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Friend or foe? Scribes grapple with social media

Update: June, 18/2015 - 09:01

by Thu Huong

Like their counterparts in other countries, Vietnamese journalists are also struggling to see whether social media is a new source of information or a fierce competitor – or both.

As we are prepare to celebrate another Viet Nam Revolutionary Press Day (June 21), it's worth talking about how social media has changed the media landscape in this country.

At a meeting held last week on the role of mainstream media in this stage of exploding information held at Tuoi Tre newspaper, one of the top daily Vietnamese newspapers, a Government official called on media outlets to uphold journalistic values not just by publishing important stories but also knowing when to stop.

Knowing when to stop publishing stories that can sell more newspapers - but can scar one's journalistic reputation – is not easy at a time when competition to publish first, on line or in print, is fiercer than ever.

According to statistics released in January from We Are Social, a British-based agency, the number of social media users in Viet Nam is about 28 million out of a total of about 40 million internet users. An average user in Viet Nam spends about three hours a day on social media.

As information explodes on the social media, it's more difficult for media outlets not to publish a story that sells. Getting it first and getting it right are the two main goals, but when both are satisfied, what other elements are there to consider?

Truong Uy, managing editor of Tuoi Tre newspaper, said at the meeting that editors at his newspaper decided not to publish more in-depth materials about the case of Do Quang Thien, a senior high school student from Dak Lak Province.

Thien's story had been widely reported, both on mainstream media and social media. The student had to spend 52 days behind bars for saving a man in a traffic accident. The court believed he was responsible for causing the man's injuries even though the boy repeatedly said he was simply trying to rush the man to hospital.

Uy said other newspapers were rushing to publish account of his days in prison, but Tuoi Tre decided to halt additional coverage so that the student could focus on the year-end examinations. The media spotlight on an act that he might not be responsible for could create a lasting scar on the boy and taint his future.

Social media is a double-sword, providing mainstream media outlets with another source of information and forcing media outlets to be faster, but it also lures mainstream media to sensationalise stories to satisfy hungry readers.

In recent months, there have been criticisms about several media outlets publishing names and personal information of women involved in prostitution cases. In an interview with Tuoi Tre newspaper, Tran Thi Bich Thuy, former chairwoman of HCM City Women's Association, said behind each woman who had to work as prostitute was a hidden personal story.

Thuy said media outlets needed to be more "humane" in its decision to publish names and personal information about the women, as this could push them into desperate situations..

Along that line, photos of child victims of rape and abuse cases should also be barred from appearing in any type of media. Editors must make the decision about when the line is crossed.

Journalists for mainstream media should take advantage of social media and become tech-savvy but that does not mean journalists can rely solely on social media without fact-checking.

In an interview with local media earlier this week, Deputy Minister of Information and Communication Truong Minh Tuan warned that there was an increasing number of reporters and journalists sitting at their desk and mixing up information from Facebook and other social media sites.

Without fact-checking from official sources and relying sometimes just on rumors spreading on Facebook, journalists lose their values, credibility and sometimes are trapped into writing false stories in a race to win readers.

In January, Viet Nam Television had to apologise to its viewers about false information in a recent episode of the "Seventh Wish" reality programme featuring a street singer couple.

The storyline was about a man who fell in love and married a poor blind girl who loves singing. In reality, the man was already married, has two children and did not marry the blind girl. The VTV investigation concluded that the crew did not follow the protocol of verifying facts.

Last year, many publications were also lured by the sensation on social media about whether Vietnamese young football star, Cong Phuong, had lied about his real age.

The social media created the rumours first, which then turned out to be inaccurate, and a wave of publications over-covered the incidence, causing many to feel that a football talent could be diminished by an unnecessary scandal.

As readers and viewers are lost at the maze of information created by social media, journalists have the responsibility to uphold their journalistic standards even to a higher level, providing the analysis, stories, putting news in context for readers – something that readers cannot find on social media.

Social media also can create rumors that can destroy a person's life due to public humiliation or create confusion and panic in the public.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in a meeting earlier this year also said we cannot forbid social media, only ensure that the people have access to the right information by "official" sources.

While that must be supported by authorities and Government officials in ensuring that the media can have access to information in a timely manner, the reporting standard lies solely with each person who works in the media business.

After all, journalists must bear responsibility for the people they write about and the lives they touch. — VNS

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