Tag Archives: journalism

Why journalists make great pets for corrupt governments

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If the detainment of three Al Jazeera English journalists in Egypt has taught us anything, it’s that journalists make great pets for corrupt governments.

For a preview, all you have to do is Google “journalists in cages” and you’ll get plenty of totally non-sickening images of grown men literally caged like animals in a Cairo court room (note: if your search results have been replaced with pictures of your Supreme Ruler, it’s probably because you live in a heavily internet-filtered country like China or North Korea).

The cute cats and exotic birds of the world better watch out – they’ve got some stiff competition and here’s why:

Caging journalists because you believe they have portrayed you badly in the media is a great way to show the international community how un-bad you are.

Since December last year, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed have been imprisoned in Egypt, accused by the current military government of aiding terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood by publishing lies.

Egypt has been in political turmoil for the past three years whether it’s been under ousted President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, elected then ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi in 2012-2013 or the current military government who took power in a coup.

There’s no better public relations strategy for restoring your nation’s international reputation than by jailing a few journalists. It’ll be as if the political violence, government retaliation and thousands of deaths never happened.

Like animals, journalists are unable to expressly communicate against any punishment you inflict because your court system is corrupt and refuses to hear any exonerating evidence. That, or you don’t have a court system.

In their fourth hearing in Cairo on Monday March 31, the Al Jazeera journalists denied any connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. “After three hearings, it’s apparent that there’s no case against us. No witness has anything that incriminates us,” Mohamed Fahmy told Agence France-Presse, just before proceedings began.

At the end of the fourth hearing, they were denied bail. Time will tell whether their voices are heard.

Unlike birds, journalists can’t fly so you’re less likely to find yourself in the backyard with flailing arms trying to catch your little sister’s pet budgie journalist that you accidentally let loose.

It has now been around 100 days since the three Al Jazeera English journalists were detained and as of yet, there have been no signs of wing-development.

Journalists eat human food so you don’t have to get your hands dirty with smelly cat food or dead mice.

If you’re lucky, the pet journalist might even go on a hunger strike meaning you can save yourself the effort of cooking. Such is the case with another detained Al Jazeera journalist, Abdullah al-Shami, who has been on a hunger strike for almost 80 of his 240 days in Egyptian prison.

Keeping journalists on a leash rather than letting them run wild means preventing them from airing your dirty laundry

With the latest UN Commission’s findings of North Korea’s atrocities, who would want a journalist cramping their style further by telling the world all their secrets?

If the world heard you’ve been forcing mothers to drown their babies, systematically starving 120,000 political prisoners and getting them to incinerate the dead bodies into fertiliser, the world just wouldn’t get it, ya know? Really, you’re doing everyone a favour. Nobody will feel obligated to do anything if they don’t know about it.

Animal rights abuse is a thing but luckily, human rights abuse isn’t

If anyone ever hurt my dog, I wouldn’t hesitate to go all Legally Blonde 2 on their arse.

Luckily for all the corrupt governments, people don’t care about stuff like free speech and it’s not like there’s a Universal Declaration of Human Rights or anything…

So if you’re the leader of an oppressive, corrupt dictatorship and you happen to be searching for a new pet, look no further than that cute, fluffy journalist. They might need some taming at first, but not to worry! It’s inevitable that they will bow before you O Great and Fearless Leader.

Published in Hijacked, 7 April, 2014.

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Pranking Tharunka – is there a lesson to be learnt?

Published in Honi Soit, p. 9, Wk 10 Semester 1 Edition, 15 May 2013.

Click here to see it online.

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The demonisation of Government lecturer Peter Chen has been largely misinformed and misleading, argues Ada Lee

Recently, some Sydney University students were  given an assignment to submit a fake news article to UNSW’s student paper.

The purpose of the ‘Prank Tharunka’ assignment was to test whether the media is susceptible to manipulation. It was not attempting to raise up the next generation of lying, sensationalist journalists. GOVT2603 (Media Politics) is a politics, not a journalism, subject. Peter Chen is a media critic, not a journalist.

The majority of reactions have oversimplified the issue. At one end, we have the conniving, mohawked Dr Chen, setting out to destroy the media. The Australian suggests that “maybe the lecturer” is what’s wrong with the media. Again, this was not a journalism training exercise. At the other end, we have Tharunka, UNSW’s student publication, maliciously targeted and victimised.

Tharunka admitted to Crikey that they had planned to run a fake story on fare evasion.

Here’s a question for Tharunka: did you check the facts? Would you have noticed the prank if not for the whistleblower? The assignment’s task to post false stories only works if the media is not doing its job properly. Tharunka, if you fact-checked and sifted out all the false stories, then I salute you—for doing your job.

As journalists and editors, if all our sources were entirely truthful with no distortion, no attempts at manipulation, no deliberate omission of facts, then the media world would be a better place. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Journalists and editors have a responsibility to check facts, investigate and sift out spin. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it might suck. But spin happens and the media should be prepared for it.

It is not sufficient to use Peter Chen as a scapegoat. Journalists and editors are not infallible lie detectors, but they also need to take responsibility when they make mistakes.

The argument has been made that as a small university paper with few resources, Tharunka was an unsuitable case study for testing the media’s gatekeeping role. But perhaps there is a  broader point. With highly concentrated media ownership and fewer journalists to fill in a demanding 24-hour news cycle, are our major news providers really better equipped?

Has the journalist watchdog been overtaken by a pack mentality where certain stories are over-emphasised and others completely missed? Is it sufficient that the media often rely on carefully planned press conferences and written statements rather than hard in-depth interviews with our political leaders?

If the big papers were bombarded with falsified stories as Tharunka was, would they pass the test? And if not, can we still trust them to bring the important issues to the surface? These are the questions we were asked to explore.

I don’t know whether encouraging students to post fake stories was the most virtuous thing to do. But what I do know is that I’ve learnt an invaluable amount about the politics of media.

For more of my coverage on the Tharunka prank, click here.

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An Insider View on the Tharunka Prank

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The USYD assignment asking students to prank UNSW publication, Tharunka, has triggered impassioned debate about the ethics of journalism and teaching.

USYD Media Politics lecturer, Peter Chen, asked students to submit a “false story” to Tharunka. As someone enrolled in this unit, I can give some insight into the workings of the assignment.

Essentially, students were to figure out what makes stories publishable. To complete the assignment, we had to test our hypothesis on ‘what makes the news’ by constructing several false articles that covered a scope of topics with varying levels of quality and sensationalism. In doing so, we tested the role of media as gatekeepers of information and whether they were susceptible to ‘spin’ and manipulation. The assignment sheet said we were to “reflect on the practice of PR that uses an understanding of media practice to promote particular messages”.

GOVT2603 Unit of Study Outline

On 6 May, Tharunka discovered the truth via a whisteblowing student and on 8 May, Tharunka revealed all in an article by editor Lily Ray. Editors recalled their surprise at the sudden influx of student submissions—even those from USYD email addresses.

Lily Ray even wrote that Tharunka was happy to receive submissions from students of other universities. The point of concern, however, seemed to rest in the assignment requirement that students post falsestories.

The whisteblower from the GOVT2603 subject, Josh Tassell, told Crikey,“I have a major ethical problem with trying to print lies. I don’t see the point. I honestly don’t think it taught us much at all except terrible habits.”

The same day that Tharunka, Crikey and The Australian picked up the story, the GOVT2603 twitter and tumblr accounts were deleted.

Over the semester, Dr Chen has become a familiar face—particularly notable for his Mohawk which changes colour every week. He asks students to engage via twitter, tumblr and text messages. At times, he spoke about his involvement in the NTEU Sydney University strikes. In lectures, he got us to watch a documentary critiquing Fox News sensationalism and another that explored election campaign tactics in New Zealand.

When we got the assignment sheet, I noticed mixed reactions. There were five different topic options. Others included creating an online protest page for a “fictitious” cause or trying to get calls through on talkback radio. We were told in our tute that all five topics had to be covered. In response to the Tharunka exercise, some students thought it was hilarious, some a useful exercise and perhaps, others worried about the ethical boundaries it pushed.

Whether the assignment was successful in teaching any sort of lesson, I think it is fair to say Dr Chen did not intend to teach his students how to be lying spin-doctors. Rather, the lesson was more in exploring the potentially powerful role ‘spin’ can play in today’s media system. Here, it is important to note that this is a ‘Media Politics’ not a journalism unit.

Granted, if this was the purpose of the assignment, Tharunka editor, Renee Griffiths, makes the point in the Crikey comments section:

“wouldn’t it have been more fruitful to make students target the multitude of organisations that are better resourced and deal more extensively with said PR injecting?” On Twitter, editor Lily Ray said the assignment “victimized” Tharunka.

Image Credit: Tharunka

James Davey, another GOVT2603 student, disagrees.

“I don’t understand why [Tharunka is] making the ‘victim’ call on this one…I don’t think it was a targeted attack against Tharunka…[The assignment’s lesson] could be learned through any news organisation. It just happened to be Tharunka.”

The ensuing upheaval has been met with a variety of responses from Media Politics students. Some worry about the academic ramifications. Some believe Mr Tassell over-reacted whilst others thought he could have handled the situation better.

Mr Davey defended the assignment. He said:

“It is up to the editor of a news organisation to vet any and all submissions. The fact is that Tharunka found itself with articles it was willing to run. When someone informed them of the ‘prank’, they got embarrassed. Cue retaliatory article. The reality of the news landscape is that it is competitive. It was on point and a relevant assignment.”

In July last year, UNSW SRC students actually launched a similar prank. A UNSW Foundation Day hoax falsely announced that UNSW planned to bid $1.2 million for the Sydney monorail. The difference? This story actually succeeded in getting published. It grabbed the attention of ABC News Radio, took 25 minutes of David Oldfield’s 2UE show, sat on the front page of the MX and finally, got uncovered by Media WatchTharunka itself reported that the hoax “catches” students and media.

Regardless of whether it was ethical to encourage students to print false stories, an important question is posed by this exercise: if these stories, embellished with spin and falsified facts, succeed in getting published, what does this say about the quality of journalism today? The assignment put the quality and legitimacy of media to the test.

Published in Vibewire, 10 May 2013.

For my opinion on the Tharunka prank, click here.

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