by Suhaile Md
MY INTERNSHIP with TMG has come to an end.
So much has happened in the three months that I’ve been here. The General Election, the City Harvest Church trial and the protracted haze situation just to name a few. This is my first experience as a rookie journalist. I’ve learnt a lot in my short three months at TMG, like research, cold calling, street interviews, critical thinking, events coverage, content presentation and multiple writing styles. Here are 10 of the more important things I’ve learnt.
1. Worship at the altar of accuracy
Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.
I realised that at the end of the day, the work of a journalist is built purely on trust between the reader and the reporter. What use is a scoop or an exclusive if your readers don’t trust you enough to take it seriously? What use is analysis without the facts to back it up? And if the facts are wrong, the analyses will be off!
If I had to condense everything I have learnt at TMG into just one point, it would be this.
2. It’s about your readers, not about you
A reporter’s job is to clarify, not confuse. So I had to ditch – and I am a little embarrassed to say this – my tendency to try and sound smarter than I am. Here’s an example of what I mean:
“Thoughts and ideas are temperamental consorts sought by many but held by none. The only way to securely grip a wispy strand of flighty intangibles is to construct a virtual proxy that links the dimensions of our mortal conscious to the immortal. That construct is what we call language.”
What a load of rubbish! How does this help the reader? Not only does it waste time, the reader is no clearer at the end of the day. It would have been better to write: Language helps us think and communicate clearly.
So yes, I wrote like that once. Thankfully, no more.
3. If it’s too easy, chances are you’re not thinking
At the peak of the haze in October, online grocer Redmart claimed it enabled customers to search for sustainable paper and tissue products on its website. So of course, I had to check it out. Lo and behold, it looked like the function was not ready. I was tempted to write about false advertising but I remembered my editor’s exhortation: Think deeper, always ask why.
It’s almost trite, but no less true. Further thought made me realise that perhaps the grocer did not have a working system because the market, that is Singaporeans, did not demand it. So I ended up writing an article that probed a little deeper, and hence added more value to the reader, instead of being just another person pointing out how the business is not delivering what it promised.
4. Professionalism, always
We have our biases. But as much as humanly possible, it must never get in the way of reporting the facts. We are not here to judge – that’s what the courts are for. The public will decide for themselves based on the facts we provide. And if we allow our bias to skew the facts, we do our readers and the people we report on a disservice, a wrong even.
5. Be deliberate with words
She said, she shared, she pointed out… they may seem synonymous but each has its own shade of meaning. Said is perhaps the most neutral, very factual. Shared is more intimate, personal. Pointed out is well, pointed out.
So even seemingly simple words, I’ve found, are not “just words”. They make a difference. I’ve learnt to be more judicious about their use.
6. Anticipation and preparation
Imagine you come across breaking news but you can’t publicise it because your phone is dead and you have no extra battery. Or you get dehydrated from all the running around and you’re too sick to report as elections results are announced. Or your shoes give you a blister and you lag behind all other reporters.
These are nightmare scenarios for a reporter – and all completely avoidable if you think ahead. While I did not face those situations, I know I would have if my seniors in the newsroom did not give me a heads up.
And that’s just the logistical aspect. Doing background research, looking for a sweet spot to approach an interview subject out in the field, all these are the back-end work that makes a world of difference to the quality of your work.
7. Just ask
Don’t worry, just ask.
The story, 50 faces of Punggol East SMC, was one of my first assignments. My colleagues and I had to ask 50 people about their political views. Now, you know how reticent Singaporeans are about airing their political views publicly. It was a challenge for me because I’ve never really been comfortable asking strangers for anything, not even directions, much less their political views.
But repeatedly approaching others has taught me that not asking gets you no where. And you learn not to take things personally. I came to realise my discomfort had more to do with me feeling stupid than anything else. Which come to think of, is rather silly in and of itself, no? At worst you get a rude no!
8. Numbers are subjective
I used to have this impression that numbers are unbiased. How wrong I was. Do the numbers not have meaning? Do they not represent something? Of course they do. Especially in surveys: Numbers are just opinions quantified.
For instance the global ranking of universities. The same university can be ranked differently according to different benchmarks. Why those benchmarks are set in the first place, is a question that requires probing. Are those benchmarks the ones we should set for ourselves? Notice how deciding the benchmark is itself a subjective exercise?
9. Exposed my stereotypes
One of the great perks of journalism is the sheer diversity of people you meet in the course of your work. You are exposed to the many faces of humanity and in the process shatter your own stereotypes.
One memorable instance was seeing an elderly lady going fan girl crazy upon seeing Dr Ng Eng Hen during election night. She pounced on him with a cry and a huge hug. Which surprised me as I wasn’t expecting fan girl moments from an elderly lady. But my own surprise led to a moment of self-awareness. That was the first time I realised I had stereotypes about the elderly – that they were not comfortable with showing great enthusiasm.
10. We are all human
Yes, that’s a cliche. But it’s one I have learned anew in my few months here.
My work at TMG was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to observe our leaders (I covered the PAP mostly) up close, especially during elections. Seeing PM Lee with a weary smile at the end of elections night, or DPM Tharman giving Dr Yacob Ibrahim a friendly pat on his back are some of the more memorable moments.
These small actions made such huge personalities… more human to me. Of course most of us have an intellectual understanding that we are all the same. But that was the first time I felt it.
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