The fault in our journalism
Malaysia’s media environment is nothing short of a sickening mess. Journalism has become a casualty. The truth its greatest victim. Everything seems to be in tatters. There are no two ways about it: either change or perish. By BMCC undergrad Khalil Majeed.
Walking down the aisle of cubicles to my desk, I thought to myself, “How bad can it possibly be?” My internship had just begun, and I was excited. Since the demise of my dream to become an engineer, I’ve always thought of journalism as an avenue where I could properly express myself. It would help me satisfy my insatiable curiosity and allow me access to a treasure trove of information. But the kicker was – and always has been – the pursuit of the noble truth.
The truth will set you free became my mantra. There is a higher calling.
This form of pomp is common among journalists, much more those who aspire to become one. It’s something that permeates the ideals of most journalists. Digging up the warped truth and then feeding it to the desperate masses. Watching over the corrupt and dishonest. Policing the untouchables.
I believed in the power of pure, unadulterated information being able to change systems. The status quo would have to bow before the power of facts. What I forgot to take into account was the one fact that we occasionally forget: there’s no such thing as a free press. The very notion of an omnipresent, omniscient bi-partisan press is nothing but a pipe-dream.
It’s difficult for me to explain why such a thought crossed my mind. For a country whose press is ranked in the bottom thirty of the Press Freedom Index, I find myself shaking my head at my naivety.
Writing stories, I thought I was making a difference to the nation’s discourse. Through my writing, I believed I was helping the country evolve, to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I hoped I was assisting in the generation of a critical society, especially one that did not take everything at face value. None of these things were ever true. The truth, as they say, is bitter pill to swallow.
It probably has something to do with my copious consumption of international media. Reading through the exploits of veteran journalists and correspondents who risk their lives to uncover the truth. Figures such as Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Glenn Greenwald, and Jeremy Scahill have become role models. Their work has impacted the way in which the world functions. I began setting standards. Unachievable standards.
One of the reasons for the dissolution of standards is the shift in business models – business being the operative word. News is treated much like a commodity. Supply and demand. The formula is simple: look for the juiciest, most scandalous news possible and blitz it. Quantity over quality.
‘The people want it’ is the common rhetoric.
True as it may be, journalists have a code of ethics by which they need to operate. But in a corporatized world, where the elite own media organisations and have aligned themselves with the powers that be, tripe is generally what is produced. Advertisers rule the coop.
Money has taken centre stage. As long as papers sell and websites are visited; as long as circulation numbers rise and readership charts show a positive flow – all news is good news.
But what of the public then? My former editor provided me with a gem of an answer.
“Her name does not matter,” referring to an interviewee for an assignment I had conducted. “She’s not that important anyway.” What a feckless thing to say, I thought.
First and foremost, journalism is for the people. I believe in this. If a journalist is caught in a battle between the government and the people, a journalist should always take the side of the public. As the fourth estate, journalists are the eyes and ears of the people. When the elite find themselves caught with their pants down, journalists should be the first to capture it and report it to the public. Democracy only works when each and every tier of government is under strict scrutiny. Check and balance.
It’s bad enough that the elite have to be named with their pompous titles, spoken to eloquently and diligently because they hold office or control corporations. When a lowly citizen’s name is missing or misspelled, they become irrelevant. It may seem a petty thing to have a fit over, but it’s about the principle. When editors – the very people who impart a publication’s ethical code onto its reporters – do not respect the people they’ve sworn to serve, you begin to wonder whether the worst has yet to come.
At this point, it might begin to sound like a one-sided rant based off of a four month stint at a dodgy media organisation. Just to make sure, I took the liberty of speaking to and questioning a number of reporters from different organisations.
From online media to competitor print. One thing stood out among all of them: there’s no hope. It has become a profession devoid of the notion.
“There’s no point in trying,” one reporter told me as we chattered through a local council meeting. “You eventually decide that the pay is fine, and there’s a chance to get promoted. As long as the money comes in, it’s all right.”
I spoke to a senior reporter, one with a couple of decades of experience working at a competitor local daily. I asked him whether the media should be more critical of the state of affairs in the country.
“Why should we criticise anything? Things the way they are are fine,” he replied angrily.
My biggest fear has always been becoming just another reporter. Being irrelevant.
Hopes and dreams are all that we carry in the end. To me, money isn’t as alluring
as the truth.
Despite the doom and gloom surrounding the profession, as far as I am concerned, journalism is where I am headed. I find the pursuit of facts and the rectification of misconceptions cathartic. The way I want to practice journalism, it needs to be loud and harsh.
People will be offended. Arguments will rage. Change will come one way or another. I don’t intend to sit down and watch this holy art die. There is a higher calling.
As Spider Jerusalem, the outlaw journalist from the 90’s comic Transmetropolitan put it:
“Journalism is just a gun. It’s only got one bullet in it, but if you aim it right, that’s all you need. Aim it right, and you can blow a kneecap off the world.”
Image credit: www.o1visa.com