We are what we read

by Ivy Kwek

 As a research officer in the party headquarters, one of my jobs is to monitor the news of the day. A serious read of newspapers in various languages has become a norm for me every morning.

While I’m no media expert, it is not difficult to note that different newspapers vary in their approach with news. The same issue could be reported in different light and it is interesting how the choice of words will make different impressions on its readers.

One good example was the case of the recently concluded Bersih rally. While the online media lauded it as a great success and ‘a show of the people’s power’, The Star implied it as a game with the title ‘Game Over’, while the China Press headline asked ‘Where is the promised peace?’ (a play on Taiwanese singer Jay Chou’s song ‘Where is the promised happiness?’).

Prior to this, after the King broke his silence on the stalemate situation and urged for the rally to be cancelled, Ambiga was reported as ‘berdolak-dalik’ (Flip-floping) in response to the King in Utusan Malaysia on the 5th of July, while the other Malay newspaper reported her as ‘Sedia batal’ (Ready to cancel). The stark difference intrigued me much, but as I read on, I discovered the real situation was no more than Ambiga declining to make a statement.

The racial profile of the subject often seems to have great influence over the weightage of the news. For example, in June, the news of an 8 year old girl who was raped in Sekinchan, a Chinese-populated village, warranted full front page coverage in the Chinese papers, while the news was hardly reported in the Malay papers.

On the other hand, the Hulu Langat landslide affecting a Malay-dominated orphanage was still given follow-up by the Malay papers a week after the incident while the Chinese papers had moved on to other issues. Similarly, the news of a recent outstanding scholar of Chinese ethnicity who received a scholarship from Cambridge University made headlines in a few Chinese newspapers while it was hardly reported in other languages’ papers.

A certain amount of sensationalisation seems inevitable in all news reporting agencies. Having been to countless press conferences, (distributing press statements) I am often amazed at how journalists turn boring speech into lively, eye-catching headlines.

Once, I attended a rather dull, heavily academic seminar on the ethnic history of Malaya where the speaker made a brief comment on Interlok during the Question & Answer session. The comment however, became the juicy headline of the news reporting the event the following day – had I not attended the seminar, I would have mistakenly thought that the seminar is all about the issue of Interlok.

It is often said that media is the window to the world. Journalists are the eyes that report back what has happened where we could not be physically present. Varying interpretations of a same issue is bewildering, to think about the differing message that was sent to the audience; how much of what we read reports the true situation, and how much of our view is shaped by what we read?

Famed historian Benedict Anderson in his writing, ‘Imagined Communities’ argued that a nation is first formed by words (reading), coupled with three main factors: capitalism, printing technology and the development of secular languages. He argued that the semi-coincidental effect of the three factors caused the decline of Latin language and the rise of the printing of dialects, and hence the origin of nationalism.

Granted, all newspaper have business considerations to suit the interests of different reading communities, but as Benedict Anderson pointed out, are we also heading towards a situation of sub-imagined communities if the scenario persists? How can a nation be united if the news fed to its people is different, if charity and concern towards social issue stop at those with similar skin colour?

The good news is, with the rise of alternative media and a generation that is largely bilingual if not trilingual, we could hope that this is a generation that has access across the board and can look beyond the rationale of the media industry.

Many young Malaysians have come to realize that it is not enough to read reports from a single source, but it is vital to seek multiple sources and analyse it yourself. The accessibility of the internet to the masses has broken the monopoly of the mainstream media and has allowed many alternative voices to challenge the monopolistic view.

However, readers who read in their mother language remain numerous, especially amongst the older generation who only understand one language, more so in the rural area where internet penetration is low. For the urban population, busy lifestyle could lead to ignorance – it is good if one reads at all, not to mention reading different sources.

While we might not be able to take over the pen of the journalists who write us the news, it is important to bear in mind that what we read, like it or not, is secondary information passed down to us after the digestion and, perhaps political consideration of the journalist and the media company.

We the reader perhaps can make a difference by starting to show interest in issues regardless of race, making a statement against racism by discarding the racial mentality in our daily life, and show seriousness in reading unbiased reports. Just as newspapers determine our views, we too can drive the competition that would keep our media accountable, and in turn define what we read. – The Rocket