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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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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Death and Uncertainty

3 May 2008

More Questions in Hong Kong

Life uncertain, by Robby Garbett, with Creative Commons licenceThe old line tells us that there’s nothing as certain as death and taxes. But in Hong Kong that never holds true – tax arrangements change from year to year, and death doesn’t always bring closure. While preparing a post on perceptions of poverty today I realised that something important has been missing in my coverage of the still unexplained disappearance and death of Vicenta Flores. I mentioned in an earlier post that two other Filipino women died in Hong Kong on the day Vicenta disappeared, both apparent suicides. But for one of those women that presumption is no longer true, and another Filipina died in mysterious circumstances just over a week later.

Four unexplained deaths in 10 days and so few answers.

The Sun, one of the Filipino community newspapers here in Hong Kong, reported in its print edition earlier this week that the Coroner had asked police to further investigate the case of Carolina Dacquil, who fell to her death from a ninth floor window on 7 April. She had previously been thought to have committed suicide due to financial difficulties. Regardless of how many Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong are presumed to have financial difficulties, hasty conclusions in that regard should hardly be the hallmark of justice. So the Coroner’s request is encouraging, even though it casts significant doubt over the suitability of police procedure.

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Rallies Send Important Message

28 April 2008

Call for Respect, Promise of Scrutiny over Vicenta Flores’ Death

Following my last post on the importance of familiar strangers, which covered the same situation from a wider angle, I am cross-posting this coverage of yesterday’s rallies demanding justice for Vicenta Flores. The original is available on A Death in Hong Kong. Some of the details have been changed here to help readers who live overseas. If you hear of anything like this happening in your country, please publicise it however you can.

Two Rallies, One Message

Photo by Lulu Zuniga-Carmine, used with permission

Rallies held yesterday in Discovery Bay on Lantau island and Admiralty on nearby Hong Kong island combined to send a single message – that anything but a thorough investigation into the disappearance and death of Vicenta, Vicky, Flores will not be tolerated. The very good turnout in Discovery Bay showed the depth of community concern about the issue, and the Admiralty rally allowed us to join with those on Hong Kong side while presenting copies of our petition to the Philippine Consulate and Hong Kong police.

Discovery Bay, Lantau Island

The Discovery Bay rally filled the forecourt of the local International School, with speakers standing on a parked crane to address the crowd. In attendance were Vicenta’s sister Irene, her aunt and her godmother. Speakers included representatives from a Philippine highlander organisation, the Jesus is Lord church, a migrant group from Iloilo in the central Philippines and various migrant worker organisations. Vicenta’s aunt also spoke, and James Rice conducted the proceedings.

James, Discovery Bay resident and author of Take Your Rights Seriously, a legal rights handbook for migrant workers, spoke about the importance of justice, and how it encompassed concern and respect.

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Muddled Words Aren’t Enough

23 April 2008

How Newsworthy is a Filipino Death?

High Contrast Newspaper, by GiantsFanatic, with Creative Commons licenceAs the days pass it’s becoming increasingly difficult to accept the lack of accurate media coverage surrounding the mysterious death of Vicenta Flores here in Hong Kong. The South China Morning Post is still the only news outlet covering the story, today producing an article that suggests police are developing a sense of how Vicenta disappeared. I hope that’s true. But it’s difficult to judge the whether the article is reliable, given that only last week the SCMP reported the case already closed.

An important question to ask is whether all of the informants tapped by reporter Mary Ann Benitez actually know what is happening in the case, and whether she SCMP sub-editors understands exactly what they those sources are saying. In this morning’s article, Benitez first cites un-named “sources” as saying that Vicenta attempted to catch a bus in the Tung Chung district, on the opposite side of Lantau island from where she lived, just an hour before she died. The woman was refused entry for lack of a fare. Benitez then writes that “police said” Vicenta was seen in Tung Chung, and was seen in a bus near the Tung Chung Development Pier.

Eye witness accounts can be confusing, but is this one sighting, two sightings or three sightings?

[Mary Ann Benitez has clarified this point – there was only one sighting and one bus, but multiple sources.]

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Remembering Vicky

19 April 2008

Task Group and Blog Established

Morning Glow, by dailyjoe, with Creative Commons licenceFollowing my post yesterday on the untimely death of Vicky Flores here in Hong Kong, I have a little more information to share. Discovery Bay residents and representatives of Filipino migrant groups met earlier today to talk about what we could to do encourage a proper investigation of the case, and to make sure that people hear about what’s going on. We’ve established a dedicated blog, A Death in Hong Kong, to cover our activities and to collect and collate information on how and why Vicky disappeared.

Here’s the first post in full.

Vicenta Flores, or Vicky as most people knew her, disappeared from Discovery Bay on Lantau island in Hong Kong on or around 7 April 2008. Her body was found in Tung Chung harbour on the far side of the island on 11 April. Since that time there has been little media coverage of the situation, conflicting reports from the police about how their investigation is being conducted and growing community concern that justice may not prevail.

Following a meeting on 19 April, members of the Discovery Bay community in association with Filipino migrant organisations established this blog to air our concerns about the circumstances surrounding Vicky’s death and the lack of transparency in ongoing investigations. We also plan to collect and collate any relevant information that should be considered in determining how and why Vicky went missing.

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Crazy Talk

31 March 2008

Beyond the Limits of Online News

IMG_6834.JPG, by fabola,with Creative Commons licenceA funny thing happened on the way to the press room last week. An editorial published in the American Journal of Psychiatry characterising Internet addiction as a compulsive-impulsive spectrum disorder skipped out into cyberspace and became a warning that online gaming, texting or even email could – and quite possibly would – send you mad. Damn those slapdash bloggers, you might think, they’re giving us all a bad name.

But, no, the scare-mongers were online representatives of the traditional news media. The bloggers got it right.

So what was all the fuss about? Much of the problem seems to be that the editorial suggested a lot more than it could deliver for keyword happy journalists. Jerald Block argued that specific examples of excessive Internet use could be classified as “disorders” and were worthy of inclusion in DSM-V, the yet to be published update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by psychiatrists around the world.

To put this in its proper perspective, the new manual isn’t likely to be published for a long while yet, and only after an exhausting process of consultation within the profession and with the general public. Hence the importance of the editorial – it was a small part of a long process that will involve a great deal of careful thought.

two princes, spin doctors, by [auro], with Creative Commons licenceMuch of Dr Block’s focus was actually on the very public issue of Internet addiction in South Korea and China – which has gained coverage around the world – with the United States used as comparison because it boasts far fewer Internet cafes and is likely to have internalised the problem more, kept it private and largely out of reach. But he also laid out a very clear case for diagnosing symptoms that arose from “excessive gaming, sexual preoccupations, and e-mail/text messaging”. And that’s where the trouble began.

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