Chapter 3. Inside the Press: Routines, Values and "OB" Markers
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46 Freedom from the Press 46 3 C H A P T E R Inside the Press: Routines, Values and “OB” Markers In 2009, The Straits Times broke the story that Singapore’s main feminist organisation had been taken over by a group of conservative Christians. Initially coy about their identity and intent, the insurgent faction eventually let it be known that they were opposed to AWARE’s liberal agenda, especially on homosexuality.1 AWARE’s stalwarts eventually roused themselves from their slumber and reasserted themselves, theatrically reclaiming the leadership of the organisation at a general meeting that truly deserved its “extraordinary” billing. The Straits Times led the coverage of the unfolding drama with its considerable newsgathering muscle and newspaper acreage. Perhaps inevitably, the newspaper became part of the story. One of the burdens of being a monopolistic national institution is that readers are quick to suspect it of abusing its power. In this case, supporters of the failed AWARE coup and other conservatives alleged that the newspaper had sensationalised the story in a way that favoured the liberal old guard. Several blogs and forum postings accused the journalist who was at the forefront of the coverage of letting his own homosexuality colour his reports.2 A widely circulated e-mail, which was even quoted in Parliament, claimed that he had been seen “hobnobbing with the homosexual fraternity” at the EGM.3 Other journalists sympathetic to the gay cause were also influencing the newspaper, critics alleged. “I believe there might be some gay activists in ST that want to make use of the media to force the new team out,” said one.4 Chap3 (46-70) 46 Chap3 (46-70) 46 4/2/12 2:52:54 PM 4/2/12 2:52:54 PM Inside the Press: Routines, Values and “OB” Markers 47 Some tried to divine the presence of the government’s hand in all this. To these observers, it was inconceivable that the national daily could act independently of its political masters. They did not revise their theory when Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng ticked off the press and accused it of coverage that was “excessive and not sufficiently balanced” and “even breathless”.5 Instead, they suggested that the Straits Times editor had misread the government. One commentator wrote that the editor must have assumed that the government wanted to “beat up religious fanatics” who were putting at risk Singapore’s attempts to attract the pink tourist dollar and “all those creative types”. “Next time ask the right ministers first,” he added sarcastically.6 A detailed analysis of The Straits Times’ AWARE coverage would take us beyond the scope of this book. What is relevant to this chapter , though, is the kind of hypotheses that were floating around to explain the newspaper’s reportage. Those unhappy with the coverage sniffed conspiracies, whether masterminded by the gay lobby or the government. This was not an isolated case. Typically, if people do not like what they read, the instinct is to blame the agendas of the individual journalists and their corruptibility by power, profit or personality traits. Social scientists refer to a “fundamental attribution error” — the habit of reaching for individual-level causes instead of more contextual and systemic explanations. Similarly, when celebrating or vilifying journalism, there is a tendency to single out heroes and villains. Media organisations give out awards to their professionals; media critics paint scarlet letters on the reporters they think are responsible for failures; and the government opens files on journalists they suspect of harbouring political agendas. The truth is more complex. Media scholars have identified various interconnected influences shaping news content, of which the values and attitudes of the individual journalist is only one. According to the widely cited work of Pamela Shoemaker and Stephen Reese, journalism is shaped by several dimensions of influence acting within the media and from the outside: individual factors, newsroom processes, organisational pressures, external forces and society-wide ideologies.7 Most of this book looks at external influences (mainly the state) and their interactions with organisational structures (especially the commercial priorities of media businesses). In this chapter, the focus is on processes within newsrooms. Although these have been subject to a major line of journalism research, they are less familiar to the layman. And even professional journalists themselves tend to take some of their Chap3 (46-70) 47 Chap3 (46-70) 47 4/2/12 2:52:55 PM...