National Journalists Day: The unsung front-liners in the face of COVID-19

By Wan Norshira Wan Mohd Ghazali

When the Internet was introduced in Malaysia in 1992, the conventional media was not affected by its intrusive free space offered to those who have access to it. Newspapers, television and radio stations continue to operate as usual and remained as important news bearer to the people.

When the government launched its information technology (IT) policy that encouraged all government offices to adopt the technology, the Internet was seen as the future. With the Internet continually upgraded to support the tremendous increase in its usage in Malaysia, all sectors including the media, have benefited from it.

The conventional media was, however, hit hard when social media came to the scene. The new media gained easy acceptance and became popular as it provided a much free flow of information. Not to mention the power it has to enable the audience to partake in information dissemination.

Questions were raised as to whether the conventional media could survive in the face of the new technology. Many speculated that this marked the gradual end of the conventional media which were in the hands of a few people for decades controlling the flow of information to the public.

Surprisingly, conventional media continue to thrive by restructuring itself in the technology-driven media environment, adapting to the digitalisation phenomenon, and embracing convergence to remain as a relevant entity. Professional journalistic norms and daily practices were redefined and the content of news was reorganised to meet the tastes of the audience and to compete for attention.

Undeniably, the audiences who are also users of this technology have the control not only over selection and interpretation of events and issues, but also to distribute such information, thus being another component in the news distribution. To some extent, media users have contributed to news-making and shaping of the norms and the media culture which can be observed today.

Take the case of a recent event when two light rail trains (LRT) collided in an underground tunnel near the KLCC station in Kuala Lumpur, the media received most of the first-hand information circulated in the form of pictures and videos from social media. Without this evidence, the media would not be able to update instantaneously about the incident and those who were involved.

That is not the first case in the history of journalism where the public shared newsworthy information. That explained that conventional media and new media coexist and reinforce one another.

However, conventional media as professional entities will continue to play the main role in the world of journalism. This is because the mainstream media is more structured to bring news and events to the public in which the new media as a platform would not be able to fulfil. Users of social media would not have the responsibility and audacity to perform the watchdog functions through professional journalism norms and practices.

We have to admit that we do need these media professionals to bring news. Take a moment to ponder about what the world would be without those who uphold ethics and principles. Let’s rewind to early 2020, when Tun Mahathir Mohamad resigned as Prime Minister, note how these media professionals waited patiently as early as 8 a.m outside the Istana Negara just to bring updates about the political turmoil to anxious people at home.

In the event of COVID-19, try to recall how people flocked in front of a television for press conferences from Health Director-General, Tan Sri Dr. Noor Hisham Abdullah, just to know the current updates on COVID-19 cases and clusters, or to listen to Senior Minister (Security Cluster), Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, to be briefed on recent SOPs, or on a rare occasion, waited patiently for Prime Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, to make special announcements that offered some good news to badly affected people.

Without journalism, will people become aware of how contagious COVID-19 has been? Do people know how to practice correct social or physical distancing? Will SOPs make sense to everyone who heard about it?

Up until now, journalists are working around the clock to provide readers with comprehensive, up-to-date reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. While social media influencers can only provide ‘done into the scene’ posts or tweets, professional journalists go miles further to verify and confirm information from credible sources.

When media users were speculating on their social media, they were still checking information from the official sources for verification. And, think of the numbers of information shared by social media users from an established media entity. That already indicated how important professional journalists are.

Despite the many challenges that media professionals have to face – from the temporary closing down of Utusan in 2019 felt by many, to the series of warnings faced by independent media for their blatant and investigative reporting, not to mention editors who were laid off due to distasteful reporting by the people in power, to the constant public scrutiny of media professionalism – they remain faithful to their roles as the fourth estate in the country.

As Malaysia is going for a full lockdown in a few days, the media will remain as the vital news provider for the people who will look up to current updates from the authorities.

We have to admit their professionalism is warranted to serve the public to become a well-informed society, to mediate between the government and the public. They are the ones who will clarify information before publication.

They also attend to the public’s concerns and bring them forward to the authorities. When some were criticised for being negligent, there are a bunch of media professionals who are committed to performing their roles for the country.

And again, who says that journalism will die? Come again?

Happy National Journalists Day to all media professionals who have been steadfast and ethical in all senses. May 29 has been declared as National Journalists Day in commemoration of the publication of the first edition of Utusan Melayu on May 29, 1939. ***

(This opinion piece is specially dedicated to all aspiring IIUMToday journalists. You are the future!)

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