September 8th, 2011
MediaCorp’s controversial television coverage of this year’s general election has been given the gentlest of feedback by a government-appointed consultative panel, the Programme Advisory Committee for English Programmes (PACE).
MediaCorp had been roundly criticised by the public for excluding the Singapore Democratic Party from a pre-election studio forum that involved the PAP and other opposition parties. Then, on election night, viewers were astounded by MediaCorp’s refusal to report the latest intelligence on the counting, even when confirmed by the candidates and carried by the Straits Times’ digital outlets. Wits started calling CNA “Channel NewsAfter”.
PACE said in its report:
“In terms of the coverage of breaking news, PACE commended MediaCorp for its extensive coverage of the General Election held in May 2011 and its round-the-clock updates on the campaign developments. The Committee also observed the effort put in by MediaCorp to provide balanced coverage of the 2011 General Election, which was especially useful with so many political parties contesting. However, the Committee commented that the presentation of election-related news could have been tightened and delivered more smoothly and professionally. Members also commented that while they understood the need for CNA to ensure that the results were verified before they were announced on air, the delay between announcements on other new media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and the updates on CNA did not reflect well on the latter as a national news channel.”
PACE was set up in 1995 to provide feedback on the range and quality of English programming. Members are drawn from a cross section of society, including the arts, sports, academia, nongovernmental organisations and the private sector.
MediaCorp’s reply, included in an annex to the report, said:
“CNA noted the comments that the presentation of election-related news could be tightened and delivered in a more professional manner. The channel explained that while viewers have a right to expect more out of presenters for such a high profile programme, the demands from a programme providing “live” coverage of the election results are greater than that of other programmes. The presenters had multiple duties during the programme, including rolling out information as it came in, analysing and interpreting results on the fly while liaising with several key production team members in the control room.
“CNA added that a key element in the coverage was the lack of predictability, not just of when and what results might be announced, but also the follow-up production treatment of the information, for example, the team had to decide whether the show would be crossing to on-site reporters to field reactions or to another location for other developments. In addition, there was also a need to be mindful of the choice of words, facial expressions and the ideas to be conveyed to viewers.
“With regard to the “delay between announcements on other new media platforms”, CNA explained that MediaCorp had taken the editorial stand to go with only the official results and Vote 2011 Singapore therefore announced only results announced by the Returning Officer.”
MediaCorp’s defence of its policy against reporting unconfirmed results remains puzzling. While responsible broadcasters should certainly avoid the kind of fiasco that American networks caused in the 2000 Presidential Election – when they prematurely declared the election over based on inaccurate exit polls – there are well established ways for news channels to share intelligence with their viewers and listeners, in context and without misleading them.
The BBC, for example, sometimes prefaces news breaks with such lines as “Reuters is reporting that…”, concluding with “We haven’t been able to independently verify this report.” This indicates to the audience that the news is coming from an ordinarily credible source, but that the BBC is not ready to state it as fact.
Of course, such a policy requires the broadcaster to be willing to attribute the news break to a competing news organisation. Broadcasters that put their audiences first are willing to do so. The main mental block for MediaCorp on election night was probably not the risk of misleading its audience, but its reluctance to attribute unconfirmed reports to the Straits Times (all of which turned out to be accurate). For several years, Caldecott Hill’s false pride has made MediaCorp allergic to ever mentioning SPH outlets as a news source, despite the latter accounting for the bulk of Singapore’s journalists.