On Journalism and Professionalism

By now I’m sure that everyone has heard about the ruckus surrounding some critical articles about local athlete Quah Zheng Wen and his refusal to comment following a disappointing showing (at least I can assume so, I’m not really up to date on local sports) at the Olympics heats.  Basically, Quah left the pool and completely bypassed the media, refusing to answer questions or give comments.  Journalist Leonard Thomas then published a critical article, turning what was supposed to be a simple reporting on his performance into a commentary on the character of local athletes (See: Quah Zheng Wen disappoints with more than just bad timing) Since then, the Internet has erupted in support of Quah, saying that we should cut him some slack, that we should be proud that he represented Singapore, and that above all, it is not his obligation to give the media comments.

I do agree generally with what has been said, but I want to focus on the final defence in particular.  Should local athletes, politicians, celebrities etc. be obligated to give comments to the media? Here we see a tension between the journalist’s need for a good quote for his article (which he probably has to publish, in today’s digital age, oh about in the next ten minutes), and the desire to protect someone’s privacy, feelings, and freedom to share and withhold his thoughts as he deems fit.  I think this is not going to be as organised as my usual posts, but here are my thoughts on the issue.

So, short detour: a few years ago, I did an interning stint at one of our local newspapers.  Being a lowly intern, I was often sent out to do gruntwork/groundwork, i.e. gathering quotes from people.  It’s hard work.  People, and especially Singaporeans, are extremely loath to offer their opinions to journalists.  I can understand the frustration of the journalist who can’t get the important quote that he needs to finish his article.  Imagine reading an article about the transport policies but with no comment from the Transport Minister.  Feels strange.  Quotes are an essential and crucial part of journalism, adding credibility and authority to the information we are disseminating.

To a certain extent, I think we can agree that prominent figures such as ministers, celebrities, etc. are placed with higher expectations when it comes to facing the media. They are public figures, therefore in events where they are involved, it is expected, perhaps even necessary, that they address the public in some way or the other.  (I will admit that this refers more to those we view as public representatives – athletes at international events, ministers and the like.  Celebrities perhaps are a different matter for discussion.) In addition, as subjects of whatever articles are being published, as the subject of whatever will be tomorrow’s public reading material, I think they know that it is important, both for themselves and for the poor journalist writing that article, to at least represent themselves appropriately with comments.

Therefore when Quah brushed off reporters after his swim, I can understand why many (especially the poor reporter) would see that as unprofessional.  It’s not like he was a random person approached on the street (and let me assure you, I have encountered so much of this cold shoulder treatment from Singaporeans, so if you want to criticise him for no comments, take a look at yourself first.)  On the other hand, insisting on comments from him right after the event, or badgering subjects for comments when they do not want to, is also close to harassment and, I personally believe, crosses the line between reporter and paparazzi.  It is a fine line to tread and a continuous tension for those working in journalism.  To pursue or not to pursue? To respect personal boundaries or publish an article that may infringe on someone’s sensibilities? In sensitive situations such as this one, it’s difficult to know what to do, and I sympathise with both Quah and the reporter on this matter.

However where I believe Leonard Thomas (the reporter) went wrong, was to publish his frustrations about Quah, in the most petty manner possible. Having read the full article, I think that the headline is fairly incendiary and doesn’t reflect the more sympathetic tone of the article.  In fact, the bulk of the article focuses on Quah’s coach’s comments and Quah’s performance, which I feel is right. However, the headline reads: “Quah Zheng Wen disappoints with more than just bad timing.” Calling his timing ‘bad’ suggests a qualitative judgment which, upon closer reading, I don’t find too terrible (but again, I am no expert on swimming, so please correct me if I am wrong.) Thomas states in the article that Quah’s national record is 54.o3s, whereas his clocked timing at the Olympics was 54.38s.  To a layman like me, 0.35s seems like nothing. Heck, I spend more than 0.35s blinking.  I know it makes all the difference in swimming.  But somehow I find it difficult to conceive that a difference of 0.35s is the difference between a national record and a bad timing.  Disappointing timing, maybe.  Not up to Quah’s standard, maybe. But bad? Feels kind of an extreme judgment to me, personally speaking.

Quibbling over semantics aside, my second gripe about Thomas’ headline is the emphasis on disappointment “with more than just bad timing.” This suggests that there is something even worse than Quah’s performance in the pool – which, as I already pointed out above, is painted in far worse light than I found it to be when I read the actual article. Such a headline is simply rubbing salt into the already harsh wound of his failure.  So, what is this horrendous thing Quah has done, to surpass his “bad timing”? Well, horror of horrors, it turns out to be a quick ‘Hi guys,’ as he brushes past the media (although I would give him kudos for actually acknowledging their presence.  Most of my subjects were not so kind.) In not giving any comments, Quah has disappointed (for reasons I stated above), but I believe much of this disappointment comes from the reporter himself.  Why, then, is Thomas projecting his own disappointment onto the public? On what authority is Thomas suggesting that the disappointment over Quah’s lack of comments is greater than the disappointment in his performance? Our athletes are first and foremost, athletes.  Our focus should be first their performance, then their character.

Thomas suggests that, from this act, Quah is weak (“What will be professional is if he faltered, again, and just wanted to get away from it all, but stopped to talk.  Now that requires strength.”) I think we can all agree that Quah, in general, is not weak – it takes both physical and mental fortitude to reach what he has attained.  However, after a subpar performance, I think that anyone would want to avoid the media.  (Olympic training hardly includes mandatory seminars on ‘How to Face the Media’, after all) Perhaps after my stint in journalism I am a pessimistic soul, but I have learnt not to expect my subjects to offer comments on demand.  Yes, perhaps it is a lapse in character on Quah’s part.  But I think it is also the part of journalists to not place too high expectations on our subjects, and understand that we may need to pursue our material from a different angle.  If there is anything I learnt while interning, it’s that I can’t expect my material to be handed to me on a platter.  Even if there is a media scrum. In expecting Quah to dole out comments on the spot, I think Thomas was being presumptuous in his understanding of Quah.  Possibly because of Quah’s status as an athlete (again, expectations I detailed above), possibly because of his more genial behaviour in the past which set a precedent.

I want to put aside the issue of whether Zheng Wen was professional or not in refusing to speak to journalists.  I believe that, to a certain extent, he shouldn’t have brushed off reporters.  Yet I think we can offer some sympathy given the situation (which Thomas duly gives. Let’s not forget that Thomas was, in general, fairly kind in his assessment of Quah, at the end of the day.) I think Quah’s professionalism in this situation is a fairly grey issue which could be argued either way.

Instead, all I wish to say is that Thomas caused a controversy which I feel was very much unnecessary.  He had high expectations for Zheng Wen’s behaviour out of the pool, some of which I feel is very much justified.  Yet instead of performing his primary role as a journalist, and reporting the facts, the article on Zheng Wen’s performance focused on Thomas’ own expectations and feelings.  He made it personal, and therefore detracted from the purpose of his writing (and indeed, his presence at the Olympics) – which is first and foremost, to report.  By doing so, far from making Quah seem unprofessional, he placed the spotlight on himself, and a result, made himself appear the unprofessional one instead.

Let me know what you think on this issue – but please, as always, no vitriol or ad hominem attacks. I think we see way too much of that already in social media today.

-Nat

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