News values and the numbers game


Mainstream news providers, especially newspapers, really must wake up from their slumber.

They need to face up to two related developments internationally and nationally: first, that alternative sources of information and knowledge have emerged and grown at a tremendous rate over the past two decades, especially with the spread of the internet; and, second, that the circulation of many newspapers, certainly in Peninsular Malaysia, has been on the decline over the past few years.

An awareness of these very real developments – an awareness that a large number of the rakyat no longer depend on the usually print and broadcast channels for their news – really would stop these aging agencies from making utter ninnies of themselves.

Over and over again.

Take the recent massive peaceful gathering held in Kuantan to protest the building of the Lynas Corp rare earth plant in Gebeng, Pahang. It was a protest that was simultaneously supported by gatherings in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, Ipoh , and even a smaller, symbolic, one in Kuching.

Granted, with these gatherings, the numbers game comes into play with many news reports. At its worse, the organisers will greatly inflate the numbers gathered, while the police, on the other hand, will deflate the numbers considerably.

The media, on the other hand, really should take the middle path to maintain any sense of (now rapidly-diminishing) credibility. Having been on a number of these gatherings, I can appreciate that once the numbers swell to more than a few hundred, it’s rather difficult to come up with an accurate head count.

When this happens, apart from making one’s own estimation, surely any reporter worth his or her salt would take the trouble to get the police figures and those provided by the organisers. Plus, of course, a few photographs of the crowd, however limited such evidence can be, to illustrate the numbers present.

And when a gathering of more than 10,000 is reported by virtually all the media –predictably more, as declared by the anti-Lynas organisers and much less, according to the police – it would then be rather disingenuous, childish and inane for any newspaper to describe this as ‘a large crowd’, wouldn’t you say?

Our command of the English language may have become quite terrible over the years, but, really, my friends in the media, ‘a large crowd’ doesn’t even begin to describe more than 10,000 people.

And many, of us, to be honest, have long ago cottoned on to this kind of silly, quite dishonest reporting, that it doesn’t do the credibility of the reporters and their organisations any good to persist with this. Falling circulation, remember?

Of course, the other silly strategy is to either ignore these events or bury them somewhere deep inside the newspaper.

We certainly saw this with coverage of other major events such as the Hindraf and Bersih rallies in 2007 and the Bersih 2.0 rally in 2010.

But, again, because of the contemporary presence of internet news, this strategy invariably backfires on the traditional media, making them lose even more credibility. It results in a disconnect between them and their potential audience.

Sure, they can argue that many people in the rural areas have little access to the Internet anyway, hence will still continue reading – and believing – what they read in the newspapers.

However, these organisations also need to ask: who are the advertisers, advertising in their rags, targeting? The urban middle class who have access to different media, and the purchasing power, or the less well-off in the rural areas?

Indeed, going into – and remaining in – denial mode, sooner rather than later, will prove quite expensive. Even in everything boleh Malaysia.

This aside, we can all appreciate, I’m sure, that many things – though not necessarily everything – is now geared towards Malaysia’s 13th General Elections.

And what some scholars call the ‘secondary definers of reality’, the media, as usual, have been tasked with kicking off the campaigning way before the official campaigning period. This certainly is par for course in Malaysian politics.

But, really, it does border on the ridiculous when national newspapers begin highlighting on their front pages news that has no national significance whatsoever.

Like the recent one, headlined `Yay! It’s half the toll’, announcing the reduction of the toll for a short stretch of the highway in a district in Selangor.

It was a reduction of RM1.90, for heaven’s sake, and one that certainly isn’t going to affect a large majority of Malaysians.

Yes, it was news. But, no, it wasn’t news deserving of the front page in a national newspaper.

Indeed, there’s just so much spin that the rakyat  can and will stomach.

Anything beyond that – fortunately – will just prove counter-productive.