The other casualty of the Great Escape: mainstream media credibility

Cherian George

The following commentary has been widely quoted – and misquoted. For those who lack the patience to read it closely – including, sadly, the international news agency Reuters – here is a summary of its key points. (1) The issue is not whether the national media answered key questions (it cannot force answers out of government, as Reuters itself discovered, although it buried this pertinent fact low down in its report), nor whether reporters pressed the government for answers (we can take it for granted that they did). The issue is instead why the national media's initial published reports did not even mention the key questions of public interest. (2) Since there is a standard journalistic way of handling instances when important questions are not answered by newsmakers, the media's failure to do so for such a big story can only be explained by political pressure, not by some lapse in professional judgment. (3) Political interference of this sort is extremely damaging to media credibility.

Anyone receiving the news last week that a dangerous JI detainee had escaped from custody would have had an immediate question: How in the world did he escape?

The question is so natural and so obvious that you’d think anyone barely paying attention would ask it. Unless, apparently, one worked for the national news media – in which case the question of how Mas Selamat Kastari escaped was immaterial.

At least, that’s how it seemed right up to Thursday morning last week. Channel News Asia did not raise the question in its online report, posted a few hours after the escape. The Straits Times went to town with the story the next morning, carrying dramatic details of the ongoing manhunt in a page one story deemed worthy of five bylines, with the news editor himself leading the charge. But, apparently, none of them considered the “how” question to be newsworthy.

ST’s competitor Today had a strikingly similar approach on day one, covering the story as if it was the National Day Parade: a big show, not requiring the activation of any grey cells. Today brands itself on reporting the meaning behind the news, because it believes that the mere facts of the news are commodities already circulating through electronic media. Today's attempt to show that it had something more current and value-added than ST – whose headline read, "Massive manhunt" – was the headline "Manhunt continues". Like ST, Today's page one story, appearing next to its slogan “we set you thinking”, neglected to ask – let alone answer – how Mas Selamat escaped.

Thus, following the mainstream media over the first 24 hours was frustrating and farcical. Not because the public must get answers instantly – I don’t believe that government or anyone else must serve the 24-hour news cycle at the expense of more urgent tasks – but because people deserve to know that questions of public interest are taken seriously by the journalists who serve them. Journalists can’t always find the answers, but they can at least anticipate readers’ questions.

You already know this instinctively if you are a professional journalist. There’s a standard way of handling unavoidable gaps in your story, such as when newsmakers are not ready to answer questions by press time: you simply raise the question in your story, and state that answers are not yet forthcoming.

This is exactly what other media did in its initial reports. The Associated Press news agency quoted the brief Ministry of Home Affairs statement about in the third paragraph of its report, adding immediately after, “It did not say how he escaped.”

Similarly, Canada’s CBC said in the third paragraph of its report, “The statement did not say how he escaped.” The International Herald Tribune said, “Singapore has one of the tightest security systems in the world, and the government gave no details on how he escaped.”

In Singapore, in the first 24 hours following the escape, it was left to the bizarre combination of independent bloggers and PAP MPs to ask the question that was on everyone’s mind. Singapore’s mainstream media acted as if they didn’t want to know. Only on day two of the coverage, after the obvious questions had surfaced in Parliament and blogs, did the media air them. In ST's case, an article at the bottom of an inside page reported public incredulity at the news. Today's single story the same day uncharacteristically led with a human interest angle – a father afraid for his school-going child's safety – and buried the tough questions.

When the national news media are so uniformly guilty of a lapse that puts them so clearly out of sync with other opinion shapers – in this case, the foreign media, local bloggers and even PAP backbenchers – there can be only one logical explanation: media management by the government. Editors must have been instructed not to raise the “how” question publicly.

Muffling the media in this way may not have much of an effect on the outcome of this particular case. The relevant questions will surface anyway, as they already have. Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng has already promised an independent inquiry. Foreign Minister George Yeo has assured that "what can be made public, will be made public".

If other fiascos – ranging from the Nicoll Highway disaster to the NKF affair and SAF training mishaps – are any guide to how this one will play out, citizens will eventually get pretty detailed answers, and can then assess for themselves whether there’s been enough accountability, transparency and learning on the part of government.

So, the main impact of the national media’s failure will be felt by the media themselves. Every time officials use their political power to force the press to act in a way that’s plainly counter to public expectations, it will lose credibility – the resource that even ministers acknowledge is something the media cannot do without. And this at a time of proliferating choice, when the only sensible policy option is to invest in the credibility of the nation’s mainstream media, as I've tried to argue elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the die appears to have been cast: political control of the national press will be used to ensure that the tough questions about the great escape story are asked ever so gently, if at all. Journalists will instead give us blanket coverage of the manhunt, showing the impressive Singapore law and order system in action.

On Sunday, day four of ST's coverage, the national paper decided at last that it might be time to point fingers. Its editorial – unfortunately not the best read part of the paper – suggested that "complacency" may have set in. Opining that "the systems designed are solid", the editorial added, "But are security chiefs satisfied that rank and file personnel are discharging their duties with matching thoroughness?"

In the same day's edition, news editor Carl Skadian finally acknowledged, "To most people, the questions uppermost in their minds were 'how did he do it?' and 'how could something like this happen in Singapore?'" Not that this made a jot of difference to ST's coverage. This statement was buried in the 4th leg of an article on the last of six pages of a package otherwise devoted to such minutiae as the use of MMS to spread the Wanted man's picture and how Mas Selamat got his limp.

Treating citizens as if they were brain-dead will not make them so; they will simply migrate to other media that take them more seriously.

Postscript

  1. AcidFlask says that the above article is too charitable in letting government off the hook. Mr Brown adds: "Cherian George thinks the bunker mentality is not helping the government or the mainstream media's credibility. I think Cherian is being kind."

  2. On day five of its coverage, Today finally runs a hard-hitting (by mainstream media standards) column by its chief P N Balji, criticising the government for its bunker mentality in releasing information.

Comments

  1. Weibin Says:

    Yes – I was watching the news on the very day he escaped, and experienced the same level of curiosity which I'm sure many discerning audiences in Singapore would share. It certainly appeared that the media was trying to avoid the question by patching in less relevant details e.g. when/ where he was first caught – to me, these served more as distractions than newsworthy information.

    It wasn't of any help that the reports in print media the very next day asserted the "high level of security" in prisons, only to reveal in later reports that Mas Selamat escaped during a toilet break.

    I certainly don't believe the press has satisfied public demands for reliable information there – probably another reason for the increasing migration to/ development of alternative media.

  2. standardiser Says:

    I thought that this is the government/media standard operation procedure when major incidents concerning the government agencies happen.

    Let's see:

    1) Escape from detention centre happened.

    2) Run initial reports in the press, but don't disclose much

    3) WKS's move in parliament brought time.

    4) Along the way, release bits of information at intervals (terrorist, escape, no danger, security lapse, toilet, physical breach, breach fixed). This is something to do with memory retention.

    5) Announce and form "independent" C.O.I.

    6) When further questions are asked, they will say please wait for COI's report. This COI move gagged everything and I mean everything.

    7) COI will take ONE MONTH to release the report

    8) One month is good enough to "arrange" the necessary information to present a "politically correct" report.

    There you have it. Nothing to it. Really standard stuff actually.

  3. singaporean Says:

    Since many years ago, there were many in the Blogosphere and elsewhere, claiming that they have given up reading local newspapers. Their reasons are that the local medias say too much 'good things' about the Leadership, that they(medias) are biased toward the Government. When many say the same thing, one simply got to check and determine if the claims are true and valid. The Fact is, more people are giving up on the Local Medias, for most of us prefer propaganda free informations.

    The integrities of the Local Medias; print, telecast and broadcast are getting less trusted as more events unfolded and as more are expected to unfold. There is an urgent need for the Medias to regain the trusts of the people. They got to be reliable by being factual, impartial, probing and well, UPHOLD INTEGRITY.

  4. kimberly Says:

    for someone who has worked in the straits times before, you seem very unaware of how things work. In the first day's stories, the piece written by the news editor, as you pointed out, does say that the home affairs ministry sent out a brief statement saying ONLY that he walks with a limp and that he's unarmed. Doesn't that already suggest to you that they didn't explain how he escaped?

    the next day, MPs raised it in parliament, so there was a bit – about the toilet break. Again, not answered fully or satisfactorily, but that's all the authorities let out.

    Then over the next few days, it was only on sunday that wong kan seng said more.

    while these questions are clearly relevant – i'm sure everyone was thinking about it – but it was quite clear that the authorities were not going to reveal until at a later date.

  5. Jason Says:

    i've given up reading or buying ST unless, when i m looking for some bargains in their ads.

  6. Cherian Says:

    Kimberly: Journalists – including at ST – know the drill. If you know that a question is on the reader's mind and that the answer isn't forthcoming, you say so explicitly. You don't expect readers to read between the lines and assume that you must have asked the question but didn't get the answer. The more pressing and obvious the question, the more explicitly you need to state that you've tried to get the answer but that it's not yet available. This is why AP, for example, put it as high up as the 4th paragraph. A professional journalist at ST would have wanted to say something like, "The ministry did not answer the Straits Times' queries on how he escaped", to show that it's not for want of trying that the journalist doesn't have this information. This is the obvious thing to do, so the fact that it wasn't done suggests that journalists' hands were tied.

  7. zhz Says:

    What about the role of the press to calm the nation and create a cohesive society before running the other facts that the people are so hungry for?

    Looking at the collapse of the WTC, and how the newspapers were reporting on the collapse, how people were managing and what was being done, rather than immediately create more anger amongst the people by speculating why terrorists did what they did.

    The above probably supported what the papers reported on the first day but such reporting should have stopped after Day 2.

    ST is clearly acting as a propaganda tool for it has been already way too long with the information vacuum resulting in absurd speculations.

    The article in TODAY provided some relief, but it was only made available under the category of 'news comment'. This probably a preemptive act against upsetting the government. Placing such a story under a different comment serves to tell the reader that 'hey- listen, this article is different and is not what you should expect from the other normal articles' and in a singaporean sense, normal articles are simply about regurgitating what the government says, whereas news comments is about telling readers what they really need to know.

    Hmmmm, and whatever happened to newspapers as agents of discussion providing readers with what they want to know rather than what the government wants them to know?

  8. Alex Au Says:

    Now another drop of blood has been squeezed out of stone. There's a "physcial breach" said Wong Kan Seng. What does that mean? ST reports (3 March 2008) that the minister "declined to elaborate".

    This is utterly insulting to everybody. It seems to suggest that a door or window was inadvertently left open. Possibly there was a tunnel, or a hole cut in the fence. Or a ceiling panel that could be removed. Whatever it is, it should be sealed up by now, and so releasing the information should pose no security risk. That being the case, the continued reluctance to release the information appears more and more like an attempt to save face, and as you've pointed out, it won't work in the long run, so the only long run damage will be the to credibility of the media.

    The other example of parsimonious news release regards the limp. For at least 24 hours, the govt said he walked with a limp and so citizens (and the thousands of activated policemen and soldiers, I suppose) were alerted to look out for someone who did. Then later, they said if he walked normally, the limp would not be noticeable. So we've wasted 24 hours NOT looking for someone who didn't walk with a perceptible limp.

  9. warren Says:

    Mr George, I get what you are driving at but wouldnt this mentality of "knowing the drill" just become a process of "going through the motions"?

    Examples: "we had asked to speak to the guard of mas selamat but the ministry refused" "we had queried with the ministry for more information on how he escaped but there was no response by press time"

    All this still does not qualify as hard hitting journalism if you ask me.

    In the current Mainstream Media environment, news is what the Government says it to be. Its not just now but always.

    Every major news story is always related to what a minister said or did. And that Mr George is the "other drill".

  10. Cheah Says:

    I am curious, Mr George.

    Could it be that Straits TImes purposely did not put in any statement about the escape to subtly hint that their hands were tied? I mean, ST could've easily said, "the ministry did not answer…".

    Or do you think ST has become so incompetent as to miss out this blinding question?

  11. Peter Says:

    Well done Cherian. You have aptly used this embarrassing occasion to show how much intangible damage and inefficiency our stern and mindless press censorship has cost our people and our country.

  12. auteur Says:

    Hmm…makes one wonder how credible our national security is, despite the astronomical salary our dear ministers are paid.

    In the past few days this blunder has caused widespread public safety concern, and resulted in singapore being the international laughing stock. It does not take a rocket scientist to deduce who should bear the biggest responsibility for this.

    I am curious as to whose head will roll first, the terrorist or the minister.

  13. Gab Says:

    What you see happening is really no surprise. Just look at how the MSM tries to create tension amongst opposition camps.

    Could you do an analysis on "The partitioning of the opposition" by ST?

  14. Aaron Says:

    Hey Cherian,

    Astute observation as always. I can imagine the press corps telling ST and MSM that the minister is up tomorrow for Parl and will answer how the limping dude escaped prison.

    But as you pointed out, the basic of reporting is to ask what is the reader going to ask, and answer that. If the writer did not do that, then he/she has failed his/her readers.

    Would have writing, "When asked how the prisoner escaped, the ministry did not provide details," been reasonable? Yes.

    Would that have pissed off the press secretary? Probably. Therein lies the problem.

    Anyway the whole town is laughing. WKS did say not to speculate but he didn't say don't make a joke out of it, of which the Govt, and to a lesser degree, ST, are the biggest jokers.

  15. Wong Wee Nam Says:

    I've always known that the hands of Singapore journalists are tied. Thanks for affirming it.

  16. Photo Ong Says:

    Well written.

    Singapore journos cant ask because they dont know how and where to look for story. Without press release and govt PR people, our journos are lost.

  17. Lee BH Says:

    The only reliable new is sport news

  18. Dave Says:

    The mainstream media already lacks credibility. Even secondary school kids know to read CNN or NYT and are boycotting the local media in droves.

  19. KC Says:

    One thing that I am always curious to know is, if this terrorist is so dangerous, why was he placed in a detention center instead of a high security prison?

    And to Lee BH, even the sports news is terrible. When you look at the sports section, there is almost no local news. There's news about all other world sports, several pages of English soccer and in color too, but when it comes to local sports… well, you can draw your own conclusions there.

  20. Linda Perry Says:

    The government’s control of the press apparently affects how “truth” is reported as well as whether the tough questions get asked. This can be seen in the way the Straits Times reported the escape Feb. 27 of Mas Selamat and the subsequent manhunt. Stories on March 2, typical of Straits Times coverage, stated Mas Selamat is a “Jemaah Islamiah terrorist” and a “former leader of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terror network, who once plotted to hijack a plane and crash it into Changi Airport.” These assertions are followed with the factual statement that he has been detained at the Whitley Road Detention Centre “since 2006 under the Internal Security Act.” The underlying truth of this fact is that Mas Salemat has never stood trial for charges of terrorism or plotting to crash planes into Changi. The Straits Times has continued as recently as March 4 to refer to Mas Salemat as an “escaped terrorist” and “head of the Jemaah Islamiah network.”

    Counter this reportage with the careful handling of the facts in news outlets outside of Singapore. Agence France-Presse referred to Mas Selamat as “an alleged Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militant leader” (emphasis added). The Associated Press reported he is a “suspected local leader of a Southeast Asian terrorist network who allegedly plotted to fly a plane into Singapore’s airport” (emphasis added). It cited the Ministry of Home Affairs as the source of the accusations. AP elaborates: “Mas Selamat has since been held in custody under Singapore's Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite detention without trial.”

    This use of careful wording is not confined to the West. The Hong Kong Standard said Mas Selamat is “a top Muslim terror suspect.” Thailand’s The Nation said he is an “accused terrorist.”

    In fact, on a cursory examination of news reports, the press inside Singapore appears to stand apart in repeating the government line of Mas Selamat’s guilt. When I asked my journalism students to describe who Mas Selamat is, they duly repeated that he is a terrorist leader who plotted to fly planes into Changi. Perhaps Mas Selamat is guilty of these things. But since he has not been afforded the right to a public trial, we cannot know for sure.

    The difference between characterizing Mas Selamat as a terrorist or as an accused terrorist should be a significant one for journalists who believe in upholding the truth. The distinction stems from whether a journalist reports what he or she knows to be true or simply repeats the government’s version of truth without attribution or question. The difference is fidelity to truth.

  21. Linda Perry Says:

    The government’s control of the press apparently affects how “truth” is reported as well as whether the tough questions get asked. This can be seen in the way the Straits Times reported the escape Feb. 27 of Mas Selamat Kastari and the subsequent manhunt. Stories on March 2, typical of Straits Times coverage, stated Mas Selamat is a “Jemaah Islamiah terrorist” and a “former leader of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terror network, who once plotted to hijack a plane and crash it into Changi Airport.” These assertions are followed with the factual statement that he has been detained at the Whitley Road Detention Centre “since 2006 under the Internal Security Act.” The underlying truth of this fact is that Mas Salemat has never stood trial for charges of terrorism or plotting to crash planes into Changi. The Straits Times has continued as recently as March 4 to refer to Mas Salemat as an “escaped terrorist” and “head of the Jemaah Islamiah network.”

    Counter this reportage with the careful handling of the facts in news outlets outside of Singapore. Agence France-Presse referred to Mas Selamat as “an ALLEGED Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militant leader” (emphasis added). The Associated Press reported he is a “SUSPECTED local leader of a Southeast Asian terrorist network who ALLEGEDLY plotted to fly a plane into Singapore’s airport” (emphasis added). It cited the Ministry of Home Affairs as the source of the accusations. AP elaborates: “Mas Selamat has since been held in custody under Singapore's Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite detention without trial.” This use of careful wording is not confined to the West. The Hong Kong Standard said Mas Selamat is “a top Muslim terror suspect.” Thailand’s The Nation said he is an “accused terrorist.” In fact, on a cursory examination of news reports, the press inside Singapore appears to stand apart in repeating the government line of Mas Selamat’s guilt. When I asked my journalism students to describe who Mas Selamat is, they duly repeated that he is a terrorist leader who plotted to fly planes into Changi. Perhaps Mas Selamat is guilty of these things. But since he has not been afforded the right to a public trial, we cannot know for sure. The difference between characterizing Mas Selamat as a terrorist or as an accused terrorist should be a significant one for journalists who believe in upholding the truth. The distinction stems from whether a journalist reports what he or she knows to be true or simply repeats the government’s version of truth without attribution or question. The difference is fidelity to truth.

  22. kimberly Says:

    see wat alex au says – he says it is utterly nonsense when it was reported that Wong Kan Seng talked about the physical breach yet "declined to elaborate". Even putting that in, the media gets slagged for not pursuing.

    I think it's very easy to criticise the media for this. But let's also remember that the release was sent out at 8pm. Now i don't know what time they go to print, but i assume it's only going to be 4-5 hours for them to get everything in for the first day's story. So even if they left out that part in the first story, seeing that the focus then was on the massive manhunt, then they at least tried to answer it on the subsequent days. so let's not assume straight away that the Govt put their hands in.

    i find it strange that cherian is going after this reporting, when he should well know how difficult it is to get any sort of information out of the ISD. There is also many other stories out there – especially the political coverage ones – which he has not criticised for not asking obvious questions. Why? Would it have anything to do with his wife being the head of the political desk?

  23. Dillon Says:

    It was kind of shocking when I received the news in Shanghai that a terrorist was on the run in my own home grounds. As you mentioned, the first thought was: I thought the Singapore Government is so sure even the tiniest of the red ants wouldn't be able to escape the clutches of their foolproof security system, considering how much emphasis the media devotes to "advertising" of our achievements, be it now or before. However, nobody could answer my query. When the news was released a few days later, everybody could not help but laugh at Singapore. Is it a form of impact reduction, kind of like a damage control PR tactic, or is it plainly so that Singapore wishes to be a laughing stock again, after the infamous graffiti incident, I do not know. I just wish the media takes up more responsibility in not delaying our rights of knowing what's happening in our own homes, ESPECIALLY when we are not even there. Such issues are of very high importance since all our loved ones are "sort of" in danger. How dangerous is this "terrorist", I have no idea, it's all subjective.

  24. brian Says:

    thank you Cherian, the mainstream media losing its credibility hurts everyone in our society. No one knows what to believe anymore when the professionals meant to maintain the fourth estate cannot do their jobs.

    i don't blame the media for their predicament, and if the government will not acknowledge the undercurrents that people who bother to question the media have lost faith in news dissemination, they will lose the people who even bother to think about what this couontry stands for.

    fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, shame on you.

  25. smallboy Says:

    Journalist in ST are not ready for a free press. They lack the skill sets.

  26. TangoRomeo Says:

    Lately, there have been articles in the newspapers on Ching Cheong as well as Mas Selamat, and I have noted some interesting similarities and differences.

    Ching Cheong was arrested, tried and convicted in a Chinese court in 2006 for the serious crime of espionage. He has since served his sentence and is now out on parole. Back in Singapore, he is hailed as a hero and many insist that he is innocent.

    Mas Selamat was deported from Indonesia to Singapore in 2006. He was accused of the serious crime of plotting to crash a plane into Changi Airport. He has since (until recently) been detained without trial under the Internal Security Act. He has not been convicted of terrorism charges in court; yet on his escape, he was portrayed as public enemy number one and literally the whole island has been mobilised to apprehend him.

    What gives? We do not appear to trust Chinese courts, but in Singapore, it seems that we do not even need courts to find somebody guilty. Apparently, the spectre of terrorism has obviated the need for due process. Ching Cheong has served his time, for a crime he did or did not do, and can now walk free. Mas Selamat has also been detained for a similar length of time, for an alleged crime, but had no release date to look forward to as he has neither been convicted or sentenced. No wonder then that he escaped.

    So am I saying Mas Selamat is not a terrorist? The answer is I do not know, and neither does the rest of Singapore. I hope the relevant authorities can remove all doubt by pressing charges when they do catch him, and according him the courtesy of a fair and open trial.

  27. kimberly Says:

    goodness – is my comment being censored by the great champion of free speech? u dun dare to put my earlier posting up?

  28. Cherian George Says:

    Dear Kimberly, Unless you tried posting an anonymous comment about "free online xxx porn" or "rocking lindsay lohan hot pics", I'm not sure what posting of yours I've censored. I have to confess I am not very savvy about how this WordPress platform works. The software seems to let some comments go right through and (thankfully) blocks obvious spam. Some genuine comments do end up in the moderation queue. I clear them when I notice them. Let me know if some important comment meant for this website has gone astray. I am touched that you care. – Cheers, Cherian

  29. feedmetothefish Says:

    I appreciate what RomeoTango wrote.

    Maybe, whether you are a "traitor" or a "terrorist" depends on who you have offended or who you may offend.

    Both were detained but the fact that Ching Cheong was tried and Mas Selamat did not have the chance of a fair trial speaks volume. This jolts me back to "Operation Coldstore" of the 60's and the tragic joke of "Marxist Conspiracy" Catholics of 80's.

    Or are public enemies created at opportune time to frighten the public and/or to maintain and strengthen political power?

    As one man's freedom fighter is another's terrorist, I guess the man who owns the gold makes the rule (to the extend of ruling the minds!).

    Yes, the Golden Rule.

    And on the subject of mainstream media credibility, I wonder if the local media will report on SDP's "Tak Boleh Tahan" happening at the concourse between Singapore River and Parliament House tomorrow at 2pm 15 March 2008.

    Or are only assemblies, demonstrations and rallies of other countries like Hindraf of Malaysia worth the effort of the song and dance of our local media?

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