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Nik with a librarian sorting through samples of 2004 newspapers, National Library of Malaysia.


At the Utusan Malaysia Resource Centre.


Nik with a librarian at the National Library of Malaysia.

Nik Norma Nik Hasan

University of Canterbury

Nik is studying towards a doctorate in Journalism at the University of Canterbury. She is making a comparative study of the way in which environmental issues are reported in Malaysia and New Zealand, focussing on four nationally distributed Malaysian newspapers and four of New Zealand's regionally distributed newspapers. The following is her report on the fieldwork she did during a ten week visit to Malaysia in late 2004 and early 2005.


My doctoral thesis will compare the reporting of environmental issues in the Malaysian and New Zealand press in three specific years: 1996, 2000 and 2004. My aim is to examine the patterns of environmental news articles in each case in order to identify and describe the similarities and differences and to explore the factors contributing to the differences. The study focuses on four nationally distributed newspapers in Malaysia — two English newspapers namely, The New Straits Times and The Star, and two Malay newspapers, Berita Harian and Utusan Malaysia. The four regionally distributed newspapers selected for New Zealand are The Press, The Dominion Post, The New Zealand Herald and The Otago Daily Times. These newspapers were chosen because of their large circulation figures.

My fieldwork in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, ran from 16 November 2004 to 26 January 2005 and was planned as an opportunity to interview key people and for gathering detailed information on the emergence, background and visions of the four selected newspapers and their companies.. I had hoped to make a content analysis of the Malaysian newspapers before travelling to Kuala Lumpur. However, between July and October 2004, I was unable to interloan the newspapers' microfilms from the National Library of Malaysia. Thus, during my 10 weeks in Kuala Lumpur, not only did I have to conduct the planned interviews with 21 respondents, but I also had to collect data from and analyse environmental news articles. It was indeed a difficult task to manage those tasks at once. Nevertheless, I managed.

I worked on the Malaysian newspapers from 16 November to 21 December 2004 at the National Library of Malaysia. The 1996 and 2000 samples were gathered using the microfilm machines available at the library. But gathering data from the 2004 samples had to be done manually because they had not yet been microfilmed. One print out copy cost RM1 and the total number of environmental news articles found was 506. During this time I also conducted pilot interviews with nine government officials, academics and environmentalists. Essentially, the pilot interviews aimed at obtaining respondents' perspectives on their own construction of environment definition andtheir overall views on the media's role in disseminating environmental information to the public; I also asked about their suggestions for, and expectations of, improvement in the reporting.

I then, spent another four weeks (23 December 2004 – 20 January 2005) at the three newspaper companies: The New Straits Times Press (NSTP) – the giant newspaper company in Malaysia that governs the two mainstream newspapers, The New Straits Times (English) and Berita Harian (Malay); The Utusan Group of Companies; and STAR Publications (Malaysia) Berhad. The purpose of this visit was to gather from the newspaper companies detailed information about, for example, such as milestones, corporate structure, financial performance and statistics, activities, readership, policies, publications, investments and future prospects. This information was important for two basic reasons. First, it is to be included in one of the chapters in my thesis for the purpose of explaining how the newspaper companies operate. Second, the information is to be analysed in order to identify influential elements such as company policies or history that might have an effect on the news contents, specifically on the environmental news. This analysis could also help resolve certain issues arising from the content analysis. During that four-week period, I also managed to conduct pilot interviews with another twelve journalist respondents. Basically, I was asking for information about the constructions of environmental news and about the information flow from journalists to mediation/gatekeepers and the then to the medium (press).

The findings from both content analysis and pilot interviews are very important because they can help refine the methodology, sharpen the data search and, thus, help me better meet my research objectives.. For instance, through the pilot interviews I found that most of the respondents believe that the local media is paying more attention to environmental news now than before. This is perhaps due to the increasing awareness of the importance of environmental protection among Malaysians. The content analysis, however, revealed that despite the increasing awareness, the amount of environmental news published dropped about 13 per cent from 1996 to 2004 in all mainstream newspapers. The reasons for this are unknown, at least for now. I hope that these reasons can be discovered by means of in-depth interviews and survey methods.

Among the difficulties (I would prefer to call them challenges) I encountered during the fieldwork period, a major one was the high search and photocopying fees charged by the newspaper companies. Most of them charged a RM10 per hour search fee and RM1 per photocopy. An extra RM10 was charged for each box of information that one wanted to search through. This amounted to quite a substantial fee because the search normally took at least four to five hours a day, and entailed working through three or four information boxes. The fees, neverthless, are not unreasonable; the newspaper resource centres are not commercialised enterprises and are there for the use of the staff and journalists. Hence, high fees are charged to outsiders.

Another challenge was the relatively short period of time I had to complete all tasks. I sometimes had to conduct two interviews and carry out the data collection in a day so that I could get my timetablke back on schedule. In addition, data collection could sometimes be very slow because of the limited numbers of microfilm machines available at the National Library. Whenever there were many users, each user was limited to 30 minutes on a machine; a result was often long queues and long waits. However, the National Library' staff were extremely good and very helpful in making sure I could work efficiently. I was also allowed a small discount on all the photocopies I made. Perhaps the current situation could be improved by implementing a more efficient booking system or by installing more microfilm machines for users.

Travelling time and costs were another problem. I stayed at a place that is about 50 km from Kuala Lumpur, and it cost me time, money and energy to travel back and forth everyday. In short, transport costs were tremendously high.

Despite all the challenges, my visit was well worth while; the fieldwork constitutes an integral part of my comparative study. It would be almost impossible to collect the data I need for the Malaysian case studies without having spent time in Kuala Lumpur. The pilot interviews were critically important for the construction of questionnaires and as preparation for in-depth interviews. Additionally, the content analysis is now producing valuable findings. Some are unexpected. For example, there are many claims that local peoples' voices are being suffocated by the media, especially their views on environmental issues, because their views are not based on research or 'science'. Nevertheless, my content analysis shows that the number of local people used as news sources increased steadily from 1996 to 2004.

There has been little study to date on the media-environmental issues relationship in Malaysia. New Zealand researchers have made studies of, for example, media coverage of climate change (Bell, 1994) and the issue of verification and balance in science news (Sessions, 2003). I anticipate, therefore, that my study, by combing qualitative and quantitative methods, will make a significantly new contribution to research on mass communication relating to environmental issues in both Malaysia and New Zealand.

Above all, this study, which is expected to be completed by late next year, owes a great debt to the Chair of Malay Studies and NZASIA for supporting and making this fieldwork trip possible.