Good journalism no longer appeals to readers?

Having been in journalism for so long, a question that I have always been asked is: what is news, and what makes “good journalism”?

For a long time, I thought that the question was rather interesting.

Good journalism should be what is most ideal for journalism.

The entire journalistic system and production chain – from the tips received, to reporting, editing and publishing – have all been operating impartially within the most ethical and professional journalistic framework.

Additionally, good journalism should be about inspiring the readers.

This is done by exposing and rectifying acts of corruption, overseeing government operations, and voicing out injustices within our society.

To become a watchdog the villains will dread. This is the most ideal scenario in journalism.

Although I don’t think I have penned any good stories throughout my journalistic career, I consistently instil these philosophies in my students, so that these journalists-to-be will have a very clear idea of their future obligations.

Of course, it is beyond my control whether they will eventually put this into practice one day, because to be honest, I do not think today’s media industry and audience are capable of digesting such a profound ideal.

Take Malaysia for instance. The readers here are very much more attracted to sensational news characterised by violent or explicit content.

As the audience is more inclined to such news and reporting, local mass media increasingly carry stories violence and conflict.

As a former journalist and now a media education worker, it has never crossed my mind that orthodox journalism should be led by the nose or by audience preferences.

Content presentation and headlining are becoming more sensational too, in a bid to capture the attention of a new generation of readers.

By academic standards, such content is the exact opposite of what makes good journalism, . It is also what we could label as “bad journalism”.

This phenomenon of sensationalised news gained traction following the rise of social media, especially since any individual can build his or her own media brand.

The entire information market has inevitably plunged into a whirlpool of vicious competition, making it harder for regulators to control the quality of news.

As a result, large numbers of content farms, plagiarists and fake news factories come into being.

In other words, today’s information market is not only inundated with bad journalism, but also plagued with “fake news” and “headline news”.

Such articles are fact- distorting, plagiarised, excessively sensational, exaggerated and inappropriately headlined.

Sadly, these are the stories that command the most attention on the social media. And most importantly, such audience engagement appeals tremendous to online advertisers.

Media organisations in Malaysia are confronting unprecedented challenges arising from such a trend.

Against such a backdrop, orthodox good journalism has become increasingly unattractive to the audience under the powerful siege of bad journalism.

Sure enough, some may argue that the current political climate has somewhat contributed to the unpopularity of good journalism, too.

For instance, Singapore has enforced a quasi-authoritarian approach to information management.

Content that is perceived to be seditious, overly sensational and exaggerated will come under the watchful eyes of the republic’s communications and information ministry, which is known for having the region’s strictest control over the spread of misinformation.

Although the public may consequently relinquish their freedom of criticising the government, a stable administration will ensure expanded space for (extra-political) good journalism.

As for Malaysia which has seen a change of federal administration for two years, there are already signs pointing to a more liberal expression freedom.

Unfortunately, the political turmoil has further complicated the information market, and the authorities remain unprepared for media challenges.

The highly intricate information market and intense confrontation has created a favourable environment for the propagation of fake news and bad journalism in an attempt to crush a political rival or divert public attention from some highly controversial issues, and these make excellent topics for gossips.

With the proliferation of bad journalism , room for survival of good journalism is destined to constrict further.

As such, I always tell my students that good journalism has become a rare commodity because the local media industry appears to be slowly giving up on the production of high quality news that constitutes good journalism

It is instead going after production speed and attuning itself to the audience’s preferences.

Such a “rushy” content production model has deprived a journalist of the time to contemplate the depth of journalism.

What is more worrisome is that this phenomenon seems to have developed into a global trend, as I have heard from fellow journalists from regional countries like Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as Taiwan, Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom.

As the audience is more inclined to such news and reporting, local mass media increasingly carry stories violence and conflict.

They too are also encountering the same problem of bad journalism and fake news dominating the information market.

In other words, safeguarding the integrity of good journalism is posing a major challenge to the global media industry. And the elements that make up such a challenge are highly convoluted: a shift in audience preferences, media organisations’ pursuit of advertisements, unrestricted information dissemination channels, availability of information devices, and resurgence of media manipulation, among others.

Tackling one specific factor alone will not alter the status quo.

In view of this, I urge media workers in this region to constantly keep in mind what used to draw them to this profession.

Some of you might have joined this industry after pursuing a course in journalism, and I would like you to look back at all the expectations “good journalism” once promised you.

As a former journalist and now a media education worker, it has never crossed my mind that orthodox journalism should be led by the nose or by audience preferences.

The media industry has an irrefutable obligation of inspiring the public and enhancing their awareness.

We must stand united and take the initiative to tell these people what “good journalism” is, and help them nurture the ability to filter out unauthenticated news and bad journalism.

I always believe it is not that good journalism does not appeal to readers, but rather to their supervisors.

The article by Liew Wui Chern will be published on Sin Chew Daily on Sep 28. Liew Wui Chern teaches Journalism in University Tunku Abdul Rahman Malaysia.