Journalism and the grey truth

By Iman Ashraf Aly Aly

Two mothers, one of the murderer, the other of the victim, sitting in the courtroom side by side, were waiting for the judge’s sentence on the accused. Hatred and vengeance were not to be found in the courtroom on that day three years ago. The mothers have found forgiveness within each other.

Nurbaiti Hamdan, a rookie journalist at that time, still has all memories of that court case engraved in her memory. Like any fresh graduate who sees the world in black and white, Nurbaiti’s world was shaken by the grey truth that governs the world.

“When you are focused on academics, it can be quite black and white but when you are there at the scene, it is a completely different thing,” said Nurbaiti. Whether you are a journalism, a law or an economics student, this is something all young ones will have to go through once they graduate and start working in the real world. Nurbaiti’s experience in journalism field provides ample examples of this grey truth. She mentioned the murder case of Nurul Awatif Mohd Shakir who was killed by the hands of her boyfriend, Muhammad Khairi Nor Aziz as an unforgettable case that bewildered her when she saw the mother of the victim as well as the mother of the assailant, sitting together in the courtroom, as if the world had turned upside down. However, it was not that the world turned upside down, it was the reality of the world that began to slowly unfold in front of Nurbaiti’s eyes.

“I saw that boy, he is only 21, he is really young and he looks like someone who has a bright future ahead of him, he actually looks like one of the good guys, he does not look like a criminal,” said Nurbaiti while explaining her first impression of Muhammad Khairi Nor Aziz. Whether he was really a good person or not was probably a question that remained in Nurbaiti’s mind. However, she did not let that question affect her reporting of this case. “I would strongly feel that we have to be objective about something regardless of whether it is positive or negative and to have both sides, both points of view is what makes your report objective,” she said while she criticised a Malay newspaper which reported this case with the headline: “sex crazed student gets 18 years.” She added that this headline may draw a lot of readers but it does not do justice to the boy who deserved a more straightforward and objective description.

“You probably come into the job, not knowing much but as time goes by, you learn things,” Nurbaiti said. A journalist probably leaves university with a strictly black and white view of the world, thinking that he can become an agent of social justice with his/her rigid standards of right and wrong. However, in real life, “there are a lot of things involved in reporting including your own safety,” Nurbaiti said.

Academic and moral principles are not sufficient by themselves for a journalist’s future career. “Sometimes you have to rely on your instincts,” she said. For example, she added that if you are covering a racial protest, you have to understand that you must not aggravate the crowd and sometimes rely on your instincts in assessing the whole situation. Whether it is time to flee, report or keep still is left to a journalist’s shrewd instinct.

Another reality to keep in mind is business. This is something every journalist will have to understand. All news organisations need to make profit and compete for their newspaper’s sales. “We try and chase breaking stories, we try and beat our competition by flushing first, the question is always, is that the right thing?” said Nurbaiti, illustrating the commercial side of journalism. It can be tricky sometimes when business matters are involved and profit is the central to the survival of the entire organization. A journalist should be concerned about profit “but not at the expense of accuracy, not at the expense of facts,” she added.

To add more to the journalist’s dilemma, he has to understand that he is not the one in control of the stories that gets published in his newspaper. Nurbaiti, for example, confessed that she had to report many stories that she sees of no merit. However, she did as she was asked and left it to the editor to decide whether to kill those stories or not. That does not mean that a journalist is forced to write what they don’t believe in. “You can always voice your opinion,” she said.

So, since the world is covered in grey, is there no place for moral values? Actually, no, they are significant.

“If you have ethics, then you are professional,” Nurbaiti said. Ethics is, by right, the determining factor of a journalist’s success. Although the world is obscured by a murky colour, a journalist’s inner values originate from within and should remain firm at all times. According to Nurbaiti, if a journalist holds on to his ethics, protects his sources and has enough to stand by his story, he is professional.***

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