When making a journalistic killing can be unethical

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The media coverage of the Sosilawati murder reflects an inherently elitist approach to reporting: if human life is sacred, why shouldn’t the death of an ordinary person be given similar treatment as a VIP’s, wonders Mustafa K Anuar.

Murdered cosmetics businesswoman Sosilawati

The media went to town with the murders of cosmetics millionaire Sosilawati Lawiya, her driver Kamaruddin Shamsudin, bank officer Noorhisham Mohd and lawyer Ahmad Kamil Abdul Karim.

This tragic incident filled the front pages of most newspapers and prime-time news bulletins since the murders were first revealed. The news continues to dominate the inside pages of dailies.

Such overwhelming coverage is not surprising given that violence and murder are deemed shocking and outrageous by society’s norms. But equally important is that violence and killings are also the very stuff that qualifies the so-called “news value” of tragedy, violence and calamity.

And to be sure, a crime like this one, which involved not only the snuffing out of lives but especially the alleged burning of human bodies, inevitably sparked a media frenzy. Crime news, especially ones that have the elements of sex and violence, also sells newspapers and other media.

And herein lies the problem. In the desire to attract more readers (or viewers), the media not only report the crime but also carry reports with elements of sensationalism, which may contravene journalistic ethics. In an economy where private media exist and whose survival is dependent on profits, sensationalist reporting can come into play even at the expense of ethical and responsible journalism.

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Sensationalist journalism is one that exaggerates certain aspects of an incident or issue to attract and shock the audience.

It should be of concern to us all when the police took exception, for instance, to a report that alleged that Sosilawati and friends were “slaughtered”, which wasn’t the case. The police rightly warned the parties concerned because of the sensationalist slant given to the murder case. The ghastly, especially when it was not true, may well hurt the feelings of the families of the deceased and enrage readers and friends of the murdered individuals.

It was equally malicious and mischievous of a certain report that alleged that Sosilawati was raped. This may make good copy but it runs counter to the ethics of good journalism.

Reporting of crimes should consider the following questions when pondering over the issue of ethical journalism: was the coverage of the story responsible, balanced, and fair? Did the media respect the rights and interests of the people being reported, and their families and friends, or was it too intrusive? Why did the media devote so much space to it and why did it take this angle when there were other options?

The Sosilawati murder case has also been covered with much enthusiasm because it involves a high-profile individual. In other words, this story meets the requirement of yet another news value, i.e. news that involves famous and powerful people. However, this inherently elitist approach to reporting has been criticised: if human life is sacred, why shouldn’t the death of an ordinary person be given similar emphasis or treatment as that of a VIP?

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But journalistic ethics does not only encounter problems in crime reporting. Issues of ethnicity and religion also pose ethical dilemma and challenges to responsible journalists in Malaysia.

When a rabid and racist politician espouses his or her extremist stand in public, shouldn’t such articulation be dutifully reported? Or, in the name of ethnic harmony, should it be ignored? Such racist expression should be covered, but not necessarily using or quoting the exact inflammatory words. This is because shutting the racist up is tantamount to sweeping the dirt under the carpet. At the same time, a responsible journalist should also conscientiously seek the voice of moderation and reason to counter the racist statement.

Besides, this is to help readers understand better a particular issue from a broad range of perspectives, as opposed to only pandering to the egos of the extremist elements in society.

It is also hoped that balanced coverage of controversial issues of ethnicity and religion would go a long way towards encouraging discussions and debates in a civilised fashion.

In the case of the cow-head protest in Shah Alam, some media organisations had covered it as well as getting responses from government leaders, politicians and other concerned Malaysians. While this may be considered fair and adequate coverage, the media should also provide space for those ordinary people who relentlessly strive to build bridges. This is apart from providing the larger context to this conflict, which is essential to a deeper understanding of the issue.

In this particular incident, there was a small group of primarily Muslims who came to a Hindu temple to offer flowers and peace to the affected Hindu community in the vicinity. And yet, very few media organisations covered this socially and politically significant event. If this incident was covered, journalists would have helped in the local communities’ effort to build bridges while at the same time fulfilling their professional commitment to seeking truth and social justice.

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Dr Mustafa K Anuar teaches journalism at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang.

This article first appeared in sun2surf.com on 30 September 2010

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