It’s been five days since the fabricated story of NTU Student Zheng Jie’s experience with COVID-19 was reported by Lianhe Wanbao in an article that has now been taken down. In spite of that, you can still view the cached article here, as retrieved by a savvy Facebook user.
At this point, it’s clear that news spreads quickly and furiously, and that anything that’s been posted onto the internet can and will be traced. In this time and age, it’s almost impossible to walk back on a statement even if it’s only been online for a mere minute. These two points are, in fact, the very premise of this discussion. But before further elaboration, let’s get everyone up to speed with the quandary that has unfolded so far.
Zheng Jie’s fabricated story on Lianhe Wanbao
Zheng Jie, a 25-year-old NTU student, found himself wedged between being a victim of COVID-19, and a victim to fake news.
On 7 May 2020, at around 1515 hours according to Zheng Jie, he was notified by a friend of a story that was published about him by Lianhe Wanbao. His friend’s father had read about the story in a print edition of the newspaper and quickly made the connection.
Given the details, it was easy to link the story back to Zheng Jie despite an omittance of his name. “A check with NTU also confirmed that I was the only 25-year-old male NTU student with COVID-19,” Zheng Jie wrote in his Facebook note addressing this situation.
Tracing back to 1 May, Zheng Jie wrote that the journalist of the aforementioned story, who goes by the name of Song Pei according to his author’s byline on Lianhe Wanbao, was an acquaintance of his. Song Pei had initially approached him via Instagram’s direct messaging and asked for permission to pursue his story. This happened twice and on both occasions, Zheng Jie declined.
Unfazed, Song Pei went ahead with the narrative, even cooking up a sham story which included personal details on Zheng Jie’s family, his daily activities prior to the CB period and during the CB period—which has now been deemed by Zheng Jie as false.
The article that was published on Lianhe Wanbao’s online site on 7 May read “阻断措施期间足不出户 南大生不解为何染疫”, loosely translated by Zheng Jie to “NTU Student Gets COVID-19 even though he stayed home during the CB Period”.
In the article, Song Pei also claimed to have interviewed Zheng Jie, which he refutes.
Reeling from the shock of seeing his story in the press despite his refusal to give consent, matters were made worse for Zheng Jie through hateful comments by various netizens.
They had speculated that he might have been untruthful and non-compliant to Contact Tracing and Circuit Breaker measures.
Through this saga, Zheng Jie highlighted two extremely significant takeaways—the intolerance for fake news, and even more so when it is used for fear-mongering.
You can read Zheng Jie’s full recount here.
Not the first time that Lianhe Wanbao has landed themselves in hot water
This isn’t the first time that a Lianhe Zaobao/Wanbao reporter has been in the limelight for less-than-desirable reasons. Just a little over a year ago, local actor Aloysius Pang had succumbed to his injuries during an SAF incident, and his death quickly stirred much discussion.
As if having to deal with grief and the spotlight wasn’t enough, his girlfriend Jayley Woo—who is also a well-known local celebrity—was put under further emotional stress when a Lianhe Zaobao/Wanbao correspondent had reportedly harassed her, and even tried to emotionally blackmail a story out of her.
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Eventually, Hong took to Instagram to issue an apology addressed to Jayley, alluding it to a ‘misunderstanding’ according to a translation by Mothership.
A user on Facebook left a comment on Zheng Jie’s post, claiming that Lianhe Zaobao/Wanbao, had also breached his family’s privacy against their will in the past.
The importance of journalistic integrity
This chronicle has indeed highlighted the importance of journalistic integrity, but what does it exactly mean?
Reuters defines it as “exhibit[ing] a high degree of personal integrity at all times”, while The New York Times has stated that its “fundamental purpose is to protect the impartiality and neutrality of The Times and the integrity of its report”.
To me, it means respecting and upholding the absolute truth. As writers, words are our choice of weapon. And those words carry weight. It is a journalist’s duty to cradle every fact, statistic, and expression with utmost care—for it eventually becomes someone’s reality.
The weight of a writer’s words has the power to shape, alter, and define. It is the very reason why media channels fight everyday fires against fake news and hold it to themselves to weed out the truth.
It is a promise of factuality to our readers because, at some point, its significance will shift from us to them. Only then will we realise the consequences and impacts that our words carry.
Song Pei published a riveting story… but at what cost?
If we’re keeping score, then at this point, Song Pei has achieved his short term goal of publishing a gripping account, worthy of the shares and likes for which he so fervently yearns. He has proven himself as a journalist—in the barest sense of the word, getting to ground zero, and getting it fast.
However, what Song Pei failed to understand was the importance of pausing to reflect—be it on Zheng Jie’s privacy, Zheng Jie’s family, or more gravely, the very climate that we are currently in.
This is no ordinary time—nowadays, very much of what we read in the news can point to life or death, considering the vulnerability surrounding the current circumstance of COVID-19. To me, no story is ever worth harming another, neither is it worth toying with matters pertaining to public health. Though, Song Pei and I might have different ideas of what journalism means after all.
One must also take into consideration the readers of Lianhe Wanbao, mostly made up of the older demographic who are more prone to believing news reports at face value. Was, then, twisting someone else’s words for the sake of sensationalism and possibly fear-mongering truly a wise call?
Ah, the ‘c’ word. Regardless of the many different forms it may take, consent appears to be a recurring problem for many, and a point of various discussions. But if there’s one thing that countless debates and education have taught us, it’s the importance of respecting it. There’s nothing confusing about the word ‘no’.
While fabricating a recount for the sake of beefing up one’s story is already terrible in itself, what makes things even worse is that Song Pei had sought Zheng Jie’s permission for the story not once, but twice. And despite being turned down on both occasions, he still went against Zheng Jie’s wishes and proceeded to paint an outright vicious lie in a national newspaper.
This meant that regardless of Zheng Jie’s reply, Song Pei had already made up his mind to publish the story—whatever version that might be. And so when he had approached Zheng Jie for permission to use his photos, he was merely going through the motion of asking, because Zheng Jie’s declinature, clearly, meant little.
And if Zheng Jie wasn’t going to grant him the story, then he would simply have to snatch it from him behind his back. For the record, cloaking the story in anonymity did not make his action any more forgivable.
The chase for sensationalism can cloud judgement
All that said, did Song Pei write this story out of malice? Perhaps it was pure folly when he decided to throw integrity to the wind. The bottom line is, he just wanted a clickbait-worthy story. And as a journalist myself, I get that. I really do. But we should never take shortcuts to fit a story into our own narrative.
Song Pei’s primary intention was not to put Zheng Jie in harm’s way—and yet, sometimes that alone isn’t enough. The innocent intention of wanting to get a good story out there unfortunately led Song Pei down the path to irresponsibility, disrespect, and dishonesty.
Sometimes sensationalism and wanting to prove ourselves a worthy journalist can get ahead of morals. That’s when a sharp sword that is an unwavering code of ethics, swiftly drawn, can quell such rising stirrings.
Have their cake…and eat it too?
After all that’s been said, it is ultimately brazen of a national newspaper to think they were able to get away with this. Despite catching wind of the whole kerfuffle and being personally approached by Zheng Jie himself, it appears as though Lianhe Wanbao did little to right their wrongs.
Even after Zheng Jie had written in to Wanbao to address the issue, their response in return was that, “after an internal investigation, they found out that [Song Pei] had written the story based on [Zheng Jie’s] social media postings, and had made a wrong judgment to mention that [Zheng Jie] was interviewed although [Zheng Jie] had refused to,” according to Zheng Jie’s Facebook post.
So, should state-controlled media be held to a higher standard?
If the question is referring to a higher standard as compared to any other news outlet, then the answer from me is no. Nationally-backed newspaper or not, the very mantle of a ‘journalist’ comes with heavy responsibility. When we undertake the role, we are taking an unspoken oath of integrity, ethics, ownership for our words—it is what we owe our readers.
It is imperative not to misplace the trust that our readers put in our content, nor the authority that has been bestowed upon us. I know so many writers, journalists, and editors who work extremely hard to chase stories and create content—while still honouring facts above all else.
Ethical and honest journalism isn’t always easy, in fact, it is at most times trying. But it is this integrity that will continue to give power to our words, and authority to our claims. Journalists are the bridge between a story and its readers. It is crucial for readers to be presented with the truth, so it is on us to give that to them.
Here’s wishing Zheng Jie a speedy and worry-free recovery from COVID-19, and may the rest of us take this as a reminder that we’re all capable of doing better.
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