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 http://darrensoh.com/elections/ 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.