Interview: R.AGE editor Ian Yee on actionable journalism and empowering audiences

In a rapidly shifting news industry, R.AGE looks to rise above to keep people informed with solutions.

 R.AGE editor Ian Yee — Photo by Aizyl Azlee

Back in 2016, R.AGE made waves when it unveiled its transformation from being a youth pullout in national paper The Star into the hard-hitting investigative news team that it is popularly known as today.

The biggest philosophy that drove that transformations was their choice to stop talking down to “the youth” and provide people with actionable information through what they brand as impact journalism.

This approach to inform and lead towards action have won them top national and international awards (they won the Kajai Award two years in a row,  several Asian Media Awards and were the first Malaysian production ever nominated for a Peabody Award in the US, just to name a few).

And most notably, their Predator in My Phone campaign led to the forming of new laws in Malaysia to protect children from sexual grooming through the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017.

We catch up with R.AGE editor Ian Yee to talk about the challenges in journalism today and the process behind empowering their audience:

Q: What was the initial spark that called for the reboot of R.AGE?

When I first proposed to reboot R.AGE, it was early 2014, and I remember a lot of journalists being quite alarmed at the direction Malaysian journalism was heading in. There were quite a few online portals touting themselves to be news platforms, but they didn’t have any journalists in the field – they just had people copying stories from major news outlets, and republishing them on their pages – usually with pretty sensational, click-bait headlines.

It happened to a couple of our stories too. Our investigation into the sugar daddy culture in Malaysia took us several months to complete, but it took some of these portals just a few minutes to copy it, almost word-for-word, to draw traffic to their pages instead of ours.

Personally, I was alarmed at the implications of having such a practice continue. I’m all for disrupting traditional ways of doing things, but this was BAD disruption.

Q: So what exactly was rebooted?

We decided that R.AGE should go the complete opposite direction, to explore the kind of journalism we all aspired to – hard-hitting investigative work and compelling stories that drive impact – and we would do it in the same online space.

We would also do it mainly in video format, so it would be much harder for these online platforms to copy our work and pass it off as their own (even though some still do it by downloading and reuploading our videos).

We stopped doing all the other stuff we had been “expected” to do – entertainment stories, lifestyle pieces, fluff pieces, college happenings, etc. – and we told ourselves to not think about web traffic for the first year. Focus on just delivering really good, responsible investigative journalism, and the numbers will come naturally.

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Q: How would you describe the public’s relationship with media today and the role R.AGE plays?

Unfortunately, the way the public interacts with media in Malaysia today is quite problematic. I’ll admit I might be biased, given I’m speaking as a journalist, but when it comes to social media, people are very quick to criticise journalism when it doesn’t conform to their worldview. That cognitive dissonance they experience is so much more heightened now, because we’ve been living in these social media echo chambers, where we’re only being fed messages from like-minded people or sources.

But with good, responsible journalism, you’re often bringing up issues that are super important, but won’t make people happy. Whether it’s because we’re bringing up a social problem, or simply because it’s a divisive issue that many people won’t agree with, most of the time, it’s not going to be all good news.

And when it’s something people don’t agree with, they usually lash out at the messenger – the news outlets.

That’s why with R.AGE, we always make sure we offer a solution to the issues we’re reporting as well, one that allows the public to get involved in. It gives the audience a sense of positivity and purpose.

Q: R.AGE has often described its approach as “impact journalism”. What does this mean to you, and what “impact” would you like to create?

Some people call it “activism journalism”, and it’s something many traditionalists would disagree with – a journalist’s job is to report; leave the activism to someone else. We respectfully disagree, of course.

As mentioned, journalists are often the only people who will engage all the different stakeholders of a particular issue. These issues often exist because they are contentious or divisive; so even among the stakeholders – between activists and government, for example – there will be conflict. They won’t play well together. But a good journalist will engage people on all sides, hear out all their grouses, issues and challenges, all their proposed solutions, and research it well enough to know what the best way forward is. So with all that in mind, why shouldn’t we journalists just go the extra mile to promote that solution? Why can’t we put our money where our mouth is, and back the very solution our research tells us is best?

That’s what I think impact journalism is all about. It’s not just about activism or advocacy – it’s about creating actionable solutions that lead to real, long-lasting positive impact on a variety of issues.

Q: How was The Curse of Serawan chosen to be the story to reintroduce R.AGE in its renewed form?

I think as with most things with R.AGE, we go with what’s most urgent. Because there’s never a shortage of issues for us to cover. At any given time, we’re looking into 15 or 20 different things and we don’t have enough people. So we’re always relying on our journalists to tell us, “this needs to be done now”. So this was the case with The Curse of Serawan when our producer said that this was urgent because we had reports of children dying due to what seemed like neglect on the authorities’ part.

It’s always a tough call, to have to say that we are going to put another story on hold for now and focus just on this, because this has urgency. So that’s the word — urgency.

And this project really opened people’s eyes to what good investigative journalism could be in the digital age. We combined videos, text, photos and interactive graphics to help draw attention to a really important social justice issue, and helped push through some actual changes for the affected communities as well.

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Q: How did the scale of Predator in My Phone’s success inform future stories and campaigns, in terms of what is worth an all out campaign for legislation change?

For Predator in my Phone, it was a no-brainer. We knew we had to aim for policy change. Everyone was supporting it, there was just no one working together to coordinate and have a concerted effort to push it through.

Earlier on when we were discussing how to address child sex crimes, there were factions that felt like we shouldn’t be talking about these issues because doing it wrongly would cause other problems. But we found a very elegant and simple solution, which was to keep it on the laws. Everyone was then very supportive, and we couldn’t have done it without their work. Especially all the ground work NGOs and activists have done over the past 10, 20 years. It’s really amazing. We just came in to coordinate a little bit more.

That experience helped us in our approach, which is to make sure that we are actually contributing. Because there are some issues that we’ve looked into that we feel like there’s nothing that we can do that isn’t already being done, and we don’t want to make things worse.

But there are certain campaigns like #StandTogether that we knew would be positive. We engaged stakeholders and it was agreed that a National Kindness Week is a good idea. So I think that’s the first rule for us. We have to be a hundred percent sure that we are not doing more harm than good.

Q: Speaking of determining urgency and approaches to take, how do you navigate sensitivities?

We really have to keep our finger on the pulse and understand the climate.

For some issues, the solution is to take a softer approach through education and changing mindsets. And I think The Hidden Cut is a project like that. We do want to make an impact, we do want to affect positive change, but we realised, through our stakeholders that if we pushed for legislation now, we were going to lose that audience.

So we decided on at least talking about regulating it among healthcare professionals.

Q: So, if R.AGE was rebooted back then as a push back against poor content that was disrupting news at the time, how has R.AGE adapted over the years especially now that the disruption has evolved into what seems like a systematic dismantling of the credibility of news itself?

That’s one of the reason we’ve launched Newflash, our latest series where we dissect the big issues in the news. Personally, I think that series helps restore some of that credibility, because we throw a tonne of research at it, and we invite people to debate it in the comments.

So with our other documentaries, you’re often looking at a greater focus on human stories. Audiences sometimes see these as a bit more subjective, like our Student/Trafficked project on Bangladeshi student trafficking victims – despite all the research, we still had a lot of public comments criticising the victims.

With Newsflash, it’s really just 100% about the issue, and that has helped generate quite a positive response from the public. Many of them comment to say that they appreciate the level of research and clarity they get out of it, and hopefully that helps repair some of the recent hits to our industry’s credibility.

On top of that, we’ve also been working on a project on media training, as well as a documentary project on the evolution of Malaysian journalism and the challenges it has faced. Stay tuned for that!

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