Catholic journalists from Asia recently attended a special meeting for communicators held in Kuala Lumpur

Participants listen as Mr Alan John, former deputy editor of The Straits Times, speaks at the SIGNIS meeting. Photo: SIGNIS

You may have read it somewhere, but it is untrue. Reports such as that of a Singapore food stall selling plastic rice, and Pope Francis endorsing Mr Donald Trump as president of the United States.

The blitz of these reports, commonly known as “fake news”, affects readers across the world. In some cases, journalists made mistakes. Other reports were deliberately crafted by opportunists.

“Once the false news has gone out, not many people bother with the correction. They still remember the first version,” said Mr Alan John, former deputy editor of The Straits Times.

He was addressing 20 media practitioners at an inaugural SIGNIS journalism roundtable, held in Kuala Lumpur on March 10 and 11. SIGNIS is the World Catholic Association for Communication.

Participants were invited from Asian countries, including Pakistan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore.

While participants identified as Catholic, many worked for secular media outlets such as the Korean Broadcasting System,

The Manila Times and The Associated Press. The theme of the gathering was Communicating Hope and Trust in our Time.

Over sessions and meals, participants spoke about the challenges of operating as a journalist. A common obstacle was “fake news”.

For instance, after India cancelled its popular 500 and 1,000 rupee bank notes last November, many media outlets claimed that the newly-issued 500 and 2,000 rupee notes had tracking capabilities.

“Even news channels picked up the story that was actually false. The government had to step in,” said Ms Karen Janice Laurie, a Catholic journalist from India.

Elsewhere, journalists are often pressured to present advertisers or newsmakers in a good light. In developing countries like Cambodia and Vietnam, the pressure is less subtle, according to participants from these countries. After a press briefing, envelopes with money are distributed as a token.

A participant from Pakistan shared that it was dangerous to advocate for persecuted Christians. As a result, he does not use his name on reports.

During the meeting, participants pledged to uphold journalistic standards by networking, verifying facts and valuing accuracy over speed.

Other speakers during the conference included veteran journalists and Dr Jim McDonnell, secretary of the SIGNIS Journalism Desk.

Archbishop Joseph Salvador Marino, the Apostolic Nuncio to Malaysia, and Archbishop Julian Leow of Kuala Lumpur, also dropped by for lunch with the participants.

“The decision is yours to be a person of integrity. If you put the truth, put your faith before you, opportunities will be there,” Archbishop Leow said.

As the roundtable came to a close, participants came up with a plan to continue telling stories of hope. Suggestions included a blog, expanding the SIGNIS journalism network and starting an online helpdesk for media practitioners.

Created in 2001, SIGNIS aims to harness the power of the media to promote peace. The organisation has five desks – cinema, television, radio, media education and journalism, which is the latest addition. Members come from over 100 countries.

By Annabelle Liang