Opinion

Alan Soon on Singapore’s elections coverage: If journalism is a service that educates society, we’re failing

Alan SoonHow well did Singapore’s media cover the general elections? Alan Soon, a former Bloomberg, CNBC and Yahoo editor now running a newsroom consultancy, gives his verdict.

How fairly and objectively do you feel the mainstream media reported the elections this year, and how does the media’s scorecard compare to previous elections?

I felt this was a stark contrast to the previous 2011 election. It was the perfect storm: We had weak candidates from all parties with no clear policy platforms for a better vision of the future. So in a social media economy, where everyone is obsessed with Facebook engagement, it was an infinite stream of “can you believe what she said” or “he just said this and it’s pissing everyone off”. It was ridiculous.

How good a job do you feel independent online news sources did at reporting the elections this year?

The independents understood their place. They were not going to have the people to cover rallies and policy matters in depth. So they stuck to winning on social media, where they have the flexibility in coverage and engagement with users. They played to their strengths.

Who stood out for you as the best source of elections news (on or offline)?

WSJ immigration infographic

WSJ immigration infographic; click to enlarge

I’d say it was a collective failure on the part of the media. There wasn’t enough digging on the key policy issues. For example, we all know that immigration is an issue, but no one was pushing any of the candidates on real statistics or solutions. In fact, the only infographic that I saw on immigration trends came out of the Wall Street Journal. As an industry, we were too complacent and far too willing to simply accept soundbites as a proxy for reporting or analysis.

But if I had to be generous, I thought Mothership was doing some very interesting stuff with quote visuals on Facebook. It was high impact and definitely shareable. They have a strong Facebook-first strategy to their coverage, which makes sense given their size. Their headline writing was sharp and witty — they had a voice.

Did any particular election stories stand out for you? If so, which?

Not really. And that’s the thing: So much of the reporting generated is forgettable. Everything was lost in the social stream; it told me what was happening but it didn’t educate me as a voter.

That said, there were a number of amateur photographers who did amazing photo stories covering the spirit of the rallies, which serves as an important reminder that there’s plenty of great user-generated content out there.

Which political party ‘won’ the election in social media in your view?

The Workers Party Facebook post, 9 September

The Workers Party Facebook post, 9 September

I thought the Workers Party had a fantastic social media plan. Strong, sharp visuals, delivered consistently. I’d love to meet the team behind the WP’s social strategy. Good nuggets in there for best practices.

What did the way in which the elections were reported in Singapore this year tell you about the state of the media here, and how it is changing?

The good news (no pun intended) is that there’s plenty of innovation in this space, especially among the less-entrenched and smaller social-first newsrooms. They’re trying new things to engage a younger audience and it’s paying off.

The bad news is that the media have always played it safe by running soundbites and quotes in lieu of reporting and analysis. In the age of social media, you’ll see a lot more of this — teams are creating more shareable nuggets of content in which we’re trading off depth for ‘share-ability’ or to solicit an emotional response.

If journalism is meant to be a service in which we inform and educate society, we’re failing. This country has real issues to contend with and we’re not going to get very far if the media doesn’t appreciate its role in explaining, dissecting and challenging policies.

Alan Soon, the former regional managing editor at Yahoo, is now running editorial consultancy The Splice Newsroom. He also publishes a weekly newsletter on the trends, threats and tools in the media industry. You can subscribe here.

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