Rekindling Society and the Media in Hong Kong

Ho Shuet-ying

I must confess that I am not persistent enough. I quit my job as a newspaper reporter two years after graduation. Yet, I consider myself a part of this industry even though I am now studying abroad. As a matter of fact, my discussions about the media and current affairs with ex-colleagues have become ever more heated.

I gave this a lot of thought when I was invited to write this article from the perspective of a post-80s reporter. As a sociology student, I remain critical about all kinds of social stratification until further evidence is produced. Age is only one of the factors that affect one's values and behaviour, and apparently, not the most crucial one. What I say here is only my own thoughts.

Veterans say the heyday of journalism has gone. In the 90s salaries could be raised several times a year and it could be doubled in two years time, not to say anything about bonus. Then the emergence of new media dealt a fatal blow to the mainstream and we, the young reporters, got caught in the worst of the times.

We saw a lot of young reporters leaving the industry two or three years after graduation. Their reasons may be complex. For me the incentive for being a journalist has less to do with material gain than the satisfaction of seeing my stories in print. There is a huge "generation gap" between the government and the young people. This problem exists in the media industry as well, with management personnel confronting the same problem. In discussions with colleagues, we seldom complain about prospects, salaries or working hours. Rather we are more concerned with the way that senior staffs handle government spin on events and incidents; whether the thinking of the editorial section is logical and based on humanistic value; how to package news stories about social justice and minority groups etc.

The problems confronting the Hong Kong media are inseparable from those of society. It has been said that the quality of journalists have been deteriorating, but we must not forget we are the products, and most of us are winners, in the distorted education system of Hong Kong, and we are soaked in its prevalent norms and values. Over-emphasis, if not sole-emphasis, on instrumental rationality and technical efficiency has trapped Hong Kong in an iron cage. The express rail will shorten travel time by a few minutes, rake in a few hundred million dollars in revenue, create a few thousand job opportunities, and thus it should be built even if at the expense of property rights which are among the most fundamental basic human rights. Minority views should be sacrificed in the pursuit of interests of the (so-called) majority. Everything is quantifiable. What is not quantifiable should not be considered.

Too Instrumental the Media
Instrumental rationality, which focusing on the most efficient or cost-effective means to achieve a specific end, has been an important driver of progress which serves as the basis of modernity and capitalism. However, when instrumental rationality and technical efficiency are escalated to a moral level which supersedes justice from which we derive normative judgement, results can be catastrophic with the help of modern technology. The extermination camp of Nazi Germany was designed to slaughter people in the most cost-effective way. When means colonized ends, we do things right instead of do right things.

A world overwhelmed by instrumental rationality and bureaucratization will lead to disenchantment, entailing depersonalization of relationships with emotions and values secondary to technical efficiency. News suffers the same problem. What we consider as good news may not be interesting or meaningful to the public.

The mainstream media under capitalist model face intense competition, thus it is natural to fight for exclusive reports. Every year before the release of policy address and financial budget, reporters are busy calling their informants and sources as to be able tell our readers that tax on wine will be reduced by a few percent one day before the government does. I am really dubious if this is meaningful for interests of the public.

Most news about book fairs in the local news section are headlined with the number of entrants and sales of books. It seems to me that breaking the number record of visitors every year is taken for granted, or else the book fair would be a failure. If this logic holds, it becomes totally understandable that teen models and celebrities dominate the book fair – what other way is more effective than that to attract more visitors? Art is never featured in news section unless the price of a painting in auction is massive. Likewise, it is not surprising to find A1 news is about the recordsmashing price of an apartment in West Kowloon. Before LegCo elections, we are obsessed about opinion polls (of which the reliability and credibility are doubtful) instead of evaluating the past performance of a candidate who is running for re-election.

Humanity and Justice be in Place
Worse still, the value of human beings is also quantifiable. That explains no matter how many times it has been said, a quote from a government official is always the highlight of the news. Some newspapers designate a daily column to accommodate quotes from 'anonymous' government sources, paying the price of subjecting itself to the government's spin, even though that piece of information may not have any public interest. Newspapers thus become messengers of the government. On the contrary, when the education bureau denies the mentally handicapped over 18 rights of education which amounts to, at the very least, discrimination and, at most, infringement of human rights, it does not receive media attention as these handicapped are "only a minority group". I understand the importance of news value in editorial judgment, but I wonder if news value ranks higher than social justice, or at the very least a constituent part of social justice.

Uninteresting news is not necessarily meaningful or vice versa. But if news is deemed neither interesting nor meaningful, that will be detrimental. In a recent speech, the Editor-in chief of The Guardian shared his insights about integrating user-generated content online with mainstream media. Traditional business models may be facing a kind of existential threat, but many other possibilities are open up to news and journalism as empowered by new media. The Guardian merely ranks 10 among sales of newspaper, but it is the 2nd most read English newspaper online. Many of my friends and teachers in universities and middle class that I know are its regular readers, and this group of people is exactly the most desirable targeted readers of the middle-class newspapers in Hong Kong.

How does The Guardian manage to secure its middle-class readers? They do not put property price as headline news. Number of visitors is not the main focus in its report of Frankfurt Book Fair. Instead of casually attributing the protests to the academic and career failure of post-80s and blaming them for not working hard, they did a 2-page in-depth report investigating the causes of the low esteem and dignity of teenage girls with references to gender stereotype, celebrity culture etc. Despite the fact that the rise of middle class in Hong Kong is against a different historical background than that in UK, do we underestimate our middle class readers by focusing on property market, red wine and stock market? Or are we trapped in the iron cage, subordinating humanism to instrumentality?

I believe there are passionate reporters in every generation. As a young journalist, I hope my skills in utilizing new media and my nonconformist approach to establish news-making habits can help re-invigorate the mainstream media. Re-igniting society and the mass media can only be achieved by embracing humanism, abandoning instrumental rationality and technical efficiency as the sole standard of judgement.