Last Tuesday, I attended a discussion titled “Beyond Aladdin and Osama bin Laden” with two other KRC writers. Jointly organised by the Middle East Institute and the College of Alice and Peter Tan, the discussion led by Koh Choon Hwee, one of KRC’s pioneers, sought to address pertinent questions such as Why have so many terrorist attacks been carried out in recent months? and Should Singapore care about what is happening in the Middle East? Among the issues touched upon was the media’s role in creating and perpetuating perceptions of the Middle East.
What piqued my interest was Choon Hwee’s detailed analysis of the polarising media coverage of issues. In a news headline, the assignment of a noun to the position of Subject or Object prescribes its role as an active or passive player respectively. While seemingly innocuous, the position of the nouns in a headline often has serious implications on the perceptions of the reader about the issue. Choon Hwee illustrates this through the use of the Israel-Palestine conflict as a case study. Flashing headlines written by a myriad of new sources on the screen – the Guardian and the Associated Press, to name a few – she invited us to identify the Subject and Object, a task that hardly posed a challenge. What was disconcerting to note, though, was the tremendous difference between the headlines crafted by different publications on the same issue or event.
Polarisation of the media can be observed within countries too. For instance, in Cambodia’s highly politicised media environment, most news outlets are openly aligned with a political faction and serve as mere mouthpieces for the party they are politically affiliated with. Stories published become propagandistic in nature and are solely concerned with advancing political agendas as opposed to serving the public interest. Cambodia is certainly not the only one that practises this; the politicisation of the media is a perennial problem in many countries, but is one that has received little attention and is now greeted with shrugs of resignation by citizens.
What this portends is a worrying reality. As more sources of information emerge with each claiming authority in the field, readers are confronted with a copious amount of conflicting information. This is even more so as news outlets employ framing and agenda-setting tactics to achieve their objectives, resulting in the search for credible and verifiable information to be even harder than before. Here are some guiding questions you should keep at the back of your head as you read a piece of news:
- Who is the source?
- Are there agendas the source might wish to advance with the article?
- From whose point of view is the news reported?
- Is the language loaded?
- Is there a lack of context?
- Are different voices represented in the article?
I hope this list of questions reminds us to all be mindful readers and watchers of news who critically question the information we are fed with instead of taking them as it is. Most of all, I hope it makes us realise that we do have control over the control the media has on us. Remember, it’s okay to say no to the next spoonful fed to you.