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Media moguls
to slick clickers

Now that everyone’s a blogger, armed with a whiz app and a phone camera, what happens to journalistic process, dispassion and integrity?

Singapore, October 2014

Journalism ethics - in search of integrity not all can emulate the Man of Steel

Not everyone can have the atomic balance of the 'Man of Steel'.

WITH all the articles being written on the subject recently, you'd think 'Ethics in Journalism' had only just been invented. When I arrived in Hong Kong in 1981 as a foreign correspondent, the daily working practice of the news business, both in Asia and worldwide, was straightforward and largely unquestioned by practitioners and readers alike. It had stood the test of time.

Local and regional English-language and Chinese-language newspapers and magazines enjoyed healthy and very loyal circulation figures (and so bank balances) and there was a – usually fierce – partisanship between English-language press stallions as in the almighty battle 'tween the South China Morning Post versus (Tiger Balm) Sally Aw Sian's Hong Kong Standard camps, for example. So, not much has changed on the surface. Now, though, we have digital media and output is growing exponentially, quite often in a desperate bid to bolster flagging print sales, and some believe that either the game is changing, and/or that many of the players need to be reined in.

Claudia Cragg

Claudia Cragg

No writer was at any point to be a print 'lone wolf' unless, he was someone who felt he had a real crack at being a Norman Mailer or a Studs Terkel, and that was far too lofty an ambition for a workaday, highly respectable hack

The flavour of that news era was when Aussie veteran editor Jack Spackman joked, jollied and chivvied to get the very best copy out of his eager cohort, and the redoubtable Kevin Sinclair screamed (voiceless but crystal clear) at anyone's obvious idiocy, including my own. This was not Old White Men's rule, though, since all crucial work was in fact done by highly proficient, talented Indian and Chinese journalists and sub-editors, By the time I subsequently became Tokyo correspondent for The SCMP later in the '80s, I had had plenty of opportunity to witness first-hand the decades-old professional system that was rather rigidly but proudly in place in the nexus of Asian journalism.

Having trained and worked in London, on and in 'Fleet Street' as it was then, the SCMP set-up was comfortably familiar to me. Even the greenest novices that appeared there, fresh off the street and new to the paper, could not fail to absorb thoroughly the symphonic minutiae of the top-to-bottom team workings. There was a harmony in evidence from the input of the paper's (sometimes rather almighty) Editor in conjunction with other senior colleagues, right the whole way down to his or her own peers. The integrity and emotional continuity, too, in this collaborative flow ran on even to the printers and to the final all-important destination, the readers in the public at large.

Then, the more I worked around the region, too, the more I found that that this harmonic attitude to journalism (and so too ethics in journalism) prevailed and still prevails and works well. Regularly working up stories in Singapore, The Philippines, Japan and Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Myanmar, I have always been especially aware of a collaborative approach, even when I have been visiting as a foreign correspondent. This has kept me not only fully informed of 'couleur locale' but of nuances and specific cultural ethics that otherwise may well have gone straight over my head.

No writer was at any point to be a print 'lone wolf' unless, he was someone who felt he had a real crack at being a Norman Mailer or a Studs Terkel, and that was far too lofty an ambition for a workaday, highly respectable hack. (So sad that the same term now, gratis Mr Murdoch's and other modern-day publishing monoliths, is now associated only in the pejorative). None of this was about the 'me's, about personal career aggrandisement or even expression, but rather about reportage. Factual representation in journalistic style was the point rather than personal musings and innuendo. No one ever gave a damn about what I thought and that did not surprise or disappoint me.

If you became a columnist, where viewpoints were actively encouraged, personal expression could have full rein. With blogging, the line between reportage and the writing of columns has become blurred and so perhaps also the quality and standards required. It might now seem inconceivable that today's photos with bylines that are so commonplace in this Everybody's-Got-Talent era were then a horror sought after only by the fame hungry. For bloggers who may well never see any financial reward, though, it is now a paltry but absolutely essential ‘fee’.

But the rules of conduct, surely, have always been the same. Reporting should be accurate and truthful and, as far as possible, should be independent from politics and special interests. Arguably, this is becoming increasingly difficult these days and not just in Asia. Content should be written in an impartial fashion and should present more than one side in any debate on an issue. All considerations for humanity and a 'do no harm' principle should be uppermost in the minds of the journalist when setting out the piece. This last point may seem rather obvious, but in an age where journalism can, and does, so often emit noxious reverberating rays it should never be forgotten.

The recollections here may seem arcane. The 2014 whizz bang of instant verbiage from blogs to Twitter/Hootsuite, TEDing and 'vlogging,' glitters fantastically by comparison. Now, such is the output of Hong Kong blogs alone that it takes valiant efforts by a great many, such as since 2007 for example, just to keep up, distil, analyse and summarise the voluminous electronic outpourings. And Mephisto-type mental juggling is need to cope with and absorb the substantial content in Pinoy, Thai, Singapore and Malaysian blogs – where Watchful Eyes might be an issue. This new world has constantly changing protagonists, with wholly flexible rules and real-time previously unimagined constraints, political, commercial and legal. Many, then, would argue that given the vast freedom of expression and exponentially easy distribution, the old ways have absolutely nothing to teach us today. I would argue they should reconsider.

The standardised procedural and behavioural workings of publishing generally, ideals in practice which no journalist could or would then dream of operating beyond, served a solid purpose. And they are nowadays perhaps a useful benchmark against which all warriors, whether digital or defiantly print, should continue to measure themselves. All once had had no choice but to operate with so-called 'good practice' from the moment they stepped into that newsroom or, I believe, any other local newsroom of the time. This did not just refer to UPI copy style, but also to the very mechanics by which a story was fashioned. Reinforced as it was by strong habit and top-down and peer pressure, those involved in the final product could only steer straight, on a professionally sound and wholly ethical course for any particular story and indeed, by extension, for their entire writing life.

Blogging, even if it did occur in a far off form to some as a possibility was, in fact, many millions of light-words away. Today statistics show that a new blog appears worldwide every half a second – that's an estimated 172,800 new blogs each day. Seen as online 'journals', the hard work (and it is) of those who sit down to create an electronic bridge between the modern demand for information and the rate at which it is supplied, is to be lauded. And, cliché though it has always been, the power of knowledge today is hard to question when information contained in blogs apparently helps an impressive 21 percent of consumers reach their buying decisions. The race to keep up with demand for powerful knowledge is as insatiable as the desire of those to consume it. Standards be damned?

The power of knowledge is hard to question when blogs apparently help an impressive 21 percent of consumers reach their buying decisions. The race to keep up with demand for knowledge is as insatiable as the desire of those to consume it. Standards be damned?

How then do old-timers dare to suggest that old ways are not only relevant but in fact essential? Because what was being learned hands on, in the pre-blog age before writers ploughed on fearlessly alone, was not only the on-the-job practice but also, and perhaps crucially, the constantly and effortlessly applied subliminal ethics of daily journalism. There were few renegades.

Those who dared to step out of line were the kind of novelist manqué types who sought more substantial personal longevity and visibility and glory of the kind that many a blogger would today readily identify with. This is nowadays fair enough, when doggedly personal opinion, brokered as it is through lucrative commercial click-through-power that is perhaps potentially useful to millions. Long gone are the days when US or European print outlets frequently commanded the entire daily attention of millions – Wall Street Journal print edition, 1.48m, The New York Times, 731,395 and The Times of India, 3.14m.

So more youthful readers might marvel now at an explanation of story generation from that pre-digital age that I am going to relate here. And, even with my Masters Degree in New Media & Journalism, I find the telling of this tale romantic. From the outset, with the print reader firmly in mind, the kernel of a solid story idea would be presented to an Editor who would then, sometimes rather abruptly and even unkindly, kill it or give it a full steam ahead. There was no question of starting backwards, of deciding how a story would turn out and then filling in the details to fit. No, not at all.

An outline would be thoroughly prepped with several sources on all sides of the issue, with back office and other library research conducted and then the work to that point would be run by the same editor again in a progress report sometimes in front of everyone in a group meeting. Often colleagues doubled up to cover the English and Chinese side of the same story. Many times it would not pan out. Subject and even legal experts would be lined up (often with the help of the publication's archivist or librarian, imagine that) should they be needed. This was a discipline and it was highly disciplined, with little freedom for personal idiosyncrasy or error.

All this considerable effort was designed to steer the best possible course through to crafting a final piece. Only when all this was done would final copy be written to fill the brief. Nothing was slapdash or off the cuff since implicit in the process was that a good story takes time. Looking back at pieces from then, though, at no point did the urgency or the up-to-the-minute appeal of the writing ever suggest its carefully deliberate nature.

All facts were checked and checked again by 'subs' who would do a 'line edit' to make sure that what was written on the paper's pages would hold up to more than casual – and certainly to legal - scrutiny. Probably most galling of all today in dealing with the digital generation, is recalling that bylines were a luxury that were hard won and only usually after years of consistent quality with outstanding work and constant and often painful peer review.

There was no need for anyone involved to question the practice or, dare I say it, the morality of the status quo because in print journalism it could nearly always be seen to work continuously and harmoniously and to work well. The personal integrity of the writer as well of those in whose publication the work appeared were a given. Standing by the code was an implicit, irrevocable part of the practice. At no point was this an optional extra to be applied if, and only if, their application would not get in the way of a 'good story'.

Perhaps of key importance, any article published was necessarily going to promote the publication as a whole and so, even more importantly, could never let the side down with inaccuracies, sloppiness or, worse still, libel suits, scandal or censure. No blame is being attached here, no one is saying the journalism world has gone to hell and all is bad. But the very nub of a story subject itself, was calm, collected, and even mundane. Sensation (“Kim Kardashian wears a new dress!”) was shunned and frowned upon by fellow writers. In all, few problems arose and the added bonus was the intense satisfaction from the bottom-line for the paper of healthy circulation sale. When a stir did occur, it was likely to be of the 'right kind'. That would, more than likely, be because a journalist, in full collusion with the editor and other staff, produced a story that by its very nature was so very startling that readers socks were blown off, not by other women-type scandals, personal intrusion or alarm, but often by the simple obviousness and clarity of a simple truth.

The practice, as described here is what it was. Quaint. It must be said, though, that thankfully such methodologies are still largely carried out without interruption in several significant publishing territories (including swathes of India and South America) and have created solid, long-term employment for many and long-term sustained reading pleasure for others. However any fool knows that, now, despite all the hard Vine/Audiobooming work, as well as the gigabytes of verbiage, all that matters is the 'click through' count while website visitors cruise through a writer's words for that extra two seconds and for a very specific commercial end. So what will this all mean? Old practices are surely going to be in deep trouble and that can only mean one thing. The ethics that have long gone with these old practices are soon likely to be rendered increasingly extinct.

Claudia Cragg is a foreign correspondent and broadcaster who has been living in and covering Asia since the late '70s. Among her best known published works are the books, 'The New Taipans' and 'The New Maharajahs', both best-selling early works on the rise of business leaders in the Asia-Pacific Rim.

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Phil Hawkes (23 July, 2015) – Australia
Very perceptive Claudia! The "old ways" aren't going to give up without a fight. To the death
[unfortunately, ours].
Sashi Nair (3 March, 2015) – India
Excellent piece, really. So very true. If given a choice - whether to be first with the story or whether to get it right - more journalists today are likely to take the first route. Checking and clarifying, the fundamentals of good journalism, are often ignored. Accuracy and fairness have taken a beating. And as far as balance / maturity is concerned, need we even ask?

It's sad, especially considering the fact that journalism students in some of India's (am speaking for India here) top colleges / institutes are taught all these things. But once they get a job in a newspaper office all is forgotten in a hurry.

A lot of all this has also to do with discipline, something that must come from within. So, how can we build character? That's a question journalism schools must seriously ponder. – This comment has been edited

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