Categorised | Exclusives

Understanding ethical journalism

Bob Woodward (left) and Carl Bernstein
(Woodward pic © Kat
Walsh;  Bernstein pic 
Larry D Moore | Wiki Commons)

JOSHUA Wong Ngee Choong, 42, quit his job as a producer at ntv7 on principle — he is opposed to self-censorship and political interference in the media. No wonder, then, that one of his favourite movies is All the President’s Men. The movie tells the story of how Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein employed good investigative journalism to expose US President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.

Wong talks to The Nut Graph about placing ethical journalism within the context of Malaysia in this, the second and final part of a 17 May 2010 exclusive interview.

Wong was part of this flashmob in Penang campaigning against political interference in
journalism (pic courtesy of Wong | 528 Tak Nak Potong)

TNG: Do you think it is possible to work from within the system if someone wants to be a good journalist that serves the public’s interest?

Joshua Wong Ngee Choong: It’s possible, but it’s very difficult. (Laughs) Actually, journalists are victims of a system of monopolistic media ownership. So, if a journalist quits (a station such as) ntv7, where would he or she go? There is a general lack of journalistic platforms and job opportunities for journalists.

I also understand that not everybody can be like me. I am single and have no dependants. I can’t impose my standards on everyone. This is my own moral calling. What if another journalist had a family to support?

But within this scenario, we also have to understand that Media Prima (ntv7’s owner)’s top management are politically appointed, so they would not support us as journalists anyway. The system itself does not encourage journalists to resist interference in the newsroom.

And so, we have to go back to the fundamental principles of journalism. Why do we want to be journalists? Who gives us the power and authority to be journalists? Our first loyalty is actually to citizens. They are our boss, and our rights and power as journalists comes from them. So in any ethical dilemma, for example censorship or political interference, we must always ask ourselves our purpose as journalists. We must minimise harm and act independently. After fighting, if we fail, that’s okay. At least we’ve done our best as journalists.

What would you say to criticisms that journalists who work in the government-controlled media are biased and unreliable by default?

Truth, holding a mirror and a serpent
(© Carol Highsmith | public domain)
I think it’s unfair to blame everyone who works in the traditional media. I worked with the traditional media, and outsiders probably don’t know what we actually do.

If we view the situation comprehensively, we will be able to understand traditional journalists a bit better. But all journalists should always go back to the principles of journalism. For example, in the case of minimising harm, what if my decision to resign as a journalist causes the entire network to shut down, and all its employees to lose their jobs and income? To minimise harm in that case, it would mean finding alternatives, or seeking support from other colleagues in the profession. Resigning should be the last resort. Whether online or in the traditional media, we need to think about these principles.

But above all, our job is to tell the truth and be loyal to citizens (instead of corporate, network or political bosses). We must put this moral compass in our hearts. We must always be able to practise our conscience, and this is a personal conscience to be accountable, honest, fair and responsible.

In your statements to the media in 2008 and 2010, you mentioned the need for “balanced” journalism. What does the term “balanced journalism” mean to you? How would you differentiate “balance” from concepts such as “fairness”, “accuracy”, and “responsibility” in reporting?

I think my use of “balanced journalism” relates to “fairness”, as in we must be fair to those who lodge complaints and so on. Being “balanced” is not about giving equal time, for example 30 minutes to a rape survivor and then another 30 minutes to the rapist. But it’s actually about speaking to the perpetrator or the alleged abuser to give them a right of response.

Do you think aspects such as “fairness”, “accuracy” and “responsibility” are more reliable markers of good journalism?

Yes, because these relate more to the overall objective of journalism, which is to tell the truth.

What do you think the public should expect from journalists, whether in the government-controlled, party-controlled or independent media?

Joshua reading a book

The public should be made aware of the nine principles of journalism outlined by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (authors of the The Elements of Journalism). The public should also expect to be able to request for news to be accurate, verified, and independent, especially as a monitor of power. It might be very difficult for journalists in the traditional media, but we can try our best to fulfil these expectations.

If the public sees that the traditional newspapers are not reporting the same things as the online independent media, they can call up the television or radio station, or the newspaper’s editorial desk to voice their dissatisfaction. This principle also applies to the online media. The responsibility of upholding freedom of expression and information does not rest squarely on journalists. The public also needs to participate actively.

The public must understand that they will be seriously affected if the traditional media downplay or black out important issues. For example, if [journalists] are told we cannot report on by-elections, then there will be no serious analysis or critical discussion on the matter. This will result in a lack of knowledge among the public on the issues at stake. The public will become poorly informed, and when we are poorly informed, how are we then to make good decisions?

The public can actually do many things to support good journalism, from signing petitions to simply praying for journalists.

Given the nature of racial politics in Malaysia, do you think it’s problematic that the press operates in so many languages in Malaysia? For example, your shows Edisi Siasat and Editor’s Time probably targeted Chinese-speaking Malaysians. Do journalists have the responsibility to transcend linguistic and racial boundaries through our reporting? How do we do this?

In my case, the team I worked with was mainly Chinese-educated, so we did not have the capacity to produce Editor’s Time in English or Malay. But we can still transcend the language barrier, for example the network could make sure to always put up accurate English or Malay subtitles. In online journalism, a website like Malaysiakini now offers news in English, Malay, Tamil and Chinese.

Wong documenting the situation of Orang Asli (pic courtesy of Wong)

The important thing is that on Editor’s Time and Siasat Mandarin, we did not choose topics based on race. We did public interest shows — on public health, the situation of Orang Asli, human trafficking, marginalised groups, and so on.

Do you think journalists are suffering a crisis of credibility in Malaysia?

Yes, and there are two different problems: the overall system, and our values. The systemic problem is that we have restrictive laws and monopolistic political ownership of media outfits. This breeds more political interference and encourages self-censorship.

But there is also a crisis of values, which comes from both journalists and the top management of media outfits. It comes from the question of how we see ourselves as journalists. Are we just workers who are duty-bound to our management’s instructions, or are we loyal firstly to citizens?

To restore credibility, journalists themselves must go back to upholding principles of journalism, which can happen bit by bit. Then we can restore good values in journalism. The other thing to do of course is to tackle the issue of political ownership. We must also work to remove laws that restrict freedom of expression and information.

But we must also understand that we are a capitalist society, and so the media operates within a capitalist environment. In other words, the media will always be subject to either commercial or political pressures, or a combination of both. The media is also a business in this environment, and must survive as such. [So we must also think of alternatives to sustaining a free and independent media in this situation.]

Describe the kind of journalists and journalism you’d like to see in Malaysia.

I think having a moral compass is important. As professionals, we are not the same as doctors or lawyers, for example. They become professionals after they are assessed on whether they have acquired the appropriate expertise or skills in their fields. [We don’t actually have that sort of assessment, because instead] our professional recognition relies on our daily application of journalistic morals and ethics. favicon

See Part 1 of this exclusive interview :Don’t self-censor

For related stories, see In the spotlight: Freedom of Expression

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