Reporting on Sibu: Investigating Malaysian newspaper front page stories
detective examining something while holding magnifying glass
THE day after Sibu fell to the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in a closely-watched and fought by-election, what kind of frontpage stories greeted Malaysians in the press?

With some newspapers relegating the news of the week to a second lead and others completely ignoring it as a front page lead, what can Malaysians discern about media independence and fairness?

The message is clear, especially when one compares the way the press reported Barisan Nasional (BN)'s win in the Hulu Selangor by-election with its loss in Sibu.

Reading the news

Here's a pictorial guide to some newspapers' front pages the day after the 25 April Hulu Selangor and 16 May 2010 Sibu by-elections. We've also included our own totally impromptu rating on the newspapers' fairness in reporting the results. Readers are also invited to put their own ratings and contest ours, if they wish, in the comments section below. Harian:awan vs menang
berita harian frontpages side by side

Hulu Selangor: A victorious P Kamalanathan, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin are featured prominently.

Sibu: Professor Datuk Dr Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid being awarded the 2010 Academic Leadership Award at Universiti Malaysia Pahang is featured prominently. The Sibu results were relegated to the second lead story.

Fairness rating: D+

Utusan Malaysia: Tumbang vs ???

Utusan frontpages comparison
Hulu Selangor: "PKR tumbang" screamed Utusan Malaysia's headline following BN's win in Hulu Selangor. This was followed up by four full-page reports and pictures on the by-election.

Sibu: "Hadiah Hari Guru" said Utusan's headline following PR's narrow but significant win in Sibu. The second lead was about Najib receiving an International Telecommunication Union award. The Sibu results were only reported on page four in a single article.

Fairness rating: F T: Teachers Day

Hulu Selangor: A beaming Kamalanathan, Najib and Muhyiddin surrounded by supporters featured prominently. The results occupied the entire front page.

Sibu: A beaming Professor Ibrahim featured prominently, with the Sibu results made second lead. Apart from a candidate profile picture in the inside pages placed alongside BN's Robert Lau Hui Yew and independent candidate Narawi Haron, no other photographs were published of DAP's Wong Ho Leng.

Fairness rating: D+

The Star: Picture perfect

Hulu Selangor: Kamalanathan, Najib and Muhyiddin once again.

Sibu: Wong Ho Leng's only appearance on the front page of a traditional English and Malay language newspaper, although the caption focuses on Wong's defeated opponent instead of him. It reads: "Lau congratulating Wong on his victory." Nevertheless, The Star deserves some credit for even putting Wong's picture, although tiny in comparison to Kamalanathan's, on its front page.

Fairness rating: B-

Teachers vs election

As much as our teachers should be respected and revered, it is curious how annual teacher's day celebrations could take precedence over the Sibu by-election results. And with all due respect to Professor Ibrahim and his award, what was his picture doing on newspapers' front pages instead of DAP's Wong Ho Leng's?

The one appearance of Wong Ho Leng,

receiving congratulations from BN's

Robert Lau
From a newsworthiness perspective, it is clear that the story of the day was the PR's victory over the BN in Sarawak, especially following the PR's loss in Hulu Selangor. Indeed, it was the topic people were tweeting and talking about all weekend. Teacher's Day, while important, clearly wasn't the hot news of the day.

This then raises the question of how newsworthiness is measured in newsrooms. For certain, there is no such thing as objectivity or neutrality since editors, journalists and even media companies carry with them their own personal biases and value systems.

But not being neutral doesn't mean a journalist or media outfit cannot be fair, accurate and accountable especially when writing the news. The traditional media clearly were not in its coverage of the Sibu by-election, and that only reinforces certain things.

One, ownership by BN parties or BN-friendly parties was likely part of the decision-making process of what was front-page news the morning after Sibu. This only goes to show how important it is for political parties or politicians not to own the media.

Two, how can the traditional media expect to retain its credibility if it was so clearly lopsided in its reporting of two recently-concluded by-elections? Barring any major environmental disaster of tsunami-like proportions, would any credible newspaper in the world have omitted to mention the closely-fought Sibu by-election on its front page on 17 May 2010?

If Utusan Malaysia were to be honest, it would ask itself, how does relegating the big news of the day to the inside pages demonstrate that they will and can report fairly, whatever their political preferences? And if its readers cannot trust the paper to report fairly, how will the paper survive with other new media players competing for readers' attention?

As it is, Utusan's coverage of the Sibu by-election, in contrast to the way it reported on Hulu Selangor, clearly demonstrates its lack of professionalism. Perchance, this situation has been brought about because the paper is owned by a political party — Umno — which has much at stake in the current political scenario? How else would one explain why Utusan's newsroom thought that it was more important for the public to be educated on gifts for teachers instead of the by-election results?

Handling bias

It is unrealistic to expect any news room to ignore its political leanings. The UK's The Guardian for example is known for being partial to the Labour party. Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan's piece entitled "101 reasons to love our Tory government" and "How to learn to live with Tories" for example, clearly reveals her political leanings.

The Daily Telegraph on the other hand, has, perhaps unkindly, been branded by some as The Daily Torygraph because of its partiality to the Conservative party.

Screencap of Guardian's front page,

6 May 2010

Political preferences aside, when writing the news, these newspapers did not resort to underhanded tactics of denying front-page space to any political party during campaigning for the recent British general elections. In fact, on 6 May 2010, the day of Britain's general election, Guardian readers would have been greeted with a picture of Conservative leader David Cameron (right) on the front page of their morning paper. Interestingly, The Times, which is politically aligned to the Conservatives, had Labour party leader and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown on its front page on 6 May, albeit in a rather unflattering cartoon.

To put it simply, news is news, no matter who your editor may vote for or who owns your paper. And a rookie journalist would be able to tell you that "Goodies for teachers" is not more newsworthy than "Ho Leng wins Sibu with 398-vote majority".
The Nut Graph

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