Journalism, Going Cheap
Minority language newspapers are rarely the epitome of quality journalism, whether they suffer from under-funding, under-enthusiastic staff or just a simple lack of credibility given a small readership balanced against the necessity to drag in advertising revenue. Hong Kong’s second English daily, the Standard, staggered along as a business paper in recent years, finally devolving into a free 5-day tabloid edition with more advertisements than copy. Such is the fate of a narrowly focused publication in a shrinking market. But the premier South China Morning Post, an old-school 7-day broadsheet, is having none of that.
Staff members I’ve talked to claim that the SCMP is intent on reinventing itself as publication read by English speaking Chinese and that the subscription data support that claim, although no-one can really say to what extent. The circulation figures seem to be up, which might be a good thing, but it’s hard to tell because free issues are always available at one of the local universities, at least.
Another, and perhaps more substantial, problem with this scenario of expanding the readership is that readers want to read. It might be using a revenue-based business model to determine the success or failure of its circulation drive, but the SCMP needs sufficiently good copy to make that model viable. Unfortunately, and I write this as a subscriber to both the print edition and the online edition (yes, Virginia, some newspapers still charge fees for access), the standard of journalism ranges from the occasionally impressive to more common run-of-the-mill, and bottoms out at irresponsible, which is a polite word for crap.
Allow me to discuss the low end of this scale, because excellence speaks for itself and it’s somewhat difficult to interest readers with repetitions of uninspiring column inches. I’ve mentioned the newspaper’s coverage of Vicky Flores’ disappearance and death in Hong Kong before, with my most negative commentary reserved for sensationalism in reportage about “the ‘occult references’ and ‘weird messages that sounded like mantras'” found on her mobile phone – which were little more than a misinterpreted ongoing conversation with an occasional friend.
That sets the scene for the SCMP‘s coverage of the inquest into Vicky’s death yesterday, the headline of which read “Maid got love letter before death, inquest told”. Hardly exciting news, but the lede increased the tempo:
A maid whose body was found in the sea after she ran screaming from her employers’ home had earlier received a love letter and a text message mentioning biblical “last days” from a man in her home town.
Now we have an apocryphal message, but the text message in question read, in part: “We are already in the last days. God is offering his holy spirit to us and salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ Bible Society”. Anyone who has spent time with Filipinos or in the Philippines will know that forwarding text messages like that is very common, as are small charismatic Christian churches and the like. A literal belief in the Book of Revelations and the proximity of Christ’s second coming isn’t as widespread, but you don’t have to search far for it.
And the somewhat lazily labelled ‘love letter’ referred to Vicky as ‘my dear’, which would be true to form, but asked her why she didn’t love him, which wasn’t. A love letter implies a two way relationship, and this was more of a loveless letter really. A yearning missive if you like.
As it happens, and the SCMP didn’t report this, the man who sent both messages is married to someone else and is an old school friend who seems to have convinced himself that he was really in love with Vicky while his wife was in Canada. If she did anything to encourage that across the South China Sea in Hong Kong the evidence is lost to posterity, and would have been largely immaterial anyway. It proves nothing about her death and as the stuff of lonely melodrama barely even resembles reportable news.
News, I’m assured, is supposed to be novel – not intriguing or interesting, just new and somehow revealing. But the SCMP had already alluded to both the text and the letter in its article on “occult references” and “weird messages”, and the police were well aware of both missives during their investigation. In fact, a police ‘source’ had leaked the story to the newspaper back in May.
Nothing much happening there.
But of course, the SCMP managed to cover its meagre scrap of dignity with semantics. The headline read “. . . inquest told” – so the act rather than the information was the ostensible focus. That’s an old trick for when you haven’t got much to say – excuse the irrelevance of the substance with a nod to the form. I need to recount this pointless but juicy gossip because . . . you fill in the rest.
The inquest is about to enter its third day, with very little that really could be newsworthy given that the witnesses are merely being asked to recall their own statements, previously given to the police. The last witness today went off on a tangent about Vicky owning ‘holy oil’ and having had two boyfriends (in more than 30 years of life, that’s not really a high average), so the SCMP will probably manage to trump that up with some sort of salacious line. But it’s not reporting anything of substance. Chasing what could well be illusory circulation, the old rag has settled for hackery – journalism on the cheap.