When ‘neutrality’ means that fact and fiction get mixed up


MAINSTREAM journalists have of late been caught in a professional predicament. Quite of few loath being accused of not being neutral in their political coverage. And that has become the paradox I call the “neutrality trap”.

Quite often, being neutral in this context means according facts and fiction equal time and space. In their desperate attempt to appear to be “somewhere in the middle”, most newspapers and television and radio stations have opted to abandon their gatekeeper role for society.

As a result, the media, in the name of the misguided approach to being “neutral”, have been presenting both or all sides of the story. Perhaps they think they are refereeing a game in which the only participants are the powers-that-be, the opposition, the reds and the yellows.

With little regard for the rest of us, because the silent majority has chosen to be reticent bystanders, the press in general has surrendered one of its most crucial missions in a democratic society: to resist pressure from the powerful and the influential and to tell it like it is.

There is no evidence that it’s part of a conspiracy. Nor is there any proof that the media in general have been co-opted by any vested interest group.

But it’s a great source of concern to note that a good part of the mainstream media have increasingly become common carriers, transmitters of other people’s ideas and thoughts, irrespective of substance, relevance and even accuracy.

Worse, outright lies and wild, groundless allegations now get the same degree of prominence and space as vital, verified facts – all in the name of being “neutral” and “fair” to all parties concerned.

When wild accusations and proven facts get equal treatment, that’s when fairness gets thrown out the window. But the fear factor and the survival instinct of a severely polarised and divisive society have pushed a good number of journalists into what I consider to be “submissive journalism”.

Under this passive state of mind, in this climate of fear and reprisal, some professional newsmen have given up on bold investigative journalism for fear of being labelled “one-sided” or painted red or yellow or even blue.

The protagonists on both sides of the political divide, by injecting angst and awe, have somehow won the propaganda war against the professional newsmen.

When one side of the political war demands – and is readily granted – “equal space” from the press, even for a blatantly fabricated story, that’s when the integrity and credibility of “society’s watchdog” is shattered.

When the line between outright lies and verified facts gets blurred, the overriding suspicion is that the watchdog has failed to bark, either because of professional negligence, inefficiency or, in the current context, fear.

Quite apart from some isolated cases of conflict of interest in the profession, in most cases the current sad state of affairs in the media is influenced in no small measure by the “red scare” on the one hand and the “yellow threat” on the other.

Perhaps, the current state of apathy – the total lack of critical coverage of the real issues that have plunged the country into the political abyss – has stemmed from the conviction in certain quarters that national reconciliation can be achieved only through glossing over embarrassing facts.

Perhaps some newsmen have been persuaded by politicians with vested interests, on both sides of the fence, to believe that critical, in-depth, investigative reporting at this juncture could further fracture society, since there are no saints in this conflict.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Because the press appears to have abdicated its role in the crucial mission of reporting faithfully on power, truth-telling and responsibility, the public has been misled into thinking that there are no rights and wrongs in this ongoing political battle – and that the warring sides are equally good or equally bad.

When the whole scenario has been painted grey by the mass media for fear of offending either side, and national reconciliation is associated with a sweeping amnesty, the root causes of the conflict will never be discovered. And no lessons will be learned.

As history has warned us time and again, the result of such an ostrich-in-the-sand approach is that the vicious circle will recur over again.

And if the media were to conduct a real investigative report on itself at this crucial time, one of the logical conclusions would be: Just as its gatekeeping role becomes most vital at this juncture of history – to get the country out of the current mess – the press, weighed down by fear, passivity and an inward-looking mentality, has instead let down the whole country.

By Suthichai Yoon
The Nation
Published on May 21, 2009


Most new media outlets spread toxic misinformation: Rosana

Thai people had little need for multiple media outlets such as cable TV and websites since most spread misinformation, which caused bigger social division, Bangkok Senator Rosana Tositakul said yesterday.

Rosana Tositakul

Rosana Tositakul

“Do we really need so many media channels? And how could we control a large number of media channels, anyway?” Rosana asked at a seminar entitled “How to Reform the New Media”, held by Thammasat University’s Faculty of Journalism and Communications. 

Rosana said media reports about misinformation incited hatred, so the media should report with more conscience.

“Misinformation is like toxic food that causes damage to the viewer’s brain,” Rosana said.

However, Adisak Limparungpattanakit, who heads the Satellite Television Association of Thailand, said it was impossible to control media content and prevent the existence of “new media”.

“The lawmakers always want to control the media. However, they can never catch up with the new technology,” he said.

Adisak said a new national broadcasting and telecommunications commission should not only try to control the media, but help people across the country get access. It should also encourage outlets to produce more good content instead of only blocking ‘bad’ content.

“As no one can decide what is good or bad, the government should encourage good media content instead,” Adisak said.

By Thaweeporn Kummetha
The Nation
Published on May 22, 2009


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