Don't let zealotry break journalism's moral compass

FEBRUARY 9 — In choosing to be a journalist, one essentially takes up the responsibility of keeping the public posted on important and relevant information so they can form an informed opinion.

Our vocation is to tell stories, but also to dedicate ourselves in service to the "journalistic truth" — to present what happened as accurately as possible, but also as fair as possible, all while meeting a deadline.

Each and every journalist would probably have that familiar experience of family and friends asking: "Hey, is this true?" This is the epitome of the reputation of the profession, and the trust put into our task.

If anything, it reflects the assumption — fair or not — that journalists have a stringent mental vetting process when it comes to reporting stories.

In some cases, we can straightaway tell if something is bogus or doubtful. At the very least, we instinctively reply, "Let me check."

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the public was shaken that a journalist was recently charged with fear-mongering over the 2019-nCoV outbreak on the basis of personal social media posts.

The posts cited by the prosecutors as being allegedly alarmist, and also others which have since been made viral online, not only displayed a lackadaisical attitude towards fact-checking but seemed to defy a basic semblance of logic.

Perhaps it is a sombre reminder that journalists are much like many other people, susceptible to biases and prejudice.

But perhaps it is also a warning about how zealotry, specifically to ethno-religious bigotry, can sometimes cloud our minds and affect our journalistic moral compass, if left unchecked.

We should never think of journalism as meaningless, no matter how thankless a profession it is. In telling stories, we also shape public opinion, and how we tell our stories shapes how the public views the topic.

In playing its role as a check-and-balance mechanism, the Fourth Estate ought to not be the tool wielded by the powers-that-be to further "punch down" those at the opposite end of privilege. If anything, the media is beholden to defend the downtrodden.

I say this often: the press must not marginalise the marginalised.

And therefore, I posit that it is against journalistic values to amplify racism and prejudice against minorities.

Especially not in times of a public health emergency. Not in an environment where rancour runs high towards ethnic minorities in this country, inflamed for years by racial supremacists.

Therefore, I applaud the Attorney General's Chambers' determined message justifying its actions, even as I disagree with how it is wielding the judiciary to enforce it: "Lies on the internet connecting coronavirus to any particular ethnic or religious group is not only deplorable, but inflammatory in our plural society of numerous ethnic and religious groups."

The collective Malaysian media has also seemingly lost its journalistic moral compass in its deplorable reporting of cosmetics entrepreneur Nur Sajat's "umrah" trip, or minor pilgrimage to Mecca.

The issue here is theological: how should a non-cis or non-binary Muslim perform the religious ritual? There are several answers to this question, depending on whether they are intersex, transgender, or relate to any gender identity in between.

This is an issue that will continue to be debated as Islam faces its own internal reform and modernisation, and therefore its "theological truth" may never be confirmed as a "journalistic truth" — and should arguably be outside of the purview of the media.

One may argue that there is news value here, but here is where local journalists should have relied on their conscience and moral compass on whether their reporting of the event will cause any harm to Nur Sajat, her associates, and the LGBT+ community in general — considering how very much marginalised they are here.

Instead, the local media failed at this. A significant and influential proportion of media outlets instead decided to not only become the spokesmen of the status quo, but to further punch down, humiliate, and escalate the public's prejudice and violence towards the community with their reporting.

Again, ethno-religious zealotry played a role in this.

Many journalists either vehemently refused to correctly address gender non-cis subjects, or worse use their dead names; the assigned name at birth that the person no longer identifies with. For many it was down to ignorance, but for some it was blatant arrogance.

Some used official documents to back their bigotry, conveniently forgetting that a transgender has no avenue at all to use their gender identity in such documents.

There were dismayingly many reports purposely quoting irrelevant people who are not stakeholders of the issue — from instant-noodle televangelists to bottom-shelf celebrities — all with the purpose to gain clicks, but to the adverse effect of increasing transphobia.

Some media are too afraid to change and embrace moral progress, because they felt like they are beholden to the majority's sensitivities. Such pusillanimity rarely profits.

The media industry increasingly cites social media as one of its biggest challenges. But another major challenge is also the public's trust in the industry as purveyors and curators of news.

Restoring and rehabilitating this trust is possible. Fixing our moral compass could be a start.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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