We find strength in numbers. Shared goals prompt us to unionise for collective bargaining and associate for mutual affirmation. Hence, we have clubs and fraternities, guilds and societies, centres and institutes. We identify with the group’s creed, culture and calling. But when journalists’ associations are founded on racial positioning instead of editorial mission, it piques my interest in their political motivation.
In a democracy we’re free to associate and assemble along racial lines. I understand the motives for Perkasa’s existence; likewise the reasons for Hindraf and Dong Zong’s founding. But let not our journalists be defined by racial differentiation.
When media practitioners assemble under exclusivist racial umbrellas, when they see themselves first as Malay, Chinese or Indian journalists instead of journalists who happen to be a Malay, Chinese or Indian, it raises a range of ethical issues. The main being their professional integrity and capacity to report fairly and truthfully when they are confronted by race-related issues and moved to write about it.
For instance, the recent commentary in Utusan Malaysia by the president of the National Association of Malay Journalists and Writers of Malaysia (NAMJ). Dr Alias Mohamed, who is also president of the Kelantan Malay Journalists Association, wrote that if Malay leaders continued to accommodate the Chinese, they would risk losing their Malay authority and political leadership.
The president’s warped sense of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ may not represent the views of all NAMJ members.
But it does legitimise a hegemonic framework that its members may see as acceptable in shaping their coverage of race and religion related issues, such as, of late, the preferential treatment policies, which for more than 30 years now have discriminated against qualified non-Malay students in accessing places in public universities, the child conversion (to Islam) bill, the usage of the word ‘Allah’ in Christian Bahasa publications, the post-GE13 power relations structure and a token suggestion by the prime minister on the night of the election results on May 6 of a ‘national reconciliation’ to unite the people.
Forming associations of journalists by race rather than professional mission gives the public the impression that racial attributes do shape and inform on the work of a Malay, Chinese and Indian journalist. Which goes against the nature of what ethical journalists do, regardless of their gender, race or religion – that is to understand and interpret events and issues in their contexts, and then writing about it.
Journalists should observe and reflect on what they’ve seen and heard, analyse and elucidate between right and wrong, then and write about it fairly, truthfully and responsibly for a discerning public.
Because race and its assumed attributes impact on what and how we feel, think and react to others different from us, the critical challenge for Malaysian journalists is to figure out how to not jump the gun when reporting on the grievances of “other” communities.
Because journalists do set the public agenda through the headlines, texts, story angles, dominant sources and selective quotes, the public should be more vigilant in engaging online with journalists to investigate into issues that matter and to expose the entrenched corruption in the system and its deleterious impact on the people’s socio-economic welfare.
Mainstream journalists know more than what they are able to report. They are hamstrung by in-house autocratic editorial controls, and hence a learned sense of self-censorship. It is easy to see why the stories we read in the mainstream papers are mainly based on statements by the government rather than investigative exposé driven by the journalists’ bold initiatives.
Increasingly unethical practices
These constraints, however, should not excuse the increasingly unethical practices committed by political mouthpieces such as Utusan Malaysia, which have regressed further to the right with their ethnocentric editorial culture.
In the long run, we need to find ways to depoliticise the media ownership structure and deracialise the editorial controls and contents in the mainstream media. However, a newsroom that reflects the racial diversity of Malaysian society, while essential, may not necessarily be sufficient to get us to talk across racial fault lines.
What is required is a fundamental change in the news culture, the capacity to talk honestly and respectfully across fault lines, and a renewed commitment to ethical and accountable journalism by media owners, editors and their journalists.
I cite below some principles on reporting about race that I’ve compiled in numerous journalism training workshops I’ve conducted over the years in parts of Asia. I hope Malaysian journalists, regardless of their ethnicity, will find these principles relevant to their obligations to report fairly, truthfully and accurately on the increasingly polarised Malaysian society we live in today.
*Factual accuracy in a single story is no substitute for the whole truth. A single story that is factually accurate can nonetheless be misleading. Journalists must always consider the contexts of the issues.
*In multicultural societies, editors must be highly sensitive of the danger of stoking racism by selective reporting and stereotyping. Generalisations based on the behaviour of an individual or a small number of individuals are invariably unjust.
*When there is potential for communal tension, journalists must take time to investigate and expose the underlying causes.
*Statistics can be used to excite passion. They should always be multiple checked and interpreted. This is particularly relevant to issues such as the institutionalised discrimination against non-Malay students in the annual intake by public universities.
*All stories of communal, racial or religious nature should be scrupulously ascribed to their sources. The authority of the sources should be properly evaluated, and where appropriate rejected as reliable sources.
*Where several languages are spoken, meanings are sometimes lost in translation. Words and phrases may have different connotations among different groups. Hence, journalists should always use considered language, especially in headlines and also in the display. No concession should be made to racial rhetoric.
*Statements should not be accepted at face value from any source, including government sources. Where necessary, these should be accompanied in the news columns by corroboration and interpretation.
*Pictures can distort reality. An unrepresentative picture may lie even more than a news story and add to prejudices.
*In mixed societies with underlying causes of tension – social, economic or religious – journalists should initiate investigative stories with sociological content. These would inform and educate the public. It also helps disperse an environment of resentment and suspicion.
*Place equal emphasis on stories of cooperation/harmony with stories of controversies and conflict.
*Avoid over-relying on official sources, particularly politicians and special interest groups. Get down to the grassroots and listen to the people who are affected by the issues.
*Journalists should not allow their stories to be driven by the public hysteria of the moment. Question the assumptions on which the hysteria is based, and always be sensitive to alternative views.
*Factual errors in a speech related to race and religion must be pointed out, where necessary, in the same column as the speech itself is published.
ERIC LOO left Malaysia for Australia in 1986 to work as a journalist. He currently lectures at University of Wollongong, Australia, and serves on the advisory committee of UPI Next, a journalism education and training platform run by United Press International. He edits a refereed journal Asia Pacific Media Educator and conducts journalism training workshops in Asia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org