I had an interesting conversation with my Uber driver today.
When he discovered that I’m in the news business, we spoke about what it meant to be a journalist and the challenges faced. An employee of a government-owned bank who had worked for a couple of years in the US and who has a son who works for a financial news channel, this old chap spoke pretty good English and didn’t mince his words at all.
“Everything you read on the news these days in China…all lies. This country is in a sad state of affairs,” he said, referring to government control of news agencies.
“It’s hard to know what you should believe. Every publication is just a mouthpiece for the government,” he added.
“Well, the state of journalism is quite similar in Singapore,” I said, before going all Mulder and Scully on him
“Well, the truth is out there. I reckon we should all learn how to question the so-called facts we’re presented with and find the truth ourselves,” I added, with a sigh.
“But journalism is supposed to be the bastion of truth and integrity. Journalists are supposed to be the gatekeepers! Who else can we rely on for the truth if not them?” he said.
This statement promptly brought back memories of my first foray into the industry. My lecturers in polytechnic and university always spoke of the need to be impartial and objective. This was further reinforced by the trainers during my time at Reuters who repeatedly stressed that there is nothing more sacrosanct than the facts.
After all, people look to the press for information. In an ideal world, journalists are the watchdogs who present these people with honest information devoid of underlying motives. I’m not saying all journalists are reporting half-truths these days, it’s just that the content we get today, rather disturbingly, includes a large amount of “Hey! I think you will love this” instead of “Hey listen up! You need to know this” sort of information.
I hear some news agencies are actually telling employees that their annual performance bonuses are tied to how many “Likes” and shares their stories receive on social media. Oh come on, this is going to subsequently drive people to look for stuff that they think readers will go gaga over, and by that I mean viral.
Preposterous isn’t it?
And this just goes to show how the media is no longer committed to being the gatekeepers; it’s like people just decided to go: “Fuck it, we need “likes” and “views”, because these determine advertising revenue, and because this in turn determines whether the darn company shuts down. We cannot afford to shut down. Fuck the ethics. Fuck the truth. I need my fucking job.”
So, maybe we need a watchdog for the watchdog? Nah…given the fallibility of human nature, the world would probably end up being a very big kennel for watchdogs. Case in point: Malaysian police last year raided the office of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s deputy public prosecutor.
Actually, what is perhaps even more worrying is the sort of content most people are seemingly more interested in, in Singapore at least. Apparently rat infestations, burning trees in Orchard Road and stuff that would in the good old days not even be considered news are today propping up the figures on a website’s view counter.
And then there’s the rise of clickbait.
“She went for a run at 3 am. What happened next would shock you.”
Shit like that has a way of sending our minds racing. Readers love the suspense. I understand the need for engaging headlines that would draw the reader in. But conjuring a sensationalist headline because we know humans are naturally attracted to it like cockroaches to rubbish is just wrong.
I guess a clickbait title can somewhat be forgiven if the content actually contains something remotely relevant to what is being mentioned. But as we all know, most of such stories don’t.
Like I wouldn’t even be surprised if this title was used to sell headlamps, because some poor lady who went running at 3 am fell into a ditch after the street lights suddenly malfunctioned.
Another one of my pet peeves is listicles. Okay, fine, not all listicles are bad, but I think the frequency of such articles these days is kind of worrying. I think the trend of listicles say a lot about the state of content production today. I understand why some sites would swear by the effectiveness of such a format – because they are easy to comprehend.
It is, after all, a fucking list.
Point 1. Read. Done.
Point 2. Read Done.
Point 3. Read. Done.
Point 4. Eh, wait a minute, I don’t quite agree with this.
See? Easy, as compared to a long essay-type article that is written with flair and would require a good 20 minutes to finish.
“Wait a minute…if it’s so much easier to write a listicle and for people to understand it, why write anything else??”
Boom. That’s why you have sites like Mothership.sg and Buzzfeed.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I love Buzzfeed. If you wanna do funny, inane content, then do it all the way.
The problem I have with the former is that it does this while trying to maintain some sort of a serious front with news stories and commentaries. Hey Mothership, I see what you did with that article about an employee of a newspaper who said some stuff about Lee Wei Ling recent’s comments. That’s was uncalled for.
That is not news. That’s just shit-stirring.
So, yes, back to listicles. I remember I once went for an interview with one of the English lifestyle magazines in Shanghai. The interviewer asked how I would improve their magazine and I suggested to her that as an editor I’d include just one or two well-written, insight features per issue, as a complement to their Best Places In Shanghai For yada yada yada sort of articles.
She shot me a look of disbelief. I never heard back from her.
But are listicles popular because people are generally too stupid or lazy to understand well-written work, or is it because writers have become too stupid or lazy to produce well-written work? Who exactly do we blame? Readers? Journalists? Or capitalism?
Next, I hear there’s this thing called native advertising that is really hot right now.
“No, native advertising is very different from regular advertorials!” said a friend to me.
“What’s the difference? The client still pays for the coverage, no?” I retorted.
“Yes. But no, it’s different. It’s a more informative way to advertise something, and it’s a very soft-sell,” replied this friend.
“Okaaaay…but like I said, the client still has control because you’re not allowed to write anything negative about the product even though it truly sucks. Yes?” I snapped.
“Er, yes, but no you don’t understand!” was my friend’s last response.
Indeed, I certainly don’t understand how anyone cannot understand this sort of editorial fuckery.
For starters, people need to start thinking about the stuff they consume online. Please, for fuck’s sake, don’t believe everything you read. Experience the damn thing yourself and develop an opinion. I hate it when people tell me that everything in China is fake and dangerous because Shanghaiist.com says so.
I think such sites should only be accessed by people with IQ levels of 110 and higher (right now it’s the opposite) who are looking for a laugh. Because there are just way too many morons who think that some outrageous incident in a less developed region in China is representative of the whole country.
It’s about time we started focusing on producing good, honest, insightful content. Because, as naive as I am, I believe such content will touch people, and the gains will naturally follow if you make money the key objective. And if you have half the brains of the ladies at Project Unsung Heroes you can even make money while producing good, honest content that has a social impact. No, this post is not native advertising for them. I just really like the effort.
And perhaps it’s also time we started paying for content. Many news sites have now started to charge and I can’t say I disagree, though I’m sure many people can’t be bothered to fork out a couple of dollars every month to read compelling content.
Which kinda makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
I mean, we so willingly splash hundreds of dollars to experience a degustation menu when the only thing it does is provide fleeting gustorial pleasure before ending up in the toilet bowl after a few hours. But somehow we just can’t bring ourselves to pay a fraction of that price for good content and knowledge that broadens our horizons.
Sorry, I stand corrected. Journalism hasn’t actually gone to shits.