Cheers or tears in journalism?

By Bernard Pereira

Writing about people, especially the wrong things they do, is like putting your head on a guillotine. And hoping it doesn’t get chopped off!

Remember the Watergate Scandal that toppled a US President three decades ago? It marked the inevitable fall from grace of President Richard Nixon following the arrest of his five top aides, caught red-handed with illegal bugging devices at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. They turned out to be part of a political espionage and sabotage operation that triggered a massive White House cover-up, directed by the president himself.

It became also the biggest media exposé in history. It turned reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post into household names, especially after Hollywood made it into a blockbuster movie, All The President’s Men. But then, who was to know that it also looked as if it might cost them their jobs, their reputations, and even their lives?

In Singapore, no event in the immediate post-war period could be said to be as dramatic as the Maria Hertogh trial. It was the controversial story of the legal tussle for custody of the Dutch Catholic schoolgirl, Maria Hertogh, who was raised as a Muslim by her close family friend, after her parents were made prisoners-of-war.

The local media hit its crescendo on 12 Dec 1950 when it gave comprehensive coverage of the trial. The news and dramatic press pictures so enraged the Muslim community here that it sparked off racial riots on that historic day. The riots continued for three days and 24-hour curfews had to be imposed. In the end, 18 people were killed and 173 injured before law and order was restored. They included Europeans, Eurasians, Chinese and Malay and Indian Muslims.
In comparing the two historical events, ask yourself: Would you have wanted to be a Woodward or Bernstein in either affair?

Watergate moved millions of the taxpaying American public to disappointment, disillusionment, anger, indignation and betrayal, and led to calls for justice, impeachment, retribution, restitution and jail terms for the guilty.

At home, lives were unnecessarily lost. The riots showed clearly that racial and religious harmony could never be taken for granted in a multiracial, multicultural and multireligious society like ours. Our primordial attachment to our cultural roots made it easy for racial and religious feelings to boil over and these easily took violent forms.

The Maria Hertogh incident clearly revealed the danger of unfettered, sensationalized coverage of racially and religiously-sensitive issues. So, who was the culprit? The mass media. It moved the masses at large to cause chaos and carnage.

True, it is every reporter’s job to tell the truth! But when the paper sensationalizes and plays up the reporter’s story to the extent that it inflames and infuriates the reader – and probably makes him take out his feelings on others – then there is no longer pride in journalism. Only tragedy and tears.

Which is why it was decided that the only way to avoid such tragedies and trauma was to have “a responsible press” in Singapore. This hitherto became our credo. In fact, it is today the gospel of the Confederation of Asean Journalists (CAJ) -- that editors, reporters and photographers need to exercise restraint and be sensitive to the potential for violence when racial and religious feelings are aroused.

Mr Ivan Lim, a veteran journalist and ex-Gen Sec of the Singapore National Union of Journalists (SNUJ) as well as ex-Vice President of the CAJ, said: “Journalists are guided by a professional code of ethics to ensure they exercise due diligence and sense of responsibility in their reporting. Lest they be carried away by idealism and exuberance, they also pause in their writing to assess the import of the words and sentences used and the impact of a news report on the parties concerned.

“Sober and respectable journalism dictates that a journalist uses judicious and non-emotive language in news reports to cover a sense of objectivity. It is also expected of a journalist to give two sides of their say when writing about a dispute or issue involving two or more parties.

”On foreign news reports, we take care not to offend our neighbouring countries. This we do by observing the CAJ code of conduct which emphasizes the need to observe sensitivities impinging on national pride, customs and tradition. “

While it cannot be denied that Watergate inspired a proliferation of journalists, all aspiring to be a Bernstein or Woodward -- with media moguls offering better remuneration and investing more in investigative reporting -- it cemented the notion that in democratic societies, it was the media’s duty to monitor the government.

Reporting a story is more than merely regurgitating it ad verbatim. It is conceptualizing, creating, adding the special effects and defining the news before reporting it. You must have the love and passion for it – never mind if you have to wait three or four hours to meet your contact. Or if your shift pulls you out of bed at 3am or finishes at 12.midnight, after your friend’s party is over.

If you take on the job, you must be prepared to work at least 10 to 12 hours at a stretch, sometimes with only quick snacks in between. And if you love the nature of the job, you will yourself walk the extra mile. Only then will you more likely find your way to that Pandora’s Box to give you your Page One story. Wouldn’t you love that?

After all, isn’t it the final product that always compensates for all your sacrifices, that ultimately counts? You could be on the News beat – for Transport/Communications or Health or Education -- Courts, Property, Crime, General or Sports. The long hours are still inevitable. And if you are health conscious, along with it, the gastric pains…?

Of course, it’s not everyday that you will have to endure long unearthly hours. There will always be the lighter days. But it all depends on you. If you’re the type, always waiting for the editor to spoon-feed you, then journalism is not for you. But if you’re one with a “nose for news”, and never a clock-watcher, then the sky’s the limit.

Most importantly, you must make sure what goes into print is true, accurate and, in no way, libelous. Otherwise, you could be dragged to court for defamation.

It must also be remembered that your job could take you to some far-flung land. What if your editor wanted you to cover the Singapore team that is, say, lending military aid to a war-torn country, say, Sri Lanka?

Be prepared for the worst. And I am not mincing my words: Your life is at stake here. You will be on the battlefront, documenting all that is happening, perhaps, against the Tigers of Tamil Eelan. From the Singapore team’s angle, of course.

You have read the news from war-ravaged countries, like Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Israel, Bosnia, Serbia, Kashmir, Pakistan. The killing fields. The suicide bombers. All the blood and gore. Now, you have the opportunity to see it first-hand – and write about it. Wouldn’t you grab that once-in-a-lifetime offer?

Just visualize it: You are bunched together with the Singapore soldiers. Even dressed like them – in fatigues. Crouched in a bunker. Mud all over you. Bullets whizzing past you. Would you have the gall to even think about the report you will be filing? A prayer book would probably be the more appropriate thing in your hand than a pen, wouldn’t it?

Dozens of journalists in these “hell holes” have already lost their lives – all in the course of duty. Some, accidentally shot. Others, taken hostage – and shot. Decapitated even. Why, have you suddenly lost your nerve? Not as rosy as you thought?
Amidst all the fighting, blood-letting and lingering fear of being roasted alive, you still have your deadlines to meet. You have to take into account your time differences and work accordingly. It works the same for any other job you have been assigned to.

In any case, it must be remembered that the reporter is only one small piece of the giant jigsaw puzzle that is the media. He only reports on a certain event. It is the sub-editor whose job is to lay out the pages, edit the stories and provide the headlines, sub-heads, standfirsts and captions.

Invariably, it can be quite a workload, especially if the reporter’s copy needs to be rewritten from a different angle. And that is why communication between the reporter and sub-editor is of the utmost importance.

Still, nothing can beat the feeling of satisfaction and pride when things finally fall into place – a compelling story, appropriate headline and dramatic pictures all coming together to make it a powerful page. It truly makes all the effort and sacrifices worthwhile.

BERNARD PEREIRA has had more than 24 years of journalism with The Straits Times, The New Paper and TODAY newspapers, as well as Golf Malaysia, Golf Singapore, Inside Sport, Impact 300, Netball Singapore, Pinoy Star and Flex magazines. He was a former Director of the Confederation of Asean Journalists and ex-ST Branch Secretary of the Singapore National Union of Journalists.

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