The girls came from lower-income households and lived in a red-light district where rent was cheap. The day after they were interviewed, the papers published their photograph. The article that accompanied the photograph described the girls as the offspring of drug users and sex workers. They were humiliated by their schoolmates and teachers as a result.
Petra Gimbad, The Sun Daily
SOMETIMES, journalists and columnists who connect with people face the moral dilemma of whether or not to write a story.
A dear friend, one of the most ethical journalists I know, once spoke of lost career opportunities because of his decisions not to file stories or write from perspectives that would harm or humiliate his subjects.
I have held him as my barometer: as any writer would tell you, it is difficult to throw away a story when you have invested so much into it.
This is not limited to persons working with the press.
In working with children from red-light districts and refugees, I have been fortunate to meet journalists who prioritised their welfare and rights over publishing a sensationalised story. This is not easy.
Given that we live in an age that pays more attention to Angelina Jolie's personal life than the Syrian crisis, it is unsurprising that sensation sells papers.
The fault lies not only with the journalist, but also with us readers who support sensationalised journalism.
I have had uncomfortable interviews and observed how journalists – if they are so deserving of the term – write what they think readers want to hear, knowing that they can get away with it.
This is a practice that is encouraged by unethical editors, local and international. Such editors are not representative of all editors.
However, we need more editors who are able to mentor journalists in journalistic ethics.
Readers must support such editors if we are serious about creating a media that truly serves the public good.
At the height of the Malaysia Solution a few years ago, journalists from regional and international media came to Malaysia to interview refugees. This was for the purpose of understanding how they felt about the refugee swap agreement between Australia and Malaysia.
At an interview, I spoke frankly of how a group of refugee girls were molested on the way to their community school.
The journalist asked if he could interview them. He would not take no for an answer.
I explained that my colleagues were unable to seek psychological support for the girls. Also, such an interview would retraumatise them.
Frustrated, I pointed out his ability to leave Malaysia following the interview. It was my colleagues who would have to pick up the pieces.
Left unsaid was the fact that these girls will live with the memories for life.
Not long after, I was informed by another group of children whom I worked with – Malaysians, of mixed Malaysian and Indonesian descent – that they were ostracised at school by schoolmates and teachers.
The girls came from lower-income households and lived in a red-light district where rent was cheap. The day after they were interviewed, the papers published their photograph.
The article that accompanied the photograph described the girls as the offspring of drug users and sex workers. They were humiliated by their schoolmates and teachers as a result. Shamed, they came to the centre where my colleagues and I worked to weep.
I recalled the incident months later when I spoke to the mother of one of the girls. "I am not rich. I work hard. I may be Indonesian. But my neighbours call me a prostitute." Over the telephone, she cried and cried.
Often, in order to garner sympathy or raise support, many journalists and readers regard sensationalism as necessary. This intention differs from the financial motivation to sell newspapers and tabloids.
Rather than encouraging thoughtful analysis and depth, we encourage the same cheap tactics repeatedly.
Even as readers, we accept such tactics until they hit too close to home when someone dear or a member of one's community is humiliated – even though such harm is unintentional. By then, it is too late.
From experience, I know firsthand – with deadlines to meet and pressure – it is difficult to balance compelling storytelling with ethical reporting.
In refusing to compromise on a media standard that is analytical, considerate and respectful, we may better understand the issues that afflict our nation and come closer to solutions. We will be better off for it.
The writer is a bookworm and occasional runner. She has worked with vulnerable children from marginalised backgrounds.