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Regaining Trust Post GE14: A New Hope for the Mainstream Media?
Date: 22 May 2018

By Andy See Teong Leng

Weeks after the watershed May 9 elections, Malaysia is still in a state of immense flux. Not just the political landscape, but the ripple effects of the Pakatan Harapan victory is being felt on all fronts.

One of the most significant effects is on the media landscape. The dynamics of the entire industry had changed just a few hours after the elections. Mainstream media, which had previously ignored “Opposition news”, suddenly devoted hours and hours of coverage.

Astro Awani journalists, not known for their boldness previously, hailed the election results as a “new dawn” for Malaysia after the results were announced. Analyses, commentaries and panel discussions took up most of the programme and previously taboo topics came to the forefront.

This turnaround is good for the mainstream media. After years of declining influence (and thus audience and sales), the mainstream media can see a “new dawn” of its own.

State-run Radio Television Malaysia (RTM) and Bernama found itself suddenly under new “owners” for the first time since the nation’s independence. The other private mainstream media, owned by the former ruling political parties, are also having to find their footing in the new era. It was reported that Datuk Abdul Jalil Hamid, CEO of the pro-BN New Straits Times Press, told about 200 employees that the company needed to adjust to the current political environment.

Perhaps most ironically, Utusan Malaysia, the at times vocal anti-Pakatan paper, carried a full page advertisement congratulating Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Ismail on becoming the new Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister respectively.

There were other consequences as well. When the markets reopened on the following Monday, shares in the loss-making Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd fell by as much as 7 sen or 22.58%, a five-year low, after its major shareholder UMNO was defeated in the elections. Meanwhile, several senior executives and directors of BN-owned media companies have resigned from their positions.

On the other hand, Malaysiakini, an on-line news portal that was often barred from government press conferences, has now become the “new mainstream”, joining other mainstream media in covering the regular press conferences by the new Prime Minister. In fact, its minute-by-minute election coverage on the night of May 9 drew over 10 million Internet users while another 7.2 million watched KiniTV online.

So what are the key takeaways of this media new landscape, especially for those who are in the PR business?

1. Credibility Matters Most!

Barisan Nasional Youth Chief Khairy Jamaluddin admitted that the BN lost because they were in denial of the huge credibility gap they were facing as the news being presented in the mainstream media did not match the experience and perceptions of the ordinary folks. Obviously, the mainstream media’s narrative could not overcome this credibility gap.

The Pakatan Harapan’s success on online and social media on the other hand, is due to the perceived credibility of their information - what readers saw and experienced matched the information they were consuming.

It would seem that with the change of parties at the helm of government, the entrenched roles of media has changed as well. In the days immediately following the elections, huge numbers of rumours and fake news began spreading like wildfire online. Social media - the traditional frontline of Pakatan Harapan communications - is quickly showing its weaknesses as a reliable source of information. On the other hand, the traditionally BN-friendly mainstream media is quickly rediscovering its role as being a reliable source of verified information again.

This shift shows that credibility is key no matter what the channel. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Fake News is a Real Problem

The problem of fake news is real. It’s not a new problem at all, for sure. But the internet and social media have made it a very immediate and perhaps even more dangerous. This is not just a Malaysian dilemma. I attended the recent Public Relation Global Network meeting in Canada, where this problem of fake news was discussed by PR professionals from all over the world.

In the post-GE euphoria, netizens were sharing unverified news over social media indiscriminately. Perhaps the most prominent are the videos of stacks of cash and valuables supposedly seized by the authorities from former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib’s house, and the fake news about a RM1 billion no-obligation gift from the Sultan of Brunei to the new Malaysian government. Government officials and politicians from both sides had to take time to deny the various rumours and fake news.

In the rush not to be left out of breaking news stories, the mainstream media does at times report on sensational rumours making the circles online. Although they are careful to couch it in neutral terms, this unfortunately still gives the rumours some sheen of credibility.

I believe that PR professionals have a responsibility to address this issue, along with our partners in the media, as unchecked rumours and fake news could lead to negative consequences on a wider scale.

3. Content is King

Netizens were starving for post-election content, and they lapped up everything that was available on social media, whether it was news (fake or otherwise), memes, commentaries or rumours. Only to discover later that much of what was circulating was fake news.

Perhaps there was a collective sigh or relief when Selangor Menteri Besar Dato’ Seri Azmin Ali declared that it was now okay to get the news from mainstream media again. The credibility of these publications and news channels suddenly shifted and trust was regained, simply because their content was seen as credible again, particularly political news!

The mainstream media could now step in to fill in the vacuum of credible content. Many netizens were impressed by the quality of coverage by the mainstream media and it became a source of verified – and trustworthy – information.

As this rapidly shifting media landscape shows, content is what that shapes public opinion. The media channels that deliver the content is important but secondary. This is something we need to constantly remind ourselves of as PR professionals. We work with media channels to get our message out effectively, but it is the content that is key.

As PR and communication professionals, we are the agents for shaping public opinions. We have the responsibility not only to our clients but also to society at large to ensure that news ought to be disseminated responsibly as well.

A new beginning calls for action from each and every one of us.

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