When I came to the job as a cadet reporter some 27 years ago, one of the first things I was told was of the cardinal rule in journalism that we must get even the smallest of things right. There were no excuses, even for getting the spelling of names and places wrong. The explanation given was as simple as it was straightforward, that if we cannot get the smaller things right, there was little hope of us in getting the bigger ones correct. In later years, I learned that being right in journalism extends far beyond just the spelling of names and places.
I come from a time when reading was society’s primary conduit to the world. It was a time when Ho Chi Minh’s burning desire to reunite a then two-Vietnam was met, first by John F. Kennedy, later Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon’s failed military solution, the clash of which prolonged a war that was earlier lost by the French at Dien Bien Phu into a 10,000-day conflict. I also come from a time after Israel’s decisive victory in its six-day war with Egypt, Jordan and Syria, the result of which included Tel Aviv’s annexation of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip and Golan Heights.
While I followed these conflicts from Radio Televisyen Malaysia’s black and white magazine programmes such as Dunia Disana Sini, it was the newspapers that provided me more complete perspectives of what was happening. I often wondered then what those abbreviations such as AP and UPI commonly appearing after the stories from the war zones meant. I later encountered names such as Malcolm Browne, the Associated Press photographer who took that famous picture of a Buddhist Monk committing self-immolation in protest of the government of the then South Vietnam.
Some years later, as the war theatre in Indochina was drawing to a close, I read stories of a pair of reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and how they brought down the Nixon administration by their exposure of the Watergate scandal while working for the Washington Post. As I was not exposed to the American political system then, I often wondered why they were famous and what the Watergate scandal was all about.
When I was training to become a journalist, I heard of one Joseph Pullitzer, and his famous mantra of “accuracy, accuracy, accuracy”. It was about the time when I knew that in journalism, accuracy extended beyond just getting spelling of the names of people and places correct. In fact, accuracy is embodied within what journalists call the truth discipline.
As I progressed in the profession, I began to ask myself of a newspaper’s role in society and after much reading, found a description which I thought aptly describes such. In his book News Values, Jack Fuller, former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, describes a newspaper’s role as one that must help society master their world through knowledge.
However, it is not a newspaper’s business to determine the path that society must follow. While the newspaper acts as searchlights, it must shine on a path that society itself must choose. It explains why journalists don’t usually write about their own thoughts in the stories they write. They are in fact to remain on the sidelines and chronicle history as they happen. While some may argue that the present day corporate nature of ownership of newspapers may influence its editorial stance, over the decades publishers have found various ways to keep the lines between marketing and editorial clear.
The need for such clear demarcation has become ever more urgent, given that almost all newspaper companies around the world now derive a larger portion of their revenue from advertising while having to maintain independent editorial policies.
I have also had a front row seat in watching how technology has changed the business of newspapering. No publisher can deny that the advent of the Internet and mobile telecommunications have brought about stiff competition to the traditional printed newspapers. The most drastic change has been the way news is consumed itself. Today’s society wants to get its news on real time basis and the Internet has been able to provide such, pushing the printed newspaper ever closer towards becoming a historical relic. Perhaps, the only thing that has prevented that from happening more rapidly is the fact that online advertising is not progressing as fast as earlier anticipated.
Nevertheless, as publishers continue to search for ways to continue making money by making newspapers, the traditional newsroom has seen significant changes compared with what it was when I first joined. Just two decades ago, we were writing stories today which the public would read tomorrow. Today, most newsrooms publish stories online first and then apply various strategies towards their next day’s print editions. The competition has widened, as no longer are rivals limited to that publisher on the other side of town, they are now everywhere, including news portals and even private blogs.
As everybody in the news business is competing for speed in reaching news consumers, where then would the competitive edge lie? The answer to that important question may be found by understanding what news is and of the role a news organisation must play in society.
If we examine the issue closer, we will discover that while technology has drastically changed the media by which news is disseminated, in the final analysis the tenets of journalism remain a constant. A news organisation of whatever form, must still get the smaller things right and the bigger ones correct, and ultimately abide by the truth discipline.
Mustapha Kamil is the newspaper’s group editor. The profession has taken him to all corners of the globe