Hong Kong Media's Credibility Problem

A research center in a local university announced the latest findings of a media credibility survey earlier this month, which shows an overall decrease in the perceived credibility of the city news outlets since the beginning of the study in 1997. The result created a query on public perception on the concept of credibility against the background of the deteriorating press freedom conditions in Hong Kong and the prosumer culture in the new media era.

The article written by Ah Oi was originally published in Chinese on 3 January 2014. This English version was translated and edited by Ronald Yick and republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

As press freedom continues to deteriorate in Hong Kong, pro-democracy lawmakers put forward a motion debate on the protection of information, press and speech freedom in June last year. Photo from inmediahk.net.

As press freedom continues to deteriorate in Hong Kong, pro-democracy lawmakers put forward a motion debate on the protection of information, press and speech freedom in June 2013. Photo from inmediahk.net.

The Center for Communication and Public Opinion Survey from the Chinese University of Hong Kong has conducted telephone surveys asking respondents to rate the media's credibility since 1997. It announced the results of its latest survey in January 2014. The media ranked at the top appear neutral and “harmonized” [meaning self-censored], with the South China Morning Post among all print media, and Hong Kong Economic Times among Chinese print media. Ming Pao, which ranked first among Chinese print media for more than ten years, has been overtaken and only ranked second. The newspaper even removed its masthead slogan as “the most credible Chinese newspaper”.

Meanwhile, the Apple Daily, one of the most popular newspapers in Hong Kong, which does not hide its pro-democracy stance, has dropped to 17 in the credibility list, followed by two pro-Beijing newspapers.

The result shocked media circles as the most “harmonized” ones has won the top position in the credibility survey. Some criticized the research's methodology, some criticized the public for the wrong judgement.

The research method, indeed, could have been better designed. During the survey, participants were asked to rate the newspapers according to their impression, which translates into extent of preference, and is not directly relevant to the newspaper's credibility. In a Chinese-speaking society, local residents do not regularly read English-language newspapers. It would be easy for an English-language newspaper to obtain an average rank as the respondents may not have read the paper. In fact, the South China Morning Post has been criticized for turning red by laying off or sidelining experienced and outspoken journalists since the new editor-in-chief took office in 2011. Also, Hong Kong Economic Times is considered a pro-government and pro-Beijing Chinese newspaper.

Even though the survey's methodology has its flaws, it has been conducted for more than 10 years. The sudden shift of “public impression” also requires explanation.

The survey reveals an overall decrease in media credibility, compared to 2010. This may be attributed to growing self-censorship, which may in turn come from pressure from the business sector and government. Such public impressions are in alignment with the result of the World Press Freedom Index, in which Hong Kong dropped from 34 in 2011 to 54 in 2012, and further down to 58 in 2013.

Credibility needs to be redefined

While conventional newspapers are subjected to political pressure, the rise of new media has also transformed the relationship between media organizations and readers. More and more people read news online, and they look for news which is of their own interests and preferences, not to mention sharing news among peers. Traditional mass media is slowly evolving into a distributive model, and passive readers become active content producers. Readers can report news themselves or simply become current affair commentators in their own social media circles. They are not passive readers but prosumers, or the so called me-media.

Under the new information prosumer culture, the meaning of credibility is subjected to re-interpretation. Responding to the findings, Shum Yee-lan, the chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, suggested that media corporations must not “sensationalize and not take sides, but reveal things for the good of society”. Such a statement equates credibility to objectivity. Yet, even in conventional journalistic practice, credibility has to be established by reporting issues concerning public interest, quite often challenging government and corporate interests. In a new media environment, people are looking forward to conversation and exchange of different viewpoints. The notion of credibility is based on fact-based commentary that expresses a stance.

New media has its challenges as well, especially when commercial online media outlets have become more directed to the market depending on number of clicks, which has been criticized as hit-rate journalism. Last year, in Hong Kong, Apple Daily planned to link up hit rates on its website to staff bonuses [zh]. The idea received severe criticism from the media industry, and the newspaper gave up the plan. Its mobile version, however, is set to promote popular posts rather than posts that are of public interest. The worry is that under this policy, editors and reporters would be inclined to reproduce viral Internet content to attract more advertising while undermining news credibility.

The emergence of breaking view platforms

Recently, a number of new online news media initiatives targeting audiences who look for real-time but in-depth news analysis have emerged in Hong Kong. For examples, The House News, which follows the Huffington News model of news curation, and Post 852, which provides news commentary from a business insider viewpoint. Both news organizations position themselves as platforms for breaking views, that is, commentary on breaking news. Indeed, The House News ranks the 10th out of 21 in the media credibility survey, in the middle of the list. The result to a certain extent shows that the breaking views model has its appeal.

Still, it should be reminded that critical and in-depth commentary, or the so-called breaking views, must be supported by breaking news and investigative reporting. Without substantial journalistic work, the views cannot be well-grounded. Worldwide, some institutions are experimenting with the merging of new technology and journalism, such as data journalism, which employs data visualization tools with multimedia design and delivery. Some are promoting solutions journalism, which “investigates and explains credible responses to social problems”.

The seemingly strange credibility research findings should serve as a wake-up call for those who are concerned about the development of journalism in Hong Kong to experiment with new journalistic practices.

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