Sunday, August 3, 2014

ASK’s complaints about media coverage absurd

The constipated Attorney-General went on the offensive last week against his favorite target – the news media  accusing them of lacking expertise and being biased. (Yes, the word media is a plural, which no one in the Southern Hemisphere seems to realize.) There is no doubt that working journalists in Fiji lack expertise, most of the best having been driven out of the profession by low pay and the junta’s media repression over the past eight years. But for the most part, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum’s complaints about a “he said, she said” style of journalism are fairly absurd when one considers that his regime has been pushing “balance” as the highest ideal of journalism, aside from simply asking the government what to report, of course. And don’t get me started on media bias. Then again. . . . .

He’s no doubt having another journalist sacked
Sayed Khaiyum expressed his frustration at reporting of the ongoing election campaign in a press conference at FijiFist offices on Thursday. “I think the level of analysis is very, very shallow,” he said. “Still many of the journalists are very much ‘he said that, she said that.’ They don’t carry out any analysis themselves whereas there should be two to three journalists to carry that out and read facts for themselves. . . . It seems that the media organisations don’t want to go and gather information themselves. They still have this culture of ‘this leader said, the other politician said that’ and that’s all they do, so that’s not very good coverage and what we find again is the lack of media organisation’s [sic.] ability to bring information to members of the public; independent information; correct information but you know also I think some media organisations are still really biased.”

“He said, she said” reporting has its roots in the ethic of objectivity, behind which many news media hide, preferring to let both sides have their say and eschewing any duty to sort out who might be playing fast and loose with the facts. Its danger was pointed up by the rise of McCarthyism in the U.S. during the 1950s, as the junior senator from Wisconsin began loudly proclaiming that he had a list of so many Communists in the government. (The number kept changing.) Most reporters simply reported McCarthy's claims without looking into their accuracy. They turned out to be wildly overblown, but not before the careers of many were ruined by being blacklisted. A turn away from objectivity resulted in the 1960s and today the prevailing ethic is fairness rather than balance and objectivity.

Of course, a more analytical form of reporting would be preferable in Fiji, but it is way beyond anything that journalism as practiced there is capable of providing. Even in advanced democracies with highly skilled journalists, “he said, she said” reporting is the norm. It’s something Jay Rosen of NYU has been railing against for years, even from such august publications as the New York Times. His nagging has had some effect, at least on National Public Radio, which officially repudiated the practice a couple of years ago. In Fiji, where the best and most experienced journalists fled either overseas or into higher-paying positions in public relations years ago, most reporters seem to have difficulty even stringing together a coherent sentence, must less providing insightful analysis. It’s a testament to the poor level of public education, but also to the almost laughable level of journalism education. I’m glad that I was at least able to leave behind one cohort, maybe two, of journalism students who have been well drilled in the basics of reporting, not to mention in what the basic duties of a journalist are. (Hint: Being a mouthpiece for the government isn’t one of them.) That will no doubt be changing with the recent return of the “Journalism of Hope” to a certain regional university.

At issue with Sayed Khaiyum, apparently, are reports both on the economy and on the size of a crowd. When it comes to the economy, the junta obviously prefers the news media to get their facts from government agencies so it can control what is reported. But that wasn’t what seemed to have ASK upset the most. He obviously thought the crowd at last weekend’s “Family Fun Day” put on by his party was much larger than was reported in the Fiji Times.
Anybody who knows how to count will tell you that there weren’t 500 people at Sukuna Park on Saturday at midday; there were more like 5000 people but some media organisations were saying that there were 500 people. I mean these are the kind of things that the media organisations and some of these journalists are doing it deliberately; whether they cannot count or whether they are somewhat not very proactive in terms of getting information, I think this is something that needs to be improved upon.
The issue of crowd estimates is a thorny one for news media, which usually have to rely on the police to provide them. As the police are responsible for crowd control, they usually have a handle on how many are in attendance. I’m guessing that such an estimate was not provided to reporters, who were forced to come up with an estimate of their own and possibly erred on the low side. Or it’s quite possible that from his perspective as a partisan, ASK saw what he wanted to see at his party’s bash and estimated the crowd at closer to 5,000. Media bias, after all, is largely a matter of perspective. It has been well established that partisans see news media coverage as biased against them. It’s known as the Hostile Media Effect and has been the subject of considerable research. It was discovered at Stanford in 1982 when Arab and Israeli partisans were shown the same news coverage from the Middle East and both sides saw it as biased against their side. It is a phenomenon that has been confirmed repeatedly in replications. It is no doubt also extant in Fiji. 

But, perceptions aside, media bias also undoubtedly exists, as has also been confirmed repeatedly by research. I have never quite seen media bias as in Fiji, where some media outlets slavishly promote the junta and others cower against its bullying. The question becomes, will certain media outlets stand up against the bullying and report what is really going on. ASK and his dictator puppet have good reason to be concerned if the Fiji Times and Fiji TV do just that and begin to report what seems to be a bit of an uprising against the regime on the eve of elections next month. The A-G may have just put his foot in it at his press conference when he actually complained about a lack of news media coverage on the defacing of a taxi emblazoned with FijiFist colours (well, more accurately Fiji colours) and apparent death threats against party officials. The story had actually been reported two weeks ago by the A-G’s brother’s TV network. But ASK’s complaining about it opened the door for the Times to report the story.  FBC also ran another story on the vandalism, which has also apparently included the defacing of FijiFist posters. ASK may soon regret opening this Pandora’s Box, because if the trend gathers momentum as a result of copycat attacks, things could get ugly fast for the dictatorship.

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