Jakarta Journo: Spin JournalismMarch 7, 2011 11:17 am Commentary
Reposted with permission from Armando Siahaan.
The original article can be accessed here.
Armando Siahaan writes the weekly column “Jakarta Journo”, which is published by The Jakarta Globe every Monday.
Cabinet Secretary Dipo Alam took center stage last week with his rant calling for government institutions to boycott placing advertisements in critical media outlets. While his tirade was undoubtedly undemocratic and uncalled for, it is not a bad idea to take a moment to reflect on the role of the media in Indonesia.
The fall of Suharto in 1998 removed the authoritarian boot heel that had been held on the neck of press freedom, instantly reviving the fourth pillar of democracy. News organizations burgeoned and people were once again given access to journalistic tools that could serve as an important check on government abuses.
More than a decade later, however, it is important to acknowledge some of the internal limitations that are holding back journalism here.
To start with, it is imperative that we scrutinize our news organizations and their relationships with the people backing them. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in their book “Elements of Journalism,” write that “journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens” and not to political or commercial interests.
In Indonesia, two of the country’s biggest television news channels are owned by tycoons-cum-politicians, Surya Paloh and Aburizal Bakrie, both senior members of the Golkar Party. In fact, their channels were two of the outlets that Dipo referred to specifically in his anti-media diatribe.
While it is not impossible for media organizations owned by politicians to be objective, it is imperative for readers and viewers to be able to judge whether there are possible political motives behind the news that they consume.
Are these media outlets choosing their stories based on the interests of the people? Or are they churning out reports with the 2014 elections in mind?
Troubling as that possibility may be, it is not something that government officials like Dipo should decide. The people should.
Another problem is a lack of vetting and accountability in many news organizations.
The recent case of Imanda Amalia is a good example of this. During the demonstrations in Egypt earlier this month, some media outlets ran stories claiming that an Indonesian citizen named Imanda Amalia had died. The news went viral online. But later we found out that, in fact, no Indonesians in Egypt had died, and, more shockingly, nobody even knew who this Imanda Amalia person was.
A similar incident occurred in August 2009 during a raid on three terror suspect in Temanggung, Central Java. Without confirmation from authorities, some media outlets prematurely reported that the country’s most-wanted terrorist, Noordin M. Top, had been arrested. Some even said he had been shot dead. We then learned that Noordin was not even one of the targets of the raid.
In both cases, the vital journalistic process of verification was sidestepped in lieu of profit-driven immediacy.
Media spin is another big issue. A good example of this is the recent hoopla surrounding Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his supposed salary complaints.
Last month, the president made a humorous remark when addressing top military and police officials that he had never received a raise. The audience erupted in laughter. Everyone in the room knew it was just a joke.
But some media outlets put a different spin on the comment by using words like curhat (expressed his feeling) and mengeluh (complained) in their stories, suggesting that Yudhoyono had in fact been whining about his pay.
A story about a money-hungry, crybaby president can attract a lot more readers than one about Yudhoyono making a joke. But the reports were built on just one sentence, taken completely out of context.
Another example of spin journalism occurred when some media outlets misquoted Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) secretary general Anis Matta as saying that his party had ordered members living in Egypt to assist the anti-Mubarak demonstrators, jeopardizing the lives of Indonesian students in the country. What Anis had actually said was that the PKS had ordered members to help evacuate Indonesians living in Egypt.
Once the media starts putting words into sources’ mouths or providing premature coverage without verification, how can people maintain the belief that the media is protecting them from the tyranny of the government, and not just protecting their own interests?
The media should never back down from its criticism of the government. A weakened press is a handicap to democracy.
But media organizations also have an obligation to police themselves, lest the public and politicians start to step up their criticism of them, eventually robbing them of their legitimacy.