Singapore Press Holding's citizen journalism portal STOMP has found itself in an embarrassing position after it was discovered that a content producer had posed as an anonymous member of the public to submit false news to the site.
Last week a photo was posted on STOMP by a contributor identified only as ‘wasabi', showing a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train with its doors wide open. The article alleged that the doors had been open while the train was moving – a serious safety issue. The story was then picked up by tabloid newspaper The New Paper.
SMRT, the company responsible for the MRT service, promptly undertook investigations into the incident, which they claimed to be impossible as the trains all come with safety features preventing them from moving if the doors are open. The contributor ‘wasabi', identified as STOMP content producer Ms Samantha Francis, turned up to assist SMRT officers in their investigation.
However, both CCTV footage reviewed by SMRT and Ms Francis’ ez-link card showed that she had not been at that particular station the night the photograph was supposed to have been taken. This discovery led Singapore Press Holdings to do its own investigation. Ms Francis eventually admitted that she had not been at that station that night, and had actually found the photograph on Twitter. The original tweet has since been removed.
SPH has apologised to SMRT. Ms Francis was sacked on the same day.
SPH has always made a big deal out of STOMP, marketing it as a “citizen journalism” platform powered by contributions from members of the public. But the site has been rejected by many prominent members of Singapore's online community, and is more known for photos of couples indulging in public displays of affection than for grassroots reporting of local issues.
Lee Kin Mun points out that there is more than one issue at play here:
I am not sure if she was fired because she posted a fake photo, or because she posted it as an anonymous member of the public, or both.
Is it the practise of SPH to allow their staff to post “scoops” as anonymous “STOMPers”. I wonder?
Following the government's persistent efforts to characterise alternative media as being skewed and untrustworthy, this episode has severely undermined their efforts to get Singaporeans to put their faith in the government-linked mainstream media.
Alex Au at Yawning Bread writes that the credibility of the government's pro-mainstream media claims has now been considerably weakened:
Nor is anyone within official circles going to revisit their claims that only SPH (and its twin, government-linked Mediacorp) stands for responsible journalism. But the damage has been done. From now on, anytime the government tries to paint new media as untrustworthy, they’re going to have this incident thrown back at them like so many cream pies. Pflaphtt.
He goes on to question a possible double standard:
Oh, and by the way, why aren’t we hearing anything about damages? If a blogger had tried to pull the same stunt, would SMRT or any government-linked body not have been quick to send lawyer’s letters and so forth?
Ex-journalist Bertha Henson criticised Ms Francis for her lack of ethics and professionalism:
But the current Stomp case takes the cake. The woman (I would never call her a journalist) was sacked. She conned her editors, posted a picture that she said was from a netizen named wasabi about an opened door at a station she never was at. Then she brazenly tried to tough it out when SMRT came checking. Hey, opened door/moving train…safety issues no? She even stood by her story when her editor asked her about it. It was egg on the face for everyone.
Twitter users have also criticised STOMP and Ms Francis:
@woonhian: When you're in a hole, Ms. Samantha Francis, you try to climb out, not dig deeper. (SMRT aren't always the bad guys, you know.)