Monday, March 15, 2010
Honest mistake in Peace Triton photo caption
Having been in the hospitality line since May 2008, I picked up a catch phrase from my F&B colleagues that applies to the messed up Peace Triton photo caption in today's newspaper - it only takes one roach leg to spoil a good soup.
Some netizens were aghast that after nearly 45 years of nation building, Singapore's main English language broadsheet, The Straits Times (aka the 90 cents newspaper), can let slip a mistake like "Royal Singapore Navy".
The "R" has tripped up foreign defence writers many times before, defacing otherwise well-researched articles penned by scribes who have yet to learn Singapore is a republic.
Surely the 90 cents newspaper would know better?
Whether you want to term this a glitch, human error or an honest mistake, the point to note is that a newspaperman's credibility can be sunk by what could be politely termed as quality control issues.
Years ago, a friend of mine bore the brunt of a news editor's rage when the then 55 cents newspaper published a photo of Oxford University upside down. His defence that he wrote an otherwise flawless story proved futile. The newsroom's stand was that a journalist earns his/her byline not just by delivering clean copy within deadline, but also for ensuring that the story is error-free from headline to deck summary to photo caption.
It is irrelevant whether the caption was provided by the photo journalist. Good teamwork should see photographer and writer check one another's work to ensure picture complements the story, and vice versa. My personal preference has always been to make space for good pictures and this is how seemingly mundane events like a Minister of State for Defence MOS(D) ACCORD visit to the Naval Diving Unit can end up splashed across two Home pages - the pictures were worth it.
To this day, that friend feels the Oxford Uni mistake was unfairly credited to his account.
In those days, the 90 cents newspaper took a serious stance against errors. Offenders had to bear the shame of having their mistakes pinned on the newsroom notice board along with their hand-written defence. Street smart journalists kept their arguments brief and took it on the chin; those who had yet to grow up spilt a lot of ink in ultimately futile defences which were pinned up for all to see (and laugh at).
It is no laughing matter when newsroom policy dictates that a journalist's bonus will be forfeited when three or more inaccuracies are kept on file for that work year. This is why some journalists try to hide their mistakes by bargaining with news makers not to report their oversights. It is unsavoury and less than ethical, but it has happened.
As a quality control measure, newspapers rely on copy editors to polish unedited copy. Some young reporters with poor news sense barely recognise their story drafts after copy editors throw it back to them to check the facts. In some cases, the only things left unchanged are the full stops.
Even then, mistakes are made - one memorable recent example being the case when the 90 cents newspaper published the wrong picture of a man who died during an endurance race.
Defence stories in the 90 cents newspaper thread the line between writing for the masses and catering to fact hungry defence buffs eager to pick a bone with the smallest glitch.
It does not help when journalists end up calling every man-of-war a "battleship" (warship would be a far safer catch-all term), every armoured fighting vehicle a "tank" and every automatic weapon a "machinegun".
During an assignment to cover the F-15SG Strike Eagle roll-out, a journalist sought my help with his copy. He asked what was the big deal with the Republic of Singapore Air Force's new warplane radars, since all fighter jet radars were also "AN" radars. I thought he was joking and waited for the punchline, then realised he was serious and proceeded to give a quick tutorial on United States Department of Defense airborne radar nomenclature.
This is where the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) should step in. If MINDEF really had a strategic view of PR, it would have invested in peacetime tutorials not just for defence journalists but all scribes down the line to teach them the rudiments of military hardware and jargon.
MINDEF's Malaysian counterparts in Jalan Padang Tembak have done so for years - please scroll back to my earlier posts to see how the Malaysians treat their own media.
MINDEF's (the Singapore MINDEF, not the KL one) investments in educating Singaporean newsrooms will help prevent red faces as somewhere in the newsroom's chain of command, someone is likely to pick up glitches like the RSN one.
Journalists joke that today's Page 1 story is good enough to line trash bins or wrap fish tomorrow. That may be the case, but military units the world over take pride whenever their units are showcased in the media in a positive light.
During my past visits to Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) establishments, I have always enjoyed seeing how SAF units take pride in clipping out - sometimes laminating - newspaper or magazine stories they like and pinning them on notice boards. Many of these stories were not written by me, but by local and foreign journalists whose bylines are the buzzword for credibility and authoritativeness in defence reporting.
It will be interesting to see how our Seahawk helo crew will explain to visitors that their birds cannot, as reported by the 90 cents newspaper, carry Aster or Harpoon missiles, plus the fact that Singapore isn't headed by royalty.
With the SAF due to receive more hardware this year and with military exercises ratcheting up their size, scale and complexity, Singaporean defence journalists will have no shortage of opportunities to showcase how crisp, clear reporting can tell a good story.
Failing which - as the "Royal Singapore Navy" episode clearly demonstrates - the rest of Singapore will have a good laugh at their expense.
God Save The Queen.
Posted by David Boey at 10:55 PM