Sunday, 13 July 2014

Role of the media in need of rethink

Trust must be strengthened for meaningful work to continue
By Robin Chan Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 12 Jul 2014

THE issue of public trust in the Government has been a hot topic of late. Ministers and MPs have urged better communication of policies, so that the public understands why certain things are being done the way they are, and for civil servants and politicians to be closer to the ground to engage citizens and involve them in finding solutions.

Recently, a senior civil servant asked me: What can the media do to strengthen the public's trust in the Government?

It is an important question, but one I had difficulty answering. First, is it the role of the media to strengthen trust in the Government? And second, even if it is, can the media do it?

The answer lies in understanding the role of the media today. Against criticisms of suppressing press freedom, the Government has long defended its stand on what the media should be: It should not be an adversary to the Government, as is in more liberal media models, but one that is a partner with the Government in nation building.

In a speech at Columbia University in New York in 2010, then Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam laid this out. The media should: be a neutral medium for conveying news, with commentary clearly separate; report fully and fairly what goes on; probe and ask tough questions, without becoming a political actor.

I believe that this is a sensible argument, though playing these roles may not necessarily strengthen public trust in the Government if the Government is not already worthy of that trust. If the media should strengthen public trust in the Government, can it do it?

This is the harder question to answer, because of an evolving socio-political environment and perceptions of the mainstream media as being government-controlled.

As a young journalist with six years on the job, I have found some of the criticisms of mainstream media to be unfair. For each accusation of bias, I can point to a critical and insightful piece by my colleagues that has helped to deepen discussion on national issues, or exposed weaknesses in policy.

For sure, every media company anywhere in the world faces pressures from various stakeholders - the Government, shareholders, advertisers and the public alike.

That said, Singapore is far from having the free-wheeling style of journalism found in some democracies which some would like to see here. And there are longstanding factors which have continued to affect the credibility of mainstream media.

First, there is historical baggage. In the 1970s, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew took a knuckle-duster approach to the management of the media. Newspapers were shut down and uncooperative journalists forced out or moved to other roles. Laws such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act were passed to regulate the industry. Local media companies have also come under criticism for appointing key players seen by some as being too close to the Government.

Over the years, the industry has been gradually liberalised. Gone is the knuckle-duster approach, but in its place is perhaps a "kinder, gentler" form of attempts to shape media coverage, through persuasion or even cajoling of journalists and editors.

Second, because there is no Freedom of Information Act, the Government does not always have to be forthcoming with data and information to the media. For example, there is no regular data on the income and education level of parents of students. Tracking this would give us a better idea of social mobility and whether students from different backgrounds are going to the best schools.

While there have long been many concerns that more students from well-educated families were going to top schools, Mr Lee revealed that this was indeed the case only in 2011. These findings have led to many reforms in the education system.

When data is hard to come by, it is challenging at times for journalists to provide thorough analysis, and really advance discussion on national issues.

Third, the media landscape has changed dramatically, with more online players in the form of news and opinion sites and individual blogs, creating greater fragmentation.

Some of them have gained credibility because they present contrarian views. While this is not in and of itself a bad thing, society is not well served when messages are distorted, untruths are spread, and soundbites and images create misperception and more confusion, in a vicious circle.

As some commentators have put it: It has given rise to a Wild Wild West of journalism, where news, opinion and entertainment are becoming merged and harder to distinguish.

While surveys have shown that The Straits Times and other mainstream media continue to be trusted sources of news and information among most Singaporeans, there is concern that trust is slipping among the younger generations.

Just anecdotally, among my peers, fewer tell me that they get their news from mainstream media, and those who do are not shy with their criticisms of it. (We are still friends, mind you).

This has made it harder for the Government to get its message across to the public. At the same time, these criticisms can be disheartening for many well-meaning and aspiring young journalists. Some may well seek to join what they believe to be "freer" media organisations.

In attempting to answer the question of whether the media can help strengthen public trust in the Government, the Government therefore first needs to help strengthen public trust in the media.

I believe this entails several things. To continue to be a credible source of news and information, journalists must have timely and broader access to government information and data.

Mainstream media must be a thought leader that is able to contribute a diversity of views and opinions that represent the increasingly widening and diversifying political and social spectrum of Singapore. Underlying this, the Government should respect and trust mainstream media journalists to act in the interests of the nation, and give them a wider space to operate in.

The Government has made substantial changes in recent years to make Singapore better prepared for the future.

Perhaps it is time too, to rethink the role of the media in Singapore, in order for the Government's and the public's trust in it to be strengthened.

This will allow journalists to contribute more meaningfully to addressing the challenges facing Singapore in an increasingly uncertain future.

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