Print media — some things change, some things stay the same

After yours truly published a grainy photo of the huge crowd at the Workers’ Party rally in Hougang in the general election of 2006, it was no longer possible for the Straits Times to suppress such wide-angle pictures (even though it took several days before the newspaper published its own picture of the same rally). Prior to that, media analysts had noted that the newspaper only printed narrow-angle pictures of rally speakers or tiny sections of the crowd (i.e. 5 – 10 faces cheering). The Straits Times would not convey to the public pictorially the overall crowd sizes or enthusiasm that attended opposition party rallies.

However, in the present era with the ubiquitous cellphone camera and rapid distribution channels that are well beyond blogs, such as twittering and Facebook, the old editorial policy is no longer viable. Even Straits Times’ journalists have said as much. If the newspaper does not publish such pictures, others will, and its credibility can only suffer.

I was therefore interested, the morning after the first rallies, how it carried the news this election cycle.

Here is the front page for Friday 29 April 2011:

This alone tells you everything you need to know. Yes, you will notice that there is a wide-angle photo of the crowd at the Workers’ Party rally the previous night that was held at exactly the same location as the iconic rally in 2006. While I wasn’t there last night, from the picture, I think the crowd was a shade larger than in 2006. That the newspaper printed it without hesitation tells you something has indeed changed.

However, if you look at the placement of the three photos and the choice of headlines, it also tells you something else has not changed. The top photo is of a People’s Action Party (PAP) leader, in a pose resembling that of a victor acknowledging the people’s acclamation. Only sitting under it are pictures from the Singapore Democratic Party’s rally and the Workers’ Party’s.

The lead headline is a shoutout phrase “Emotional dilemma” from the mouth of George Yeo, the PAP candidate most at risk from the huge turnout at the Worker’s Party’s rally the same night. The story basically regurgitates his campaign message.

Arguably, an objective measure of newsworthiness would suggest that the biggest news story from the evening before would be the size of the crowd at Hougang, the traffic jams leading up to it, and the way people were responding to the Workers’ Party’s “star candidate” Chen Show Mao, making his first rally appearance, and not what who-and-who said. After all, plenty of candidates were saying all sorts of things. Why was George Yeo’s the leading choice for front-page headlines?

On the rightside column is another story that gives a sum-up of (most) of the rallies the night before. You can see the text of it here.

What I was more interested in was to analyse, using the internet version of the same article, the share of mentions devoted to the respective parties and their placements. I think my annotations on the left side of this graphic say it all.

In a nutshell, the editorial policy is this: While giving more space to opposition campaigns this time around (and perhaps fairer reporting angles as well) the pole position is still reserved for the PAP. You see this in the relative positions and sizes of the front page pictures and in the text share within the column above.

You also see this policy at work in terms of the allocation of the inside pages.

Two whole pages (pages 4 and 6) are devoted to the PAP:

Deeper in, pages 8 and 9 are devoted to opposition parties:

The first thing you’ll notice is that there is a bigger version of the Hougang rally picture, for which I am estimating a crowd of  [update and correction: I’ve seen some additional photos, especially of the fringes, and I’m revising my estimate down to 50 – 60,000]. This indeed confirms the view that wide-angle pictures can no longer be suppressed.

Or can they? What we don’t see are comparative wide-angle pictures of other parties’ rallies, particularly those of the PAP’s. And this is not likely to happen until netizens also publish such pictures. The problem with that of course, is that netizens are in the main uninterested in attending PAP rallies, so having pictures out in cyberspace may not be a likely thing.

But surely, until we see comparative pictures of other parties’ rallies, one cannot fully judge the significance of the Hougang pictures.

[Update: A reader has pointed me to a picture of the PAP’s rally held on the same night held next to Buangkok metro station. Taken by Darren Soh, it shows about 250 people before the stage. Do check out his site for more pictures.]

That said, having two pages devoted to the PAP and two to the opposition parties seems relatively fair. It would be nice though if on some other days, the opposition’s pages came before the PAP’s.

Moving on, pages 10 and 11 contain a mixed bag of articles. The main ones take the perspective of voters, while at the bottom are two stories about PAP candidates in single-member constituencies.

This is followed by a double-page spread providing the texts of speeches made by each party’s representative over television the night before. Long-standing practice for TV broadcasts during election campaigns is that the amount of air time is proportional to the number of candidates parties field.

Notice how the PAP’s message is placed at the top left, the most intuitive starting position for reading.

Finally, on page 14 are three more articles. Two are news stories about organisational issues related to opposition parties and the bottom one features a rebuttal by Housing Minister Mah Bow Tan to the National Solidarity Party’s position on costs of public housing. Finally, there is a fact box giving details of rallies scheduled for Friday night.

Digital natives tend to dismiss the mainstream media. This is misplaced neglect. Although even the Straits Times in its own recent survey found that only about 35 percent of voters aged 21 – 34 years relied primarily on print media for political news, 35 percent is still a lot. It would be even higher among older voters.

Moreover, many links from social media also direct back to mainstream media content, and so the effect of editorial policies is surely greater than the survey suggests. The days may be over when newspapers can be used to blatantly twist stories or allocate coverage to benefit the PAP, but there are subtle ways nonetheless to set an agenda favourable to the ruling party.

That’s why it is still important to have a truly unbiased mainstream media, and why it is important to keep an eye on what they do.

39 Responses to “Print media — some things change, some things stay the same”

  1. 1 Toshan 29 April 2011 at 14:32

    Excellent analysis!

  2. 2 Cory 29 April 2011 at 14:57

    Thank you for your stark analysis of the lingering bias in the ST. I subscribe only to the online version of the ST and do not read the physical version, so I usually miss all these nuances such as graphic placement, column size and page numbers.

    It seems like the tactic now is to use more subtle forms of bias rather than blatant ones such as completely censorship or one-sided reports. It is good for netizens to call the MSM on this bias whenever they see it. I do think the MSM does care about its image, is trying to rehabilitate its reputation, and will hesitate to use such cheap tricks if they are exposed.

  3. 3 Darren 29 April 2011 at 15:03

    Hi Alex,

    here’s a pic of the PAP Buangkok Rally last night – few photos are going round social media websites..

  4. 6 Karen 29 April 2011 at 15:04

    Chomsky would agree.

    Thanks for sharing. I wanted to do a similar writeup but decided that, its so obvious that it is not necessary.

  5. 7 Peiying 29 April 2011 at 15:13

    It is amazing how you could have noticed the bias in such great detail!

    Wish the ST would stop trivializing the opposition with terms like ‘star candidate’.

  6. 8 chua 29 April 2011 at 15:32

    These are some of the pics of the PAP rally I took at Buangkok MRT

    This is at 7.15pm, rally started at 7pm.

    This is at 9.40pm.

    This is wideangle coz there is no crowd at all beyond the barriers.

  7. 9 yits 29 April 2011 at 16:05

    Hi, you might like to check this website out. This photographer compare the turn out of the wp rally and the pap rally on his website.


  8. 12 Sivasothi N. 29 April 2011 at 16:14

    Excellent, thanks, answered a question I had been mulling in my head.

  9. 13 Winston Tay 29 April 2011 at 17:35

    “That said, having two pages devoted to the PAP and two to the opposition parties seems relatively fair. It would be nice though if on some other days, the opposition’s pages came before the PAP’s.”

    I would think ‘fairer’, but still quite a long way off, when you take into account there are a total of 7 parties contesting this election; one party gets 2 pages, and by virtue of rough division, the rest get 1/3 each.

    Perhaps telling of how ingrained the concept of ‘PAP vs the Opposition’ is in us after 52 years?

    • 14 Winston Tay 29 April 2011 at 17:38

      My mistake: 4 parties get a mention. SDA and SPP are not mentioned. WP gets 3/4 page, reform Party 1/4 page, SDP 2/3 page, NSP 1/3 page. Semantics, I know, but since we’re on the subject of analysis…

  10. 15 drmchsr0 29 April 2011 at 17:41

    Let’s go a little deeper.

    If you notice, the headlines for each page is structured differently for the Opposition pages and the PAP pages.

    The PAP headlines are extremely positive, whereas the Opposition headlines, for the most part, are rather strongly-worded, or to be more precise, the wording is a bit more… violent. (Except the Reform Party’s. I mean, it IS their first ever rally.)

    Old habits die hard. Then again, that’s why one has to read from multiple sources.

  11. 16 Anders 29 April 2011 at 19:10

    I’m not sure if a “truly unbiased” mainstream media can be obtained or even if it’s something worth striving for.

    More important would be to get rid of government control and make room for a diverse mainstream media with more than one actor. It may all be biased but hopefully in different ways, which also makes a better breeding ground for public political awareness as opposed to relying on a single source that claims to be unbiased.

  12. 17 georgia tong 29 April 2011 at 19:41

    My Paper which is under SPH has poor coverage of opposition parties. Today is ‘more’ balance though the most prominent pictures are still those of PAP.

  13. 18 Robox 29 April 2011 at 23:02

    YB, your readers might be interested in this picture of the PAP rally at Pioneer SMC.!/photo.php?fbid=105143559572944&set=o.190806675782&type=1&theater

  14. 19 ThePasserby 29 April 2011 at 23:31

    A news article at Yahoo News reports that the turnout at the PAP rally was poor. No panoramic picture included, but it estimated about 2,500 people turned out.


  15. 20 Rabbit 29 April 2011 at 23:52

    I think we must also look at the element that formed crowds. I attended WP rally for two consecutive days and I noticed the crowds came on their own via public transports (some probably drive as seen in nearby congested parking lot ). I heard one woman told another supporter that she came from Jurong via MRT to support the worker’s party in Aljunied GRC. ON top of which, Worker party also try to solicit donation via selling hammer flats and blue plastic bracelets which supporters gave whole-heatedly which kept their volunteers busy.

    On the other hand, via TOC reports, PAP actually bus-loaded “supporters” to the rally site, provided them free mineral waters, made them hold placards throughout the night and than ferried them back once the rally has ended. The whole process seemed so perfunctory.

    Based on the above analysis, PAP is a total disaster for not getting the size and also the type of crowds WP has sucessfully garnered.

    • 21 yawningbread 30 April 2011 at 00:41

      It was no different in 2006. And look what happened.

      • 22 Amelie 30 April 2011 at 00:59

        I kept thinking about this but I still don’t get it. What happened during 2006? I was still quite young then and had no interest in politics.

      • 23 Mark Tan 30 April 2011 at 09:50

        The people who take the trouble to attend opposition rallies (myself included), these are the ones most likely to give their votes to the opposition.

        Many don’t care. Among this don’t-care group are our senior citizens and the less educated lot.

        They may not embrace the PAP and in fact may have been complaining a lot about the government. Yet, they will still vote for the PAP.

        Why? Mostly for selfish reasons due to their shallow thinking. Many talk about the serial number in the voting card and are afraid they might be “marked” – as if their lives are worth fucking millions!

        A friend told me his friend told him that after he voted for the WP in the last GE, the Tax Department knocked at his door last year.

        I don’t know how big this group of people is. But, ya, you hear them complain but don’t have the “lan pah zi” (balls) to cast an oppose vote.

      • 24 Mark Tan 30 April 2011 at 11:50

        I would like to believe that it’s different this time round, though, yes, I’m scarred by my past disappointments.

        I would like to think of it as very small movements of plates deep under the earth – bit by bit they move, in different directions. Hardly noticeable. Then, one fine day, BOOM! – you’ve have a 9.0 quake!

        So the crowd size may have appeared similar, but in fact it has grown bigger and more bitter. The change is so small that even SM Lee failed to see it, for he “was also unfazed by the large crowds at the opposition rallies, as he feels that does not translate into the final results on Polling Day.”

        Be ready to celebrate when the buildings shake!

    • 25 Gazebo 30 April 2011 at 01:24

      essentially the PAP has transformed the entire political process, into opportunities for family outings. that is how sad things are.

  16. 26 stngiam 29 April 2011 at 23:53

    Not exactly print, but another thing I noticed on Thursdy was that the Straits Times had a live blog of the PAP and WP rallies. Side-by-side coverage, which was commendable (and surprising) but whereas there were two embedded videos of the PAP rally, the WP report only had still images. Big improvement from past years, but still disappointing.

    • 27 Jeff 30 April 2011 at 01:22

      I think they’ve realised that they can’t simply ignore the Opposition anymore and that people are too well-informed to buy the kind of blatant slander that was standard in previous elections. Here’s hoping that PAP’s actual support on Election Day mirrors their Buangkok “rally.” I’ve seen more people, with more genuine passion, at a few funerals I’ve been to. I’d love to be here for PAP’s.

      At the same time, we need to remember that winning a GRC, or even an election, is nowhere near the end of the struggle. Who do you think the bureaucracy or, for that matter, the military/security leadership are primarily loyal to? We’re going to have to make enough VISIBLE progress that people keep voting against PAP for 3, 4, maybe 5 elections. This is only the 16th GE. It’s great that people are showing up for rallies; I’d be thrilled if PAP lose a GRC this time. But I’m not holding my breath… just praying. Hard.

  17. 28 Rabbit 30 April 2011 at 02:27

    Actually comparing 2006 to this year election is quite unfair. Many things can change over the last 5 years. In 2006 not many seats were contested, now we have 82 out of 87 seat contested. 5 years ago the number and quality of candidates are different from now. 5 years ago, our populations is not 5.5 millions, now it is getting crowded and worse during peak hours. 5 years ago, our HDB price is manageable, now a 3-room HDB in Bishan is worth $400K. 5 years ago, the younger populations were apathetic in politics, now I saw many youngsters in their 20s and 30s at WP rally. 5 years ago we expect PAP to deliver their promises, now we know they didn’t manage it well. So this year, I expect the election to be different from 5 years ago too because People’s thinkings, feelings can change and nobody is made to be static.

  18. 29 student 30 April 2011 at 06:24

    Like you I was really interested to see how the ST would report the rallies given that the photos cannot be suppressed–one of the WP rally being circulated in facebook garnered 3000+ likes a couple of hours after the rallies ended.

    It’s quite clear that the ST followed its political agenda and not the standard measure of newsworthiness. However I was quite appalled to see that the photos were placed in such a way that seemed to imply that the PAP minister was speaking to the crowds, or similar crowds, pictured below–someone who follows only MSM might think so. Or someone who missed the tiny captions. It’s beyond just placing PAP news ahead of the opposition–it’s deceitful and gives a false impression of the climate of opinion in this country.

    I had thought that the coverage this GE was much improved from last time. But now I’m disgusted and embarrassed on behalf of my friends who work in ST.

    Thanks for your excellent analyses!

  19. 30 Robox 30 April 2011 at 06:36

    As others have pointed out, an analysis of media bias is not confined to ‘the relative positions and sizes of the front page pictures and in the text share within the column above’, they remain important.

    Off the top of my head, I can recall factors like frequency of coverage of any one topic/party/viewpoint etc; font size of headers; the inherent message in the headers which another commenter has also raised; the inherent message in the story itself, something that we have tended to spend the greatest amount time of time thus far in any determination of media bias; use of graphics, especially photographs; use of colour, as opposed to black and white, in graphics especially photographs; and I’m sure several more.

    On the topic of placement of stories, I had studied – in formal studies – that:

    1. it does matter whether a story is placed on the left hand page or the right hand one;

    2. it does matter, with broadsheets in particular, whether a story is placed on the top half of either page or the bottom half, with variations for attention grabbing abilities within both; and,

    2. the top left hand corner of a page (or a two-page spread) is also a more pole position that other portions of a page or spread.

    In both the above considerations, the general explanation for it is that as a culture that is schooled in the English language, we tend to read from left to right, and from top to bottom. Thus, our eyes land on the portion of a page where we are conditioned to start reading from. (I’m personally unsure about how widespread this is because I have frequently caught myself glancing at the right hand page of books/magazines/newspapers before looking at the left hand page – but this could be a minority syndrome.)

  20. 31 Tan Tai Wei 30 April 2011 at 08:58

    Human nature has her way of somehow eventually compensating somewhat.

    You starve the people of opposition coverage in the media and bore them with your own through the preceding four to five years, and they flock to opposition rallies come election time, leaving your own rallies unattended like street wayangs today (empty enough for you to put chairs in neat, countable rows!)

  21. 32 Anonymous 1 May 2011 at 02:36

    If I was the journalist, I would also always put the incumbent first – no matter the turnout… It’s just normal.

  22. 33 Debbie 1 May 2011 at 08:45

    Totally agree with your reporting! I am appalled by the bias reporting of ST. The headlines are basically PAP messages. They downplay certain incidences such as Steve tan’s step down, they won’t do that if it was the opposition.

  23. 34 Jez 1 May 2011 at 19:43

    It’s always a bit of an eye-opener and a disappointment to read more about the ways our news media is biased. But subtle differences in phrasing, strategic placement of photos, unfair coverage, bad estimates, misleading statements etc are one thing… it would be truly shocking and appalling to me if they crossed the line into making things up entirely.

    I noticed this paragraph in the paper showed above (Friday’s paper), in the article “Don’t let PAP be the sole driver: WP”. It’s just one sentence in the 4th column that goes “However, Mr Low stressed that the WP is not able or ready to be a co-driver yet with the lack of talent to form an alternative government.”

    I listened to the speech numerous times, especially the parts that the paragraphs around that one were quoting, but I don’t think Mr Low mentioned anything about a lack of talent, much less stressed it.

    Did I miss something?

  24. 35 Yeps 1 May 2011 at 21:05

    Hmm, I would like to say that the days for twisting words are over but this may not be the case after all.

    There was a short, inconspicuous paragraph in one of the Straits Times Friday, 29th April 2011, article (“Don’t let the PAP be sole driver: WP”) which claims:

    “However, Mr Low stressed that the WP is not able or ready to be a co-driver yet with the lack of talent to form an alternative government.”

    However, in reference to that,

    The closest that Low Thia Kiang could have come to saying that his part lacked talent was:

    “However, dear Singaporeans, the Worker’s Party has yet to have a driving licence. Whether we will get it, depends on you, the voters!” and slightly later on, “It is time Singaporeans start looking for a co-driver, train the potential co-driver, support and cultivate the potential co-driver, so that one day, the potential co-driver can actually also have a driving licence to take over if and when necessary. For that to happen, you have to vote for the Worker’s Party and move towards a first world parliament!”

    I guess you could say that, this means the co-driver needs to be trained etc etc before it can get his licence, but twisting it this way is already inaccurate – even the PAP requires buddy systems etc, and by pairing up their new ‘faces’ with heavyweight ministers, isn’t it basically also saying that they need training before they can be ready?

    What the ST is saying goes beyond that though. Low Thia Kiang never mentions the word ‘talent’ at all, much less the idea of a lack of talent. How can something that was never even mentioned, even in passing, be “stressed” by the speaker?

    The scariest part is that it’s so innocent and inconspicuous that most people reading the paper will just accept it as Truth.

  25. 36 WindsOfChange 2 May 2011 at 21:09

    For readers who are outraged by TNP’s gutter reporting, please support this petition

  26. 37 SpareTyre 3 May 2011 at 22:57

    After starting positive by giving opposition more coverage, the Straits Times is today (May 2) reverting back to its main role of PAP mouthpiece in the final days of the election.

    Today’s Straits Times has PAP on the front page, and then 8 other pages inside. The opposition, combined, were given 3 pages.

    Chen Show Mao was described in today’s papers as ‘Taiwan-born Chen Show Mao’

    However, in the papers a couple days back, Janil Puthucheary was described as Janil Puthucheary instead of ‘NS-dodging Malaysian born new citizen’

    • 38 Jeff 4 May 2011 at 02:13

      Yeah! What I thought was *fascinating* was how a piece of PAPaganda took lead placement on Page One, with the story about Osama bin Laden barely creeping above the fold. The ex-newspaperman in me cringed, and double-checked to make sure that the masthead wasn’t emblazoned with the name of “The North Korea Daily.” It might as well have been.

  27. 39 curious frog 4 May 2011 at 20:33

    Once again you seem to be surprised. The Sph Holdings and the Strait times are so biased that they do not even print something that could tarnish Singapore ( the brand ).I hope enough people have the balls to stand up to this Hypocrisy that is Singapore Inc ! May be first world infrastructure in some cases but still very much a third world country in terms of mentality .
    Good luck Singapore, hope you wake up with new ideas and people on May 8th 2011.

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