Media in danger of deceiving the public

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 February, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 February, 1998, 12:00am

Who is really compromising the public's right to be well informed? Officials who hide behind a shield of anonymity? Or bureaucrats who refuse to be open and frank with us? Probably prompted by the findings of the poll conducted by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, a renewed interest in the openness of the Government and access of information seems to have generated more debates on the subject in both the Government and the media.

Superficially, the public can hold the Government responsible for depriving them of their right to know. But, ironically, the media cannot escape the blame either - a worrying trend is quietly appearing which may well undermine the media's role as a credible news-provider.

Veteran journalists and media observers have detected that increasingly, political or social gossip has been replacing serious news.

Unconfirmed reports have been accorded prominent positions in news pages and unidentified sources are used more indiscriminately.

You may say that practices like these, the use of unidentified sources and the publication of unconfirmed reports, have existed for a long time. But the danger now is the much wider application of the practice - it seems to have replaced serious journalism in the mainstream of the industry.

Many examples of these kinds of unprofessional reporting can be found. From details of the intense bickering between Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and the senior civil service to the reshuffle of senior positions in the SAR Government, all sorts of gossipy suggestions have dominated the news pages of many local dailies.

A recent report on behind-the-scenes bickering while finalising next year's Budget demonstrates how the situation has deteriorated.

It was reported last Friday that last-minute efforts by the Chief Executive, Executive Council convenor, Chung Sze-yuen and provisional legislator Allen Lee Peng-fei, made Financial Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen offer the huge tax concessions to the public. The report quoted three independent sources.

Obviously, it attracted a lot of attention. The public undoubtedly is interested to know about this kind of manoeuvring.

It was a good news story if it was true. But it was not.

It had already been pointed out by other newspapers that a copy of the Budget speech had been forwarded to Beijing last Friday, only one day after the alleged amendments were made. Common sense states that so-called last-minute changes to the Budget could not have happened.

What is disturbing here is not that the mistake made by the report was exposed by other newspapers, rather it is the fact that readers may not have known that they had been fed with inaccurate information.

While the media may have a better grasp of how reliable all these news stories or pieces of gossip are, the public is likely to take it for granted that, since they are printed in the news pages, they must be accurate.

In the long term, this means newsmakers, from the Government or other sectors, will have an excuse for doubting the media's credibility.

Eventually, the public may also discover that the information they get from the media is not always reliable, and that in itself is damaging.

The local media may be frustrated by the Government's lack of transparency, but that should not be a reason for lowering its standards and not exercising sound judgment in deciding what is, or is not, news.

The media is powerful. It has the duty to inform.

But it is important for the media to remember that the public's right to know does not give it a licence to confuse.