'It does us no justice’ to be pro-Government, say Singapore's mainstream media

'It does us no justice’ to be pro-Government, say Singapore's mainstream media

Speaking at a public hearing on fake news, editors from The Straits Times and Channel NewsAsia discuss censorship and dealing with mistakes.

walter warren
Mediacorp’s editor-in-chief Walter Fernandez (left) and The Straits Times' editor Warren Fernandez at a hearing for the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on Mar 23, 2018.

SINGAPORE: In the age of social media, which gives the public more sources of news, there is no reason for Singapore’s mainstream media outlets to be partisan in its reporting, senior editors of Mediacorp and The Straits Times said on Friday (Mar 23).

They were addressing a parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods (DOFs), set up to explore the likes of fake news and its countermeasures - including legislation.

Nominated Member of Parliament Chia Yong Yong, who sits on the panel, suggested that notwithstanding the perpetuation of DOFs, trust in mainstream media “is still high but not as high as it used to be”.

“On the ground, there would have been some erosion of trust,” she said. “There is a perception in certain quarters that the mainstream press is pro-ruling party, or pro-Government, and in some quarters they say mainstream media has now swung the other way.”

In response, Mediacorp's editor-in-chief Walter Fernandez said: “Before the social media advent, there were far fewer brands of news sources. These were larger, more dominant and enjoyed a higher degree of trust.

“The significant fragmentation of the audience has left them with a significantly wider choice … We are judged now quite differently by the expectations of an audience that has moved on significantly, and we have to fight to earn their trust on a daily basis now.”

“In that sort of environment, against that sort of landscape, it does us no justice to want to be ‘pro-A’ or ‘pro-B’ in that sense," Mr Fernandez added.

“Our fundamental premise is we have to provide accurate, contextual and timely information to audiences and allow them to make up their minds.

“Ultimately … (in) moments of crisis, we see people coming back to mainstream media. That speaks to the trust there is within our organisations and the trust Singaporeans hold up the two mainstream media companies with.”

Said Mr Warren Fernandez, editor of The Straits Times: “Over the last five, 10 years we’ve tried extremely hard to be fair, balanced and objective because we see our role as not trying to play up one party or the other, but to give our readers as much information as they can to make decisions for themselves.

“If we were biased, we would be clearly called out on social media. It would backfire and affect our credibility, so we wouldn’t be inclined to do that. I don’t think it does anybody any service if we tried to … it would be a disservice to our readers, a disservice to our journalists, and ultimately I think a disservice to Singapore.”

ON CENSORSHIP, MAKING MISTAKES

Mr Warren Fernandez also told the Committee that an “important distinction” needed to be made between the “exercising of judgment by editors, and censorship or self-censorship”.

“Before we publish anything, we would want to assure ourselves that the content we are putting out is not libelous, unfair or biased … it’s us exercising responsibility,” he said.

“We recognise it’s a duty, and we make judgment calls and we take constant feedback from many sources - newsmakers, readers, organisations ... that’s the critical role a responsible media organisation would play.

“If you’re going to have a meaningful exchange and debate, you need informed decisions. It’s not a matter of every view being put out there, and have a slugfest, and expect sweetness and light to emerge.”

Committee member Dr Janil Puthucheary, who is also Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information, also quizzed the editors on how they internally dealt with falsehoods and mistakes.

Mr Jaime Ho, Channel NewsAsia’s chief editor of digital news, said there would be “full transparency” in explaining why the mistake was made and telling the actual truth.

Mr Walter Fernandez added that there is “zero tolerance” for falsehoods, “whether low or high impact”, and pointed to multiple checks within the newsroom.

“If we do want to differentiate ourselves from the other social media players; the other purported news organisations; one-man operations and stuff like that - we have to take a single position.”

Said Mr Warren Fernandez of The Straits Times: “We take mistakes, inaccuracies and wrong information we put out extremely seriously. We would want to check and find out what happened and why, and take remedial action.

“The sense of angst felt in newsrooms when something like that happens is tremendous - because we know the trust earned from the public is precious, and not to be taken lightly at all.”

Source: CNA/jo

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