From the Newswires

6 September 2008

The Persistence of Journalistic Bias

Objectivity is the journalist’s catch-cry and crutch. We might presume that it’s simply a function of news writing, but perspective is everything with the written word. When a newspaper journalist mentions objectivity it’s either a shout in rage at the way things are when they should no longer be, or a whimper of shame when happenings prove bias to be inevitable. But is the reading public prepared to scrutinise, to decide when coverage might be other than what it claims?

By and large, we in the minority of the world’s population with access to the Internet still rely on the newswires to bring us the business, to tell us what’s been happening this minute, this hour, this day, this week. And who amongst us seriously asks “is this correct?” or “why is this so?” or how could that be?” Not many at all. We accept that reportage is an approximation of reality, that what might be near enough is probably good enough. And we read on, understanding the world in ways we don’t fully understand ourselves.

But think about the acceptance of approximation for a while. Not only does it mean that we’ll never know ‘what really happened’, but it also indicates that we’re not very concerned about bias, which is what occurs when objectivity no longer pertains. In a maybe-biased-maybe-not world, how do we discern the effects of propaganda, and the extent to which any part of the media colludes with government in presenting a picture of that which has never been? This is not a problem of our epoch alone, as any historian would admit, but it has become particularly un-nerving just now, when so much information can be had, but so few search through it diligently.

Allow me to offer a brief example from that most biased of journalistic pursuits – the coverage of war. Search the archive of the New York Times online and you’ll be able to find a wealth of military coverage, but one particular article is noteworthy for exposing the mechanics of how both sides in a war might twist and break their own credibility in reporting battles, if only we’d stop and think awhile.

Relaying a report from London, the New York Times shows how some American publications covering one war – I’ll discuss which later – have been making “their accounts of the present operations interesting, tactics which seem to be copied, indeed improved upon” by their counterparts on the enemy side. Here is the crux of the problem, whether in war or in peace. Most of what happens is not very interesting, and certainly not interesting enough to fill a daily newspaper. When happenings capture attention, they’re converted into Events and that attention is recycled every day until the next big happening comes along.

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Typographical Surprises

22 August 2008

Or, You’ve Just Gotta Laugh

Typos are the terror of the journalist and the scourge of the editor. In this technological age of word-processors, spelling checkers and state-of-the-art document sharing they should never happen. But take it from an overworked editor – they do, and more often than might seem apparent to the untrained eye. They range from the embarrassing to the downright silly when they slip on through. Once, in a thirty-six hour stretch of poverty-inspired freelance editing I accidentally changed the abbreviation for a mainland Chinese government department to that for a well-known Hong Kong kindergarten, to the outrage of the author who assumed an ulterior motive. What could I say? Dear client, I screwed up because I haven’t slept in two days . . .

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Double Standards

31 July 2008

More on Maid Mistreatment in Hong Kong

A journalist once told me that letters to the editor are the last refuge of the anally retentive, a view I’m often happy to agree with despite my reservations about the suitability of any journalistic advice. But today I read the print edition of the South China Morning Post here in Hong Kong and decided that silence changes nothing. Adorning the front page was an article encouraging the employers of lowly paid domestic helpers to cancel their contracts and rehire them to take advantage of the suspension of an employer-paid levy I mentioned recently.

The absolute irresponsibility of that article and other coverage in the issue should be clear from the letter I wrote to the editor a few hours ago.

Dear Editor,

I am appalled at the tone of your publication’s irresponsible lead article on 31 July (‘4 years off maid levy for some’). Suggesting that employers of foreign domestic helpers can “get the most” out of the levy suspension by breaching a set-term contract, which will force a period of unemployment on their employees, is the epitome of callousness. Leaving aside the fact that any such actions would not be “terminations” as reported (a contract is terminated due to wrong doing, not fiscal expediency), the chances of many employers even bothering to secure agreement from their helpers is small, given that the Immigration Department does not require them to fill out the reasons section of the form they submit when a contract is prematurely ended. This fact alone makes nonsense of the Secretary for Labour and Welfare’s claim that helpers should not fear being sacked because of the new arrangements. What will constrain irresponsible employers?

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Afterwords

1 June 2008

A Brief Interruption

083/365 - Ahead and Up, by Just.K, with Creative Commons licenceIn a recent post on the limitations of traditional news I mentioned the importance of looking past events, of understanding happenings as a sort of ill-defined continuum. The point should always be to ask what happened next, and what should happen now. That entails speculation, of course, and ways of anticipating the future, to the extent possible. It’s also a fundamentally activist position, moving past the passive reception of news, actively seeking evidence of change where none seems apparent. So with that in mind I’m putting my short series on mental health and human rights on hold for while to offer an example of what news might look like, after the event.

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I’ve recently been involved in a difficult campaign to have the Hong Kong police thoroughly investigate the disappearance and death of Vicky Flores, a Filipino domestic helper who lived and worked in my community of Discovery Bay. It seems increasingly likely that they’re taking the easy route to an explanation, which the major English language newspaper foreshadowed in an article claiming that Vicky had “occult-links“. In many ways, the group to which I belong – the Justice for Vicky Flores Concern Group – is powerless to change that insinuation, but we have been fortunate in raising the profile of migrant worker rights in a small part of Hong Kong.

A week or so back Joan Gill, a writer for the community magazine Inside DB called me to ask questions for a feature article on Vicky and what has been happening in response to her death. She also spoke to Edwina Antonio, another member of the group and a tireless helper of migrant workers in Hong Kong. Joan wanted to know more about the situation as it stood, and what we wanted to do in the future, what we needed to do in the future. I was very pleased to offer my thoughts, and hopeful that the article would highlight the difficulties faced by women who earn less here in a month than what many people spend on lunch over the same period.

The result was astounding, and a perfect example of what the media, even the community media, can do if it wants to look past events. The following is a modified version of a post on the article I published earlier on A Death in Hong Kong.

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After the Event

30 May 2008

What Whispers Beyond the News?

Old New News, by ERIO, with Creative Commons licenceEvents are the meat of journalism, the mainstay of the traditional media. When something out of the ordinary happens, when a peculiarity eventuates, it grabs our attention. We seek more information in newspapers and magazines, on television or on the radio. Some of us read hybrid old-media websites – the Sydney Morning Herald online has been my mainstay for almost 12 years now. Even so-called ‘citizen journalism’ has given us hotspots like OhmyNews and CJReport, where non-professionals can write, and write very well, about the events around them. But do we always need novelty, should we be paying events the amount of attention that we inevitably do? What happens after the event, when the story no longer screams headlines but speaks in quiet suggestions instead?

Over the last week I’ve been preparing the second blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, for the transition from a specific focus on the disappearance and death of Vicky Flores to a more comprehensive, multi-author coverage of migrant worker rights and the consequences of a highly discriminatory immigration policy in what is often described as Asia’s ‘world city’. I’m sure we’ll lose readers in the process, because not everyone in the community who wants to know about Vicky’s terrible fate will care much about the accumulation of infringements on what is often a very precarious liberty. But we might gain more, because I hope to report on the little victories, the small amounts of happiness, even the great moments of joy that are rarely considered newsworthy.

Its Sandwich Time!!! By ERIO, with Creative Commons licenceBlogs, you might think, are a triumph of trivia, but I trust I’ve made a good case against that presumption in my last few posts here, in all of them if I’ve been communicating well enough. Most of what I write about on this blog happens when time has passed, when its time to think. That’s well after the event, tucked away in the whispers of what happens next, what might have happened then, what should happen now.

It might be un-eventful, but it doesn’t lack importance, whether to the here-and-now of everyday life or to the wider, more ethereal plane of ideas.

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Feeding Your Mind

14 May 2008

Some of the News that’s Fit to Read

RSS Feed IconNews is what you make of it, and not all that’s written is worth reading. Much of the initial reasoning behind this blog was to capture something of the illogic in what passes for news, to question assumptions entrenched in the public domain. Of course that leaves me well open to criticism of my own position, but it’s a risk worth taking if I want to encourage others to re-think and see things again, in different ways. So I’m extending my efforts now to other voices, those saying things that aren’t often heard in precisely the same way.

I’ve always included links to other sites – some deliberately silly, others very serious, most somewhere in between – in the sidebar to offer alternatives and compliments to what I write about. They’ve now been joined by a small selection of news feeds.

If you look towards the bottom of the sidebar you’ll see three new text boxes, carrying what are usually called RSS feeds. There’s some debate about what RSS stands for – Internet development is often so rushed that no-one really pays attention to who names what, and less-than-helpful abbreviations abound. It could stand for Really Simple Syndication, or for Rich Site Summary. But it’s probably just as easy to think of yourself as reading some stuff that comes to you, rather than having to look for it every day.

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Puerile Journalism in Vicenta Flores Case

4 May 2008

How to Defame a Dead Woman in One Short Article

wooden shoes & newspaper inlay, by Kokjebalder, with Creative Commons licenceSome newspapers really aren’t fit to line your shoes. I’ve just posted a slightly different version of the following message on A Death in Hong Kong, the blog covering reactions to the disappearance and death of Vicenta Flores in Hong Kong. Today the South China Morning Post undertook an exercise in childish smearing – reporting unsubstantiated allegations about Vicenta that could only have been motivated by sensationalism. I haven’t named the reporter in case any legal complications arise, but it won’t be hard to figure out who wrote the piece if you check back through my earlier posts on the case.

Allegations Without Evidence

The South China Morning Post today, Sunday 4 May, published unsubstantiated allegations about Vicenta Flores under the headline “Occult link to drowned maid”.

An article on page 3 (full online text for subscribers only) mentioned police asking Vicenta’s sister Irene about:

an “occult-like” paper written in Latin that was found among her dead sister’s belongings.

Members of the Justice for Vicky Flores support group, of which I’m a member, were aware of the paper more than a week ago, but had not commented on it because it’s still in police custody as part of an ongoing investigation.

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