest stories where a paper trail on corruption and abuse of power was difficult to obtain. The end goal was always to hold those in power accountable and to expose misdeeds. Clearly, the Al Islam story does not fall into this category.
A story on purported conversions that Al Islam was chasing is valid as the subject is of interest to the Muslim community. But given the topic’s sensitivity, and considering that it involved another religion, the magazine is all the more beholden to practise honesty in presenting evidence of its claims.
“If journalists don’t adhere to ethical practices, then they are effectively contributing to more misunderstanding and suspicion,” notes Gayathry.
How to react?
A police report has been lodged against the magazine by two Catholics, who have urged others to also lodge reports.
Police now say that the Al Islam reporters involved will be investigated under the Penal Code for causing disharmony or for prejudicing the maintenance of harmony on the grounds of religion.
Slapping the magazine with criminal charges, however, will not resolve the problem of falling standards in ethical journalism. Neither is it a conclusive recourse for aggrieved Catholics, for whom the matter involving the holy communion is a spiritual one.
And yet, if not for lodging a police report, how else is anything sensitive of this nature to be highlighted without taking to the streets? The complainants said they have resolved not to react in anger, but they rightfully feel aggrieved enough to need some recourse for what has happened.
(Pic by Bill Davenport / sxc.hu)If the Al Islam writer had genuinely been ignorant about the sacredness of the holy communion, it would simply be best to apologise to Catholics. After all, there are also Muslims who are equally outraged by the magazine’s actions.
In the end, those in the best position to demand ethical practices of the media are consumers themselves. Because, sometimes, editors and journalists forget in our race to beat the competition. Or we think that the market segment we write for wouldn’t mind a little sensationalism.
On that note, I cannot in good conscience end this article without referring to my own failings as a journalist, too, lest I be accused of being the pot that called the kettle black.
If you have read Zaid slams Najib’s administration on this website, you might have noticed the lively debate in the comments section as to the report’s accuracy. I won’t repeat the facts, as lengthy explanations have already been given by my editor. Suffice to say that the mistake lay in not stating that the published news report was a reproduction of Datuk Zaid Ibrahim’s prepared speech for an event.
It was a lesson that could only have been taught by readers. In the final analysis, ethical journalism can only be sustained if readers want it.
Deborah Loh appreciates readers who criticise constructively and politely.