Thursday, May 19, 2011

Writing news from bed

In the name of Allah, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate; blessings and peace be upon Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.

Practise forgiveness, command decency
and avoid ignorant people. (Araf 7:199)

ABOUT 30 years ago when I enrolled at the School of Mass Communication at a local higher learning institution in semester one, my friends and I were introduced to the Principles of Journalism. We were taught what is news; among others I still remember our lecturer telling us a reporter is liken to a postman; he only delivers the letter (news items) and has no part whatsoever regarding the contents of the letter.

Report only what you witness and hear, do not try to put your opinion into the news because your opinion is not needed, the lecturer reminded us – almost 100 percent of us were fresh from school, so green with no experience in journalism. Then what makes a news item – a dog bites a postman is no news but a postman bites a dog is news, stressed the tired looking former newsman.

And please be concerned about the sources of your news, said the lecturer. You cannot put just anyone as your source. If the story is on the government, the right source is the prime minister or the Cabinet members; if it is about a robbery then the right person to approach is the police and if it is about a discipline case in a school, you have to verify it from the school authority. Then if the story is about our own School of Mass Communication, you should have the dean as your source. When you name sources, you lend credibility to your story.

Before ending his class, the lecturer gave us an assignment: “Please write a news item of about 200 words; I want them on my desk in a week time!”

In those days (in early 1980s), computers were rare, we used manual typewriters to do our assignments. Since some of us had no desk and chair in our dormitory, we do our work in beds. We gathered our news item, typed them and had them delivered to the lecturer’s room.

During his class, the lecturer read our news report aloud one after another. Almost all the news item were the usual stuff – new regulations imposed by campus authorities, new courses, results of football games and new activities – until he read this item: SHAH ALAM: Three people perished after a building near here caught fire last Wednesday…Two fire engines from Seksyen 16 station were rushed to the scene…”

“Whose news is this?” roared the lecturer. An innocent looking guy raised his hands.

“I told you to write a true story. Is this a true event? Don’t try to fool me. I live in Shah Alam, there’s no news about the fire. Further more there’s no fire station in Shah Alam,” retorted the angry man.

The boy admitted he invented the whole episode in bed. His news item was based on his thought, it was only a fiction.

He and the rest of us had learned our lessons on that day; never write a false news item, what’s more from one’s bed because sooner or later we would be caught. To have good news item we have to go to the ground and have the first hand information (sources); second hand sources are no good but helpful.

Reliable and creditable sources are important in news writing. Not any Ahmad, Ah Kau and Muthusamy could be our sources of information. For example if Ahmad informed us that there was a fire in Seksyen 16 Shah Alam, could we just write a news item on it and sent it to our boss (editor)? Surely our boss will smack it on our face or in those old days (in the 70s and 80s), the editors would crumbled our copy and threw them in the dustbin or better still in our face.

The correct way after receiving information from Ahmad, the reporter should call the officer in charge at the nearest fire station for verification and then rushed to the said location. He too should go the hospital mortuary if there are casualties. Only then he could write the news item.

Why do I engage in this long and boring ‘lecture’ on the basic of news writing? Surely our reporters and editors, what’s more from the distinguish main stream media who year after year had won converted prizes in journalism such as ‘Hadiah Kajai’ had mastered this basic stuff but sadly to say they are the ones who trampled their own professional principles.

How could reporters and editors of a Malay daily, Utusan Malaysia threw this basic principles of journalism in the drain by writing a front page lead article with the title ‘Kristian Agama Rasmi?’ (Christian the Official Religion?) based on two blogs; bigdog’ at entitled ‘Making Christian the official religion?’ and another blog Marahku at

Writing and publishing a news item, what’s more for a front page lead story by using blogs as it sources was treason to the principles of journalism. Publishing reports without verifying the facts was an act of irresponsibility. If blogs could be used as sources of news items, then the journalism field could be in a state of chaos. If reporters and editors were to write stories based on blogs, newspaper would be having sensational items everyday.

Those who entered journalism courses what’s more attended journalism school should know that journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. Tell and write nothing but the truth. A guide of journalism (Committee of Concerned Journalists) noted: “This ‘journalistic truth’ is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation.”

The guide also noted that journalism first loyalty is to citizens. It wrote: “While news organizations answer to many constituencies, including advertisers and shareholders, the journalists in those organizations must maintain allegiance to citizens and the larger public interest above any other if they are to provide the news without fear or favor. This commitment to citizens first is the basis of a news organization's credibility, the implied covenant that tells the audience the coverage is not slanted for friends or advertisers.”

Based on these recommendations are Utusan reporters and editors adhering to the principles of journalism by publishing an article that was against the welfare and future of citizens of the country. Was it done purposely to please its master, those powerful Umno kingpins or perhaps its big and small Napoleons?

The Utusan’s way of gathering news information (relying on blogs) reminded me of my good old days in the School of Journalism where a friend was caught writing a ‘fiction news item’.

With a typewriter in front of him, and in bed, he wrote about a fire which he had not seen; he was creating a news item. It was okay for him to do so because he was green but when senior reporters and editors made the same mistake it was unforgivable.

Nowadays with the advancement in information technology, one too could write an ‘award winning news item’ with only a small effort – just sit in front of a notebook in bed, surf and read blogs and then write your own story.

Wow, it is just like ABC to be a reporter; and the best part of it, the editor approved it to be the front page news item!

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