Sunday 29 April 2012

Traditional media still the best platform for national debate

By Leslie Fong, The Straits Times, 28 Apr 2012

AMID all the hype about the rise of social media, it might be pertinent to ask why some government ministers have chosen of late to make policy announcements on their Facebook pages or in their blogs instead of traditional mass media.

Doubtless they must have done so not just to show that they are keeping up with the changing times, but also because they believe that what they have to say can reach more people, and more effectively, via social media rather than newspapers, radio and television.

But is that really the case?

On the face of it, the reach of some social media may appear formidable. Facebook, the most popular, has more than 2.5 million active users in Singapore. The reach of popular bloggers can be mind-boggling - Malaysian actress Lisa Hurihani, to name just one, has seven million followers who read her blog or Twitter postings regularly!

In comparison, The Straits Times, Singapore's best-selling newspaper, reaches 1.35 million daily; Lianhe Zaobao, the national Chinese-language daily, a shade over 500,000; and Berita Harian, the Malay-language daily, 230,000. Channel 5, the free-to-air English-language television channel, is watched by 998,000 daily while Channel 8, which is in Mandarin, reaches 1.9 million viewers each day. The combined reach of all the radio stations in Singapore is an estimated 2.4 million.

It would be tempting to add up all these numbers and say traditional mass media have a reach of more than 7.378 million, or about three times that of Facebook in Singapore. But that would be wrong because there is over-lapping to account for. For example, according to available statistics, at least 130,000 read both The Straits Times and Zaobao each day. Trying to estimate how many of these also watch Channel 5 or 8, or both, as well as listen to more than one radio station is a Herculean task.

However, it would not be wrong to argue that the combined reach of traditional mass media in conveying a ministerial announcement will exceed that of his Facebook posting - because not all 2.5 million users would make it a point to check out his blog daily. Indeed, in all probability, few would. Of course this sort of argument can be mounted against, say, newspapers carrying the same announcement. But a news story about the announcement will likely catch the eye of a Straits Times reader flipping through its pages.

If a ministerial posting on, say, Facebook does not reach that many Facebook users, it is not unreasonable to ask whether the minority of Facebook users who happen to check in on a minister's posting should be the first to hear about a policy announcement before the majority of Singaporeans who turn to traditional mass media every day.

Leaving aside the numbers game, I would argue that the issue is not just reach but, more importantly, the implications of that minister's decision to bypass traditional mass media for social media. Chief among these is the implicit relegation of traditional mass media to lesser importance. Before I go any further, let me declare my interest - I have worked in media for more than 42 years, the first 35 in newspapers, the rest in both traditional and new media.

With bias for or against neither, I say that ministers choosing to go to social media first, instead of making their announcements in an open press conference, are, unwittingly, undermining traditional mass media. And that, I submit, is not in Singapore's best interest. Here I should stress that I am not angling for protection for traditional mass media. I just think it is wrong to leave them out when important announcements that affect the entire nation have to be made.

As it is, traditional mass media, all owned and operated by Singaporean companies, face blistering competition for attention, or eyeballs, as well as revenue from numerous digital challengers, not a few of which are global players with no particular allegiance to Singapore. There is nothing xenophobic about this. It is an open question whether, when push comes to shove, foreign-owned and operated media will show the same sense of responsibility and restraint so necessary for keeping Singapore's multiracial society in good stead.

Seen from this perspective, a ministerial decision to go to social media first is, in effect, a risky invitation to eyeballs to move there, away from traditional mass media. Once this migration, already under way among the younger generations, gathers even greater momentum, traditional mass media are in clear danger of becoming irrelevant.

When that happens, Singapore will lose the valuable platform through which it can, as a nation, talk with itself. Despite the brickbats thrown at mass media from every direction, they still play the valuable role of ensuring that the bulk of Singapore society are focused on the same issues, be these about the widening income gap or the perplexing failures of the Mass Rapid Transit system. People may hold different views about how the income disparity can be narrowed but they are not talking at cross-purposes.

In that regard, new, digital media, whether social by design or not, are no substitute. By their very nature, new/social media are narrow, fragmented and unregulated. Technology has enabled Singaporeans to go online, or mobile, and seek out like-minded individuals with common interests, and so forge a tight little community of their own. They can share photographs, swop gossip, tell the world where they are having coffee, and open up on one thousand and one facets of their private lives which a dinosaur like me would never countenance doing. Such groups can be happily esconced in their own little world within cyberspace, with nary a bother about what their fellow Singaporeans think, say or do.

In short, social media are a useful tool for one-to-one or small closed group engagement but not, I submit, the platform through which to keep the entire nation informed and educated, much less actively involved through rational discussion.

Should Singapore lapse into the state when eyeballs are dispersed over as wide a spectrum as the mind can imagine, it would become well nigh impossible for Government to ensure that enough of society are on the same page, to begin with, never mind forging a national consensus. And without that consensus, effective governance becomes an uphill task.

Can we then claim, hand on heart, that we will still remain one people, one Singapore?

The writer, former editor of The Straits Times, is the senior executive vice-president for marketing, Singapore Press Holdings.

Not all politics is social
Editorial, The Straits Times, 7 May 2012

IF ONE'S starting point is that politics is increasingly about social connection and engagement, there might be a tendency to place undue weight on social media. This is as much a folly as relying solely on traditional media to connect politically with the ground. In a world of proliferating media platforms, political leaders everywhere cannot afford to take a one-track approach. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's foray into social media with the launch of his Facebook page shows this logic at work. He remarked that he was overwhelmed by the response, which raised issues such as public transport problems and the rising cost of living. Other ministers, too, use the Net to participate in public forums. One noteworthy example is the calm and rational way Minister of State for National Development and Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin responded to an angry blog post complaining about runaway HDB flat prices.

Given the freewheeling ethos of the Web, anti-establishment rants tend to get more mileage as they make their rounds on online forums. Far less common are posts shedding light on both sides of an argument and broader perspectives put across persuasively. If political leaders remain on the sidelines as observers, they will not be part of the conversation. Hence the move by politicians to have a regular presence online. The quest for online engagement has seen ministries and agencies setting up more than 140 Facebook initiatives, 60 YouTube channels, 60 Twitter accounts, 30 mobile apps and about 240 websites and microsites. Governments elsewhere, as well as media organisations, are also rushing to launch online initiatives.

While this is ineluctable, it is also important to bear in mind the limits of social media. While it is a useful tool for joining in the informal discussion of national issues, it cannot replace mainstream media - as well as more traditional platforms, from Parliament to public forums, and even the annual National Day Rally - in shaping issues, evolving public agendas and laying the basis for a national consensus.

An Institute of Policy Studies survey found that local newspapers and broadcasters were the most influential forms of media in shaping voter decisions in the general election. Other reports have noted the critical importance of direct voter engagement. Handshakes and personal connection cannot be replaced by mouse-clicks and 'likes'. While social media might help leaders connect superficially with more voters online, it cannot replace painstaking grassroots work on the ground, or a robust debate on the big issues of the day in Parliament or the press.

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