Saturday, November 20, 2010

Somewhat Prone to Howlers: "Inform, Educate and Entertain"

The creative brain behind the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) corporate mantra, which is to "Inform, Educate and Entertain", is unlikely to have coined the phrase to innoculate the media giant against editorial gaffes.

One howler appears in today's Prime News pages; a prime example of an old saying in Food and Beverage circles which states that it takes just one roach leg to spoil a good soup.

From a public relations (PR) perspective, any media officer would be pleased as punch with the column inches in the 90 cents newspaper's report on the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) war games in Australia, Exercise Wallaby.

That's because an audit of the article, Training abroad important for SAF (The Straits Times, 20 Nov 2010, Page A16), scores a tick in almost every category that some PR houses use to measure the value of media coverage.

Prime landing for the event? Check.

Full page with full colour pictures? Check.

Infographic? Ditto

Side bar to the main story? Yes.

PR professionals would usually multiply the ad rate for a full page, full colour advertisement by three (for credibility) to arrive at a ballpark figure of the net worth of the story.

In the case of the aforementioned story, the easter egg can be found in the infographic which marks out the Shoalwater Bay Training Area (SWBTA) as a little green dot due south of Perth in Western Australia. Alas, the vast training area is located on the other end of the happy country, in Queensland state.

This glitch, if you would be so kind as to call it that, is the latest error to crop up from the 90 cents newspaper's reports on SAF and Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) matters. Defence-minded Singaporeans are therefore not amused that SPH makes readers pay 10 cents more for their Saturday newspaper, only to have their weekend reading letdown by poor journalism.

Readers of this blog may recall an earlier case when the Republic of Singapore Navy was accorded regal status and rebranded as the Royal Singapore Navy.

Nit pickers were also up in arms (pun intended) when Aster missiles were listed as part of the weapons package for the Republic's Seahawk naval helicopters. The Aster, which shoots down things that fly, arms the Formidable-class stealth frigates which the Seahawks can be embarked on.

Editorial gaffes like these do nothing to educate the clueless about defence and security issues. This includes younger Singaporeans, the majority of heartlanders and immigrants who have no clue about National Service and other defence issues.

Indeed, if left unchecked, poor quality control in the newsroom would run counter to SPH's catchy tagline. Wags will have a field day surmising that the screw ups are part of the newspaper's way of entertaining its readers.

I can tell you SAF types are not amused.

I am also pretty sure that when the Australian High Commission in Singapore opens for business on Monday, someone in that Napier Road office will clip out the aforementioned Exercise Wallaby story and have a laugh over the SWBTA text box. No need for a Third Party Note to the Singaporeans to explain why the major "first with the news" newspaper on the island doesn't seem to know the west end from the east end Down Under.

The SAF's Australian partners are likely to react the same way Singaporeans do when a foreigner remarks that Singapore is in China. We laugh at such ignorance. And so will the Aussies.

For defence-minded Singaporeans and those who trust the 90 cents newspaper as their eyes and ears to the world, poor QC does not augur well for SPH's goal of securing a loyal base of readers. Deliver more of such gaffes and I can guarantee you more will turn their backs on the "paper of record" because what is put on record is trash.

To be sure, I wasn't fault-free during my time as a typist more than 2.5 years ago.

One memorable gaffe proclaimed that Singapore intended to send troops to Iraq. That report was published the day former United States President George W. Bush visited Singapore. MINDEF was livid.

And I once spelt a Police Commissioner's name as Koh Boon Hui when the esteemed officer's family name is Khoo...

These mistakes predated the "honest mistake, let's move on" era and I can assure you there was hell to pay when my supervisor (the indefatigable Bertha Henson) demanded an explanation.

I'm not sure what's happening in the newsroom these days. When Bertha ran the show, late comers to the newsroom were greeted with the infernal electronic message "It's 9:30am. I'm here. Where are you?" when they logged on to their computer terminals. And woe betide journalists who had no story to offer for the day and weren't spending time chasing some exclusive story. One of her choice punchlines, "how are you earning your pay today?", is probably seared into the memory banks of many journalists from the Hensonic Period.

Perhaps the influx of Generation Y scribes has promoted a softer, positive reinforcement kind of culture where lapses are more easily forgiven, where the ones throwing hissy fits are young reporters (not editors/supervisors) who cherry pick assignments and drop thinly-veiled hints about quitting for a job with better pay and saner work hours just to get their farking editor/supervisor off their backs. And where the tappity tap from multiple keyboards in the newsroom doesn't result in early copy because the Gen Ys are not working on a story but, dear me, busy managing multiple chat windows on MSN on decidedly non-work issues.

For us hapless readers, we just have to grin and bear it.

If QC for MINDEF and SAF stories (which I make a point to read) is shoddy, I dare not think about what ails the other newspaper beats. I dread to think about the gaffes I've unknowingly absorbed while reading about subjects where my domain knowledge is so poor you could send me a blooper and I'd be none the wiser.

Perhaps this is one reason why some internet sites go ballistic, catching out SPH gaffes every now and again on political and social issues. Someone please add defence issues to the bag.

If the paper fails to earn credibility on defence matters during peacetime, how does one trust its reportage during a war? If the 90 cents newspaper says a tank has been blown up, was it really or did they mean AFV? And does it know where the SAF is going when its infographics are suspect? If the 90 cents newspaper is occasionally dysfunctional during peacetime, how would it perform under pressure (and possibly under Astros rocket fire) during a war?

But rather than complain to no end about defence reporting gaffes - as I think the point has been clearly made - one could humbly suggest checks and balances to weed out editorial oversights.

Technology could play a big part with stories and image-rich content sent to the reporters concerned to fact check their stories. They should look at every line and pixel. Once they "ok" the story, things should be good to go. Matched with proper work processes and an iron hand to enforce these safeguards, fewer gaffes should see the light of day. That's the theory.

The ultimate goalkeeper is the journalist whose byline garnishes the story. No point blaming the Art Department. Forget about pointing fingers at the copy eds, subs or Picture Desk.

That's where the buck stops.


Wocelot said...

Not bad. Sunday Times (21st Nov 2010, Page 4) had a story about females in the Singapore Armed Forces and had a footnote apologising for their erroneous graphics from yesterday.

Spotter said...

They should publish a corrected full version of the graphics, rather than just show the correct location of Shoalwater Bay Training Area.

Anonymous said...

Shaolwater in Western Oz ! Yes, I was expecting salvos from this end ! Last shot out? LOL

Callsign 24s

FinalFive said...

Actually someone should tackle the god-awful army ads head on to ask whether reality meets media. Everyone I am speaking to chokes slightly when asked about their feel of the ads. Why don't the defense desk writers do a piece questioning the reasoning behind those ads and interview some saf guys about their take on it. I say it's overdue.

Anonymous said...

I think the poor reporter searched 'shoalwater bay' on google maps and came up with 'shoalwater road - Western Australia', c'mon mate, its just an honest mistake...

xtemujin said...

There is also a possibility of a mix up with the story of the Perth RSAF detachment and SWBTA.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the Army (nor Navy or AirForce) has an interest in ads that meets reality... it won't look good

Anonymous said...

Honest mistake, similar to the inmate who was caned more due to some "honest mistake", how does that pan out? Mistakes are mistakes, honest, dishonest, intentional, silly, stupid, whatever.