Pressing Ahead 2021: Hindsight—Reporting in Crisis

By Edna Lim (22S03F), Mei Feifei (22A13A), and Shermaine Lim (22S03N)

“Can I have an Aburi Chicken Don please?”
“My hit rate with aunties is quite high.”
“Mr Patrick Wong, you are not allowed to participate in the game.”

Where do a chicken don, aunties and Mr Patrick Wong (Raffles Press’s beloved teacher in-charge) come together? Raffles Press’s annual inter-JC conference, Pressing Ahead, of course! 

In view of the pandemic, this year’s iteration did not escape the fate of being moved online. With about 80 attendees in session from six schools (Raffles Institution, Eunoia Junior College, Hwa Chong Institution, National Junior College, River Valley High School, Victoria Junior College), Pressing Ahead was an opportunity for students with a mutual passion for journalism to come together and exchange ideas, perspectives and insights. 

In the event’s opening address by Raffles Press Chairperson Shaun Loh (21A01A), he introduced this year’s Pressing Ahead theme—“Hindsight: Reporting in Crisis”. As students, we had all experienced the impacts of the pandemic on our usual activities. However, we could hardly imagine the magnitude of COVID-19’s impact on professional journalists who dedicate their waking hours to the newsroom. This rendition of Pressing Ahead thus invited two accomplished journalists, Ms Audrey Tan and Mr Yeo Sam Jo, whose sharings helped us gain a deeper understanding of the impact of the pandemic on professional journalism. Meanwhile, the afternoon session featured students’ presentations on hyper sensationalism and bias in the media. 

With this exciting itinerary at hand, everyone’s initial Saturday-morning-grogginess soon fizzled away with the commencement of the event.

Reporting amid a pandemic

Our first guest speaker, Ms Audrey Tan (2021 SPH Journalist of the Year), shared with the webinar participants on how she overcame her inexperience as a first-time crisis reporter, along with the other challenges she faced.

Ms Tan kick-started the morning session with a straw poll on what the student participants found to be the most difficult part of writing a story. Most chose “writing”. 

Having spent her first seven years in the Straits Times as a Science and Environment Correspondent, Ms Tan’s job scope took a hundred and eighty degrees turn in January last year when she joined the Straits Times’s core team for COVID-19 coverage. Many of us may have considered ourselves unlucky enough when our interview requests get turned down on a regular basis, but Ms Tan had to grapple with building a new contact base and knowledge of the biomedical field from scratch when she was thrust into the entirely new field of Covid reporting. 

Ms Tan credited Twitter as a means through which she kept herself updated on what was going on in the scientific community. Of course, it was not without diligently fact-checking peer reviews of newly released scientific papers, lest she misinterpret or misrepresent their findings. She explained that if some reporters hyper-sensationalise scientific research or frame certain findings from a biased standpoint, not only does that erode the public’s trust in the scientific process, scientists may be compelled to stop speaking to journalists in fear of their words being taken out of context or given a sensationalised spin. The irony! In a time when we need journalists to serve as the bridge between the scientific community and the general public, the spread of sensational and biased reporting will only sow distrust and breed uncertainty. 

Ms Tan’s sharing was enriching and insightful for many of the attendees. In the words of Raffles Press member Faith Ho (22A01A), “I found Ms Audrey Tan’s talk really enlightening… It was both helpful and inspiring to hear how she managed to reorient herself when she had to make the leap from environmental coverage to COVID-19, especially with gaining the technical knowledge, which I think a lot of us either struggle or will likely struggle with in the future [as student journalists].” 

The next speaker, Mr Yeo Sam Jo, took a more light-hearted approach to his sharing through incorporating memes and ASMR videos, to name a few. This approach that he adopted in his presentation demonstrated to an enraptured audience firsthand the effectiveness of multimedia.

“If you see the mic start shaking, it’s because my arm cannot tahan anymore.” 

Working as a journalist during the pandemic was definitely not easy. Reporters had to be sensitive about the choice of the content being produced during lockdown. The Sunday Times’s Hot Bods column featuring buff local #fitspos was quietly toned down, while “heart news” like a Singaporean hawker who gave out chicken rice packets to frontline workers took centre stage instead. “It’s not just covering Covid, it’s also knowing what not to cover,” Mr Yeo commented. It may simply be bad taste to cover certain frivolous things when other more pressing and sensitive issues are at hand.

OB markers and content choices aside, another question that might have plagued some of us would surely be: What exactly is the role of a journalist? To this, both our speakers stressed the journalist’s ethical responsibility of ensuring that writing is accurate and unbiased to the largest possible extent. There is also the fact that a journalist is sometimes more than just an individual—“You represent your country and your company,” Ms Tan said. “[You represent] something bigger than you.” 

The morning session ended off with a fruitful question-and-answer segment where we got to know more about the journalism industry.

Ms Tan and Mr Yeo were frank and sincere in their answers to questions about the dark side of journalism: the high attrition rate in the field is not just due to the less than ideal pay (“Go in for the passion, not the pay,” they advised); anxiety is not uncommon in the field due to factors like long and unpredictable working hours, constant rejection from people and poor work-life balance. Furthermore, with the advent of social media and various alternative news channels, reporters have to play the increasingly complicated game of balancing fair, accurate reporting and eye-grabbing content for an audience with a shrinking attention span. The fact that our two speakers have remained in the field for more than seven years is a testament to their commitment to their jobs and on a deeper level, the inherent purpose of journalism. We are sure that their sharings were enlightening and inspirational for all attendees. 

Student sharings

Following the sharing by the guests speakers, representatives from each of the participating schools presented their critiques of articles previously written by professional  journalists. Each team ventured into the lesser-explored side of media, unveiling the ruses of hyper-sensationalism and biases which permeate our everyday news yet our eyes often fail to notice. 

These articles touched on issues close to home—Minister of Law K. Shanmugan’s criticisms of POFMA (NJC), how People Always Forget That The Money Heng Swee Keat Is Giving Out Is Other People’s Money (VJC)—and those further away—the 2020 US Elections (RVHS), whether or not it was Time To Ban Wet Markets (RI) and How China Is Ruthlessly Exploiting The Coronavirus Pandemic It Helped Cause (EJC). 

Not only did all the attendees gain a better understanding of the power of emotive language and one-sidedness in creating bias and hypersensationalism, the process of rewriting the articles was also rewarding for the student presenters themselves. 

“It was a new experience for me to scrutinise an article so closely like that. Most of the time, while we try to be ‘media literate’ and really close-read the news we peruse, we don’t actually end up doing it. It was surprisingly interesting and not at all troublesome,“ Mandy Wong (22S03C), one of the presenters from RI, shared.

All in all, the sharings presented provided a refreshing reframing of present-day media.

Pressing Ahead 2021 came to a finale with Shaun unveiling the second issue of Cross Islands Impression (CII)—a curation of op-eds written, edited and collated by the student journalists from schools islandwide. Pressing ahead during the pandemic might have been tough, but that didn’t dampen the spirits of our dedicated student writers. The collaborative nature of CII captured a diverse range of perspectives and experiences, with topics ranging from friendships, environmentalism in schools, to ruminations over the efficacy of blended learning. You can read Issue 2 here.

Apart yet together

Pressing Ahead 2021 showed us the exciting potential for journalism even in a pandemic era. In spite of the inconveniences brought about by COVID-19, Pressing Ahead 2021 has stood out as an extremely enriching conference for student journalists. From the engaging sharings by our guest speakers to the thoughtful presentations by the students, it was heartening to see that albeit separated, we remained unified in spirit. Moving on, we are definitely looking forward to next year’s edition of Pressing Ahead.

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