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Rumors about the infotainment journalism

Ifan Adriansyah Ismail
21 August 2010

A FEW days ago, two birds glided into my life and started spreading news. As befit news from birds, it deserves to be treated as mere rumors. The problem is, these birds are insiders, so I decided to pay attention to their twitters.

The birds confirmed my suspicion that what we perceive on the surface in the infotainment debacle is not the same as the reality. The first bird was Ade Armando, member of KPI, Indonesian Broadcasting Committee. He published an explanation on his Facebook account that there was a misperception in the debates about infotainment today. The media kept on writing about the controversy of whether or not the infotainment program can be categorized as a journalistic product. In reality, the KPI Headquarter has not officially decided on the change in the status of infotainment program (and reality shows).

What is actually happening is that KPI is considering a variety of actions against the naughty infotainment programs, and one of the actions will be the status change. Immediately, however, the issue enthralls the news mosquitoes and there we have it: it seems that KPI has already decided about the change in the infotainment status. Such perception is further strengthened when during the Hearing with Commission I of the House of Representatives, there were statements from the legislators who essentially pushed KPI to make a decision regarding the infotainment status.

As if the acrobatics was not enough, the press became fascinated again when the following question ensued: “if the infotainment programs are considered as non-journalistic products, will they be subjected to censorship?” Somehow the answer seems to be pushed along with the tendentious question, in the way of the journalists, and essentially says: “Well, that’s the legal consequence.” Perfecto. Write that in your paper for the next morning: “The infotainment programs will be censored.”

From this misperception, we know how the debates made a turn to the trivialities about what makes a TV product a work of journalism.

Congratulations. We have again been trapped in petty issues.

While Ade Armando wished to warn us about the misperceptions of what has happened, I’m afraid such misperceptions have developed even further. To me, the crux of the problem lies not in the question of whether or not the infotainment program is a work of journalism.

Huh? What do we have here? The cynical Ifan Adriansyah Ismail is defending the infotainment? Well, no, dear readers. I am fully aware that in terms of the show’s content, there is nothing we can still rant about the infotainment program. The content is bad. End of story. And perhaps there are already 230,817 other columnists out there expounding on the ugliness of the show (the accuracy of the number is not guaranteed).

To me, the problem lies more in “how” the infotainment program is run, and it is thus more important to rectify its journalism ethics. A range of researches, from dissertations to analyses on the criteria for a program to be considered a work of journalism, have proven this: our infotainment programs do not meet the standards of a work of journalism. But what good would it do for us to dwell in such standards? In terms of its nature, whether we like it or not, infotainment is first of all a work of journalism, and it must remain that way because it is related to real people and real events! To categorize it as a work of fiction would have peculiar consequences:

[1] The boundary between the factual and the non-factual becomes blurred, because what the program presents are still real people who actually exist, with events that are (perhaps) real. With an audience that they claim to be immature, wouldn’t such blurriness worsen the situation?
[2] It is true that the infotainment crew would no longer be protected behind the shield that is their status as “journalists”, but they can still take cover behind the status of the program’s non-factuality. If one day actress A proteststhe program, saying that what it presents is not true, the program crew can argue: “We are, after all, not a product of journalism and thus don’tneed to be factual!”

All right, perhaps it wouldn’t grow to be that foolish. Still I insist: because of the field in which it works, infotainment must remain a product of journalism. How do we deal with the fact that infotainment has totally failed in meeting journalism criteria?

I think our infotainment program comes to being as a result of our leniency about journalism’s original sin. This is a fact that few would like to be reminded of: no matter how noble the objective of journalism is, its dark side invariably lurks behind, i.e. the fact there is an element of voyeurism that fuels journalism. It is this negative tendency that we seek to regulate through journalism’s code of ethics—cover both sides, be fair and balanced, etc.—which is based on the more fundamental ethics: do unto others as you would have them do unto you (this does not apply if you are a sadomasochist).

Unfortunately, it is this tendency that has been let to run amok in the Indonesian infotainment programs. Starting with the evil perception of “the accurate will not sell”, violation upon violation has also been forgiven and the originally flimsy ethics is further eroded. The sin gradually multiplies. The artists who wish to become famous make up news to catch the public’s attention. The infotainment crew is willing to violate others’ rights for the sake of the continuity of their programs, and so forth.

How can it become this rotten? Is the infotainment a cursed genre? Not really. In other countries, infotainment programs cover everything that combines the lifestyle program, entertainment news, and documentaries. Programs like Rescue 911 or Cops! and the ones in the Discovery Channel can also be considered as infotainment. They are seen to contain information because they encourage the audience to learn and know about various aspects of life, while at the same time they entertain the audience with the dramatized narratives. The program is further guarded and guided by a strong journalistic ethics that demands the crew to be socially responsible. It is this social responsibility that is one of the most abstract but at the same time most important element from the nine elements of journalism as Bill Kovacs explained.

Unfortunately, in Indonesia, the infotainment program has become identical with celebrity gossips. Perhaps we can therefore guess what information means to them. Or, if this ideological reasoning is considered as too judgmental, then perhaps there are technical reasons: to spread rumors about people is far cheaper and easier than to produce such shows as Rescue 911 and Cops!

It is again clear that there is nothing that we can resolve instantaneously. The journalistic standards of infotainment programs must be rectified; the crew must undergo a thorough and correct learning process to become journalists; apply consistent sanctions; long-term education; the public has to be made aware of what the media is; uphold the regulations. Complicated? Indeed. Rome was not built in one night; although some believed it would be possible for infotainment.

Some quick actions need to be taken, I don’t deny that. But why oh why are we so gifted in taking the wrong steps? Would questioning about the classification not lead to more blunders? It seems that the second bird has the answer to that question. I won’t name this second bird because this one wishes to remain anonymous. But he lets me know that the debates about whether or not the infotainment program is a product of journalism have to do with a mental war waged between the KPI camp and the PWI (Persatuan Wartawan Indonesia, or the Indonesian Journalists Association) camp, which has become “polluted” by the infotainment producers. If the war had the objective to weaken the position of the infotainment producers, I can’t help smiling. Still, on the surface, the public is confused with the unnecessary debates.

Do you want to take quick actions that the public would support? Hit the infotainment with the already-existing classification: put them in the category of “adult” shows and air them late at night! Histrionics would ensue, but, believe you me, they will subside.

The important thing is to be consistent in applying the regulations.

Oh, yes, I see. Isn’t that the problem?***

PS. My apologies to Ade Armando and the second bird. On the second thought, you both are not birds carrying rumors, but instead are birds with honest but unheard messages.


Illustrated by Eko. S Bimantara.


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