The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted “the critical role that a credible and reliable media” plays in the health and well-being of the people, said the editor-in-chief of The Straits Times (ST), Warren Fernandez, in his opinion piece published by the South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Monday (28 Sept).
Mr Fernandez, who is also the World Editors Forum’s president, had elaborated on the importance of credible journalism amid the pandemic in his article titled “Coronavirus a reminder of need for reliable, sustainable media”.
He pointed out that people want to know how to stay safe and safeguard their jobs, and that they need help “to separate fact from fiction” while the coronavirus-related fake news was being circulated on social media.
“At a time when so much has been turned on its head, this much has become clear – real news matters. The truth matters. Objectivity matters. Balance and fairness matter. In short, quality journalism matters,” he wrote.
The World News Day, which has gathered over 150 newsrooms from around the world on 28 September, is not an occasion for journalists to “pat themselves on the back” for the work they do, said Mr Fernandez.
“Rather, the focus is on how journalists go about reporting on issues that matter to our audiences.”
He highlighted that the pandemic has led people to turn to professional journalists “like never before”, as readers are “looking to people they can trust to help them join the dots and make sense of these bewildering times”.
Citing the closing of the Brazil-Paraguay’s International Friendship Bridge in March, Mr Fernandez said the stories of families being separated amid the national lockdown to curb the outbreak were reported in media reports.
“In my hometown, Singapore, the land bridge popularly called the Causeway that many use to cross into Johor Bahru in Malaysia also shut down to stem the spread of the virus. Families, workers, businesses and communities that were intertwined for decades were suddenly left bereft of each other.”
“Their stories were told in the pages of The Straits Times,” he added.
In fact, stories related to “common humanity” during the global pandemic were also told in many media reports, such as ST’s special report in February, titled “On the front lines of the coronavirus”, that profiled the medical staff in Singapore who were combatting the virus.
“Across the planet, newsrooms have brought these stories to our audiences, not only to inform and educate but also inspire and uplift communities.”
Coronavirus has not only highlighted the importance of good governance, the value of trust in leaders and institutions, as well as the families’ and communities’ “solace and strength”, but also “the critical role that a credible and reliable media plays in the health and well-being of our societies”, said Mr Fernandez.
He also indicated that the pandemic has posed “an existential threat” to many newsrooms.
“While audiences have surged, revenues and resources have plunged, making it harder for journalists to keep doing their jobs.”
Despite that, Mr Fernandez reiterated that “real news matters” especially when it comes to “make sense of the bewildering developments” in the country.
“Credible journalism is critical if we are to have informed debates about where we might be headed in a post-pandemic world. Newsrooms that are engaged with their readers can help rally communities in a time of wrenching change.”
He cited the French author Albert Camus’ novel, “The Plague”, which tells how the inhabitants of a town came to terms with a deadly outbreak:
Albert Camus wrote: “The strongest desire was, and would be, to behave as if nothing had changed … but, one can’t forget everything, however great one’s wish to do so; the plague was bound to leave traces, anyhow, in people’s hearts.”
“Wittingly or otherwise, the ‘traces in people’s hearts’ that are left post COVID-19 will have to be dealt with when the pandemic that is still raging around the world eventually passes. Societies that remain well-served by good news organisations will be better-placed to do so,” said Mr Fernandez.
He went on to highlight the media’s vital roles in helping communities survey the “ravaged landscape” around them, and in creating “honest conversations needed to figure out the way forward”.
“That, put simply, is why the success and sustainability of the media matters – now more than ever – to us all.”
ST carried MOH’s ads telling people not to wear masks if they are well
Though Mr Fernandez acknowledges that people turned to professional journalists who they believe can help them “join the dots and make sense of these bewildering times”, this seems contrary to ST’s moves to carry an advertisement that tells people not to wear a mask if they are well, given that experts have relentlessly emphasised the need to wear a mask to prevent from being infected with the virus.
The following advertisement was published on ST’s newspapers by the Ministry of Health (MOH) in January 2020.
In January, the multi-ministry task force on COVID-19 — co-chaired by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and Lawrence Wong — urged Singaporeans from the onset of the outbreak in Singapore to refrain from hoarding masks, stressing that masks should only be used by those who are unwell.
This was also echoed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a Facebook post on 30 January, where he highlighted the MOH’s advice to wear a mask only if the person is sick.
He wrote, “There is no need to wear a mask if we are well.”
However, over the course of the pandemic, experts around the world have come forward to extol the importance of mask usage for everyone, whether or not they are unwell.
One of the experts was Adrien Burch, who is an expert in microbiology at the University of California at Berkeley. He noted that there is no strong evidence to support the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) and the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) claims that wearing face masks “don’t work”.
Subsequently, the Government took a “U-turn” from its previous stance on wearing a mask on 3 April, as PM Lee announced that the authorities will “no longer discourage people from wearing masks”. This came after the WHO and CDC stated that it will review the guidelines on wearing face masks.
The Government finally made it compulsory to wear a mask when leaving the house starting on 14 April.
ST gave wrong impression that medical chief “rebuts” doctors’ mask advice, when he merely said “not the most important thing”
What’s more, ST had given the wrong impression to readers when its article – which dated 13 February – was titled with “Medical chief rebuts doctors’ mask advice”, despite the medical chief, Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, merely said that wearing a mask is “not the most important thing”.
Prof Mak, who is the Director of Medical Services at the MOH, was responding to media questions pertaining to a letter signed by four local medical doctors who advised that everyone should wear a mask when leaving home, regularly wash hands and reduce unnecessary mingling with others.
“Be aware of things you commonly touch. The thing most commonly touched is your phone, so wearing a mask is not the most important thing,” he responded, which clearly indicates that Prof Mak did not discount the wearing of masks, but only saying that it’s not on high priority.
ST, however, had chosen to use the term “rebut” in the news title, giving the impression that Prof Mak has completely refuted the doctors’ mask advice.
This is how the Oxford Dictionary defines the word “rebut”: