Truthseekers or Spinmasters? The state of modern media in Singapore

To uncritical minds, the media in all its multiple formsserves as an objective source of information. However, the media has also been criticised by some as a vehicle for manipulating public opinion. We take a closer look at the two faces of media.

By Nazry Bahrawi

At a time when news is increasingly being packaged as ‘entertainment’ by the mass media, there is a perceived need to sensationalise the story, in order to catch the attention of news consumers. News stories are accompanied by compelling visuals and sounds that help create an impact on the viewing or reading public. Media practitioners, who realise the potential of combining such elements effectively, use them adeptly to propagate their message.

Let’s get this straight – it is the professional responsibility of all journalists to report the truth. The fabrication of facts, no matter how small, is considered an outright breach of trust. But even when Truth is being reported, there remains the question of whose ‘truth’ is being portrayed.

Truth can be misrepresented
One of the most immediate concerns when dealing with the media is the issue of misrepresentation. An eloquent discussion on this is found in Edward Said’s book entitled Covering Islam: How Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (1997), where the late academic underlines how inherent prejudice against Muslims has led to the perpetuation of many misconceptions about the followers of the Islamic faith. “So far as the United States seems to be concerned…Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world.” (Edward Said, The Nation, Jan 1998).

The unbalanced coverage of recent conflicts in the Middle East, in particular Iraq, by the Western media has served to feed the inherent Western prejudice against Islam, inflaming hatreds that has led to aggressive behaviour against Muslims worldwide. More grievously, the Western media has been less than balanced in the coverage of their own failings. For example, the continued incarceration, without trial, of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay by the United States receives scant media attention, while reports of violence by Iraqi extremists continue to dominate headlines and airwaves.

Closer to home, we have the example of the controversy surrounding the lawsuit and eventual resignation of T.T. Durai, the former CEO of the National Kidney Foundation (NKF). It is striking to note that in most of the newspaper pictures published, Durai was portrayed as a shifty-eyed individual with something to hide. He was frequently shown wearing a gloomy expression and a negative disposition. Perhaps that is how Durai looks all the time and not the result of selective visuals. Readers will never know and can only speculate. But the undiscerning reader would conclude Durai was dishonest, even before he had even read the article.

The power to spin
While appraising media reports in the effort to avoid being manipulated, it is important for the public to understand that news reports are embedded with multiple voices which include not just those of the interviewees’ or journalists’, but also those of the editors’ who commissioned the reports. In other words, the public must always be aware that every news story is biased, no matter how hard it tries to be objective. Media practitioners are only human, and their individual perspectives will influence the ways in which a story is produced and delivered.

In most cases, biased reporting does not come from a malicious intent to deceive. But that is not to say it cannot happen. The mass media is a powerful tool in public relations, and people with vested interests will make use of the media to disseminate information that serve their own agendas. Noam Chomsky, a linguistics academic from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), claims that the media is more than just a tool prone to misrepresentation. He criticises the media in books such as Power and Terror: Post 9-11 Talks and Interviews (2003), where he suggests, for example, that the coverage of weapons of mass destruction by some news networks during the lead-up to the second Gulf War qualifies them as weapons of mass deception instead.

What we’re looking at here is an insidious process of disinformation, more familiarly known as ‘spin’. Spin refers to the creative presentation of facts via the mass media. It implies the use, although not always so, of disingenuous, deceptive or highly manipulative public relations tactics. It can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint what is wrong about media spin. In many cases, the truth is being reported. However, through the selective use of facts, or the deliberate omission of unfavourable information, a totally different impression of the ‘truth’ may end up being reported instead.

Bangkok Post journalist Alan Dawson examined this issue in an article entitled “Poisoning the Debate” (Bangkok Post, 7 Aug 2005). While studying the ways in which politicians of different ideologies make use of the media, Alan made an important distinction between dis-information, i.e. “a story made up from wholecloth and masquerading as news”, and mis-information, which “makes use of selected facts and less-than-inclusive debate to try to lead the less-informed audience to an uninformed conclusion”. Despite the distinction between the two forms of media spin, Alan is quick to point out that they both have the same potential to “baffle and mislead the reader, listener or viewer.”

Responsible journalism in Singapore
In Singapore, several state-linked mechanisms have been institutionalised to curb the impact of wayward influences on the media. For instance, publishers vying to print and distribute publications must apply for a permit from the Media Development Authority (MDA) before this can be done. The application process involves an appraisal of proposed contents before any licence is officially issued. On top of that, established publications will need to renew their permit on an annual basis.
Another important official mechanism is the Internal Security Act (ISA) administered under the Internal Security Department (ISD). The law allows for what is called ‘preventive detention’ where people who are suspected being an active threat to Singapore, can be imprisoned for up to two years without trial. This is a controversial law that has drawn its fair share of criticism over the years. Many critics see it an implied threat to local media practitioners to steer clear of sensitive topics such as politics, religion or race.

Nonetheless, local media institutions have learned to live with such controls. And, to a certain extent, they have provided an impetus for responsible journalism in Singapore, in that news stories produced here are less prone to sensationalisation, as compared to elsewhere in the world. The question remains however, for all media workers, as to when responsible journalism becomes an unconscious form of self-censorship. It is a difficult act to balance – the need to report the truth, while being mindful of the potential impact of sensitive facts.

In one the essays published in Media in the Terrorized World: Reflections in the Wake of 911 (2004), Mahizhnan suggested three pragmatic solutions to this dilemma. These are, (a) to include cross-cultural studies as a compulsory module for journalism courses in universities, (b) to organise programmes in media institutions where journalists are orientated to a specific culture, and (c) to institutionalise a non-partisan centre where complaints about media abuses can be reported and investigated.

While far from exhaustive, these brief explorations point to the complex nature of the mass media, which is effectively a double-edged sword. Aspiring media workers can take comfort in the knowledge that as long as ethical conduct is applied, the mass media is a sword can be used for noble rather than malicious purposes.

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