An extraordinary story to tell, but was there media overkill?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 April, 2007, 12:00am

Amid the intrigue surrounding the inquest into the shooting of Constable Tsui Po-ko and his colleagues, one of the striking features has been the level of public interest generated by the media.

'Tsui Po-ko is not Tsui Po-ko any more,' said Huang Yu, head of the department of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University. 'He's become a symbol - a symbol for the media to sell, and a symbol for evil and corruption.'

Professor Huang described Tsui's personal life and dealings, as laid out for the court, as 'the most fascinating crime news' to come out of Hong Kong for the past 20 years at least. He said he was not surprised that the story captured the attention of the media and public. 'It has all the elements,' he said. 'It was extraordinary. While Tsui was a clever man, apparently, he felt life was unfair to him as his promotion within the force was halted.

'Somehow, many people shared the same feeling as him. However, he took revenge against those forces by committing crimes in the most brutal way.'

Professor Huang said Hong Kong had had its share of great crime stories, such as that involving gangster and kidnapper 'Big Spender' Cheung Tze-keung, who was executed on the mainland in 1998, and Yip Kai-foon, who is serving 36 years for robberies of jewellery stores in the 1980s. But their exploits did not spark the same level of public curiosity seen in the case of Tsui.

'Tsui was a police officer, while Cheung and Yip were considered to be violent and dangerous criminals,' said Professor Huang.

Since the Tsim Sha Tsui shootout in March last year, countless stories have run in the Hong Kong media about Tsui and his family. But he said the sensational reporting of the inquest was no different to the way the media in other countries tapped into public interest in high-profile crimes. 'They all try every means to dramatise the story as far as possible. You cannot avoid it. As long as the law says it is legal, the media will sell it,' he said. The marathon inquest had provided all the material needed to fuel hungry media organisations. 'News value is equal to marketing value. The fine line between news and ethics was getting blurred.'

Professor Huang said there was a marked difference between the style of news reporting in recent years compared with that from a few decades ago, with the trend towards adding more colour and drama to events to heighten public interest.

'While in the past, the media also used every means at their disposal to dramatise the stories, making them as juicy as possible, they had to rely mostly on 'words'.

'But in recent years, graphics and animation have been widely used by media. The dramatising effect is huge. The impact on the readers and the audiences is much stronger than words,' he said.

Chinese University journalism and communications professor Kenneth Leung Wai-yin agreed that there was a change in the way news was being presented.

'These modern graphics and illustrations only try to excite rather than inform,' he said. These devices were often imaginative rather than factual and provided little, if any, useful information to the reader.

Professor Leung said some reports stemming from the Tsui inquest appeared to be almost without purpose. 'I think the media has overdone it this time. It is like rubbing salt into the families' wounds,' he said. 'Is it necessary? What they do only makes the family and friends of the deceased relive such sadness. Are these reports really based on public interest - something that people should know?' asked Professor Leung.

Hong Kong Journalists' Association chairwoman Serenade Woo Lai-wan defended the role of the media and argued that journalists had played a passive role as the inquest unfolded.

'For stories from the inquest, it was an open court hearing. Unless something is forbidden, then all information that's released can be reported,' she said.

'If some of these reports hurt the family, it is understandable. But journalists are very passive. If one thinks such information hurts the family, is not relevant to the case or should not be reported by the media, then should the blame be thrown on the police who disclose the material rather than journalists?'

In contrast to Professor Huang's view that Hong Kong's media operated in a similar fashion to their counterparts overseas, Professor Leung said 'coverage in Hong Kong is far more sensational'.

'Take the recent massacre at Virginia Tech. [In overseas coverage] you will see many varied reports, trying to analyse the incident, and you will not see many dramatic pictures,' he said.

Stressing public interest as the keyword for journalism, Professor Leung said: 'I think Hong Kong's media touched the edge of invasion of privacy too often.'

'Yes, journalists should try to cross the line for the sake of public interest. But they should justify it when doing so. They should do it when the case amounts to public interest, like government policy and public affairs.

'Many in the general public have lost their trust in the media, mostly due to the heavy infringement of privacy. It's time to do something to remedy the problem,' said Professor Leung.