by Eric Loo
Jul 26, 2012
After a week’s work in the slums of Chennai, I stopped over in Petaling Jaya for the weekend en route to Sydney. I heard from friends alarming stories of abductions and killings, assaults and robberies in Malaysia.
A week earlier a decomposed torso was found washed up by heavy rains in Jalan SS22/21 in Damansara Jaya – less than five minutes’ walk from where I lived. One might feel safer navigating the urban chaos and mass human traffic in the capital city of Tamil Nadu than wandering in the shopping mall car park and streets of PJ and KL. With each bloodier crime reported in the media, community fear goes up a notch.
Pemandu had urged for more “balanced reporting” to allay the public fear. Crime reporting, however, is fraught with difficulties when headlines are driven by blood and gore. The more frequently crime stories are highlighted, and sensationalised, by the tabloids – the more we feel unsafe. Anxiety and insecurity then breeds distrust of strangers and neighbours, stereotyping of criminality by ethnicity and fear stoking by right-wing populist parties.
Should the media restrain and sanitise its crime reporting? Certainly not. Crime stories follow the crime rates. The higher the crime rates, the more the crime stories. But, journalists should know that for every crime story written, there could be many that go unreported. Pemandu’s statement of a 40 percent decline in street crime from January to May this year doesn’t explain the community anxiety over ‘rising’ crime in the city.
I received an email from a BFM89.9 Radio journalist when I arrived in Sydney. Referring to my article ‘Reporting crime in context’, the journalist, Lee Jian Chung, asked “why are Malaysian media organisations not pursuing critical and contextual stories about crime?”
The plausible factors are – short turnaround of breaking news, ‘if it bleeds it leads’ news value in commercial media, prevalence of ‘cue journalism’ (as termed by a colleague, Mustafa K. Anuar from Universiti Sains Malaysia), journalists who see crime incidents as events rather than as symptoms of broader socio-economic issues and woefully inadequate policing, journalists who uncritically assume that what the authorities say are true without verifying its factual and contextual accuracy.
The real question is how can Malaysian journalists do better in their crime reporting?
Go beyond traditional sources
My suggestion is simple – delve into the context, and go beyond the traditional sources for explanation – police, NGOs, government departments. Saying that sources are not willing to speak is a cop-out. Good journalists persist. They should go with their instincts, put on their critical thinking caps, tenaciously research and consult with alternative sources to make sense of the perceived rise in crime in the city.
Journalists should crunch the numbers released by the authorities, study the crime patterns, time and where they’re committed, the hot spots, the demographics of the perpetrators. Based on available evidence and a clear understanding of the context, work out a theory.
Indeed, journalists routinely work on assumptions. But good journalists test their assumptions on available evidence to form a theory. Then, they approach expert sources for reactions. Herein lies the essence of critical purposive reporting – which takes self-belief to investigate, time to write, and dedication to follow through.
Purposive journalism could be guided by having SMART goals in mind (acronym borrowed from the field of counseling that refers to goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-limited).
Applied to purposive SMART crime reporting, it would mean the stories should aim to stir public discussion that will lead to identifying the specific improvements badly needed in the policing system; publicising the measurable achievements or otherwise by the authorities in tackling the rising crime in specific communities; in collaboration with the stakeholders, develop achievable anti-crime community action plans; responsive reporting and monitoring of criminal activities; and truthful account of what’s going on in the community, what’s lacking in the law and enforcement sector.
Good journalists don’t just report what the authorities and experts say. Good journalists go beyond ‘he said this’ and ‘she said that’. Good journalists check it out for themselves and test their theories with independent sources and the people on the streets.
Thus, when the home minister and his underlings say the crime rate has declined, that should set off crime reporters’ crap detector to ask why doesn’t it feel like it when you walk the streets after dark or withdraw money from the ATM machine?
ERIC LOO left Malaysia for Australia in 1986 to work as a journalist. He currently lectures at University of Wollongong, Australia, and also mentors international journalism students via UPIU.com, run by United Press International. He edits a refereed journal Asia Pacific Media Educator published by SAGE Publications (New Delhi) and conducts journalism training workshops in Asia. Email: [email protected]