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Vietnam's lynch mob mentality raises question over the press' bias

June 21, 2016 | 12:51 am PT
To mark Vietnam's national journalists' day (June 21), VnExpress International introduces some thoughts from one of its very own journalists about media prejudice and the price of irresponsible journalism.

In January this year, I was contacted by a man who wanted to arrange a meeting with with me. He is someone I had mentioned in one of my previous articles.

I was really proud of that piece and consider it a milestone in my career. It was praised by readers, received a lot of good feedback and I even heard people mention it during a business trip to the far northwest of Vietnam.

That man was released from jail after six months in custody while police were conducting an investigation into an infamous economic fraud case. During his time in jail, people wrote thousands of articles about him. But, he only wanted to meet one person after his release. He said my article made him cry. Not touchy tears but tears of resent, anger and wrath.

Back then, he was convicted of violations on a major construction project. People were furious because the violations greatly affected their lives. Based on the investigation’s reports and the decision to prosecute, I decided to write an article about the case.

During the meeting, we talked a lot to each other, just like two souls belonging to two different generations who had met by chance. We both tried to avoid talking about the case. He told me about the time when he was inspired by the idea of rebuilding and improving the northern socialist regime after the war, about his career and his family. He did not try to explain himself or his acts. But at some point, the case came up. He cried. That man, I knew, had already been “convicted”, even before his trial. He had been sentenced by the public. And I was one of the people who created that crowd.

Among the thousands articles about him, he only wanted to see me. It wasn't because he wanted me to be on his side (I could not do anything anyway because the judgment had already been made by the public). He said he believed that I was a gentle person and he did not want me to misunderstand him. From that I knew, it did not matter matter what he did, he was still a kind and considerate person.

During the era of technology and social media, it is very easy to condemn people. One does not have to be a journalist or a reporter to do so. All you need is a status with an audience and responses from people. The task of collecting information is also fairly easy. Everything is shared on Facebook, and real or fake, no one knows.

But if the advantages of the technological era are combined with journalistic abilities, the skill to process information and the skill to use word, and the right to publish in mainstream media, its power would become many times greater.

My colleagues and I, who use social media as journalistic tools, more than anyone, understand its power. The kind of power that is hard to control. An article that is shared by someone who is a journalist has the power that is two or three times greater than a single Facebook status. But that goes with the risks because journalists are influenced by information and opinions from many different sources.

No one can prosecute a journalist for the psychological impacts that they have on the public. The impact, in fact, maybe very strong. And in some cases, maybe very negative.

I had such an impact on a person before his trial even opened with my abilities as a journalist and a Facebook account that has many followers. Whether he was guilty or not, convicting people in such a way is unjust. Everyone is innocent before the court decides.

It did not matter if he was guilty or innocent, I still felt tormented. A month later, and after a lot of thinking, I came to the conclusion that I had done nothing wrong as a journalist. I did not do anything for my own benefit and used I legitimate sources…but I still had to send him a message.

“I think I owe you an apology,” I texted. He only replied: “OK”.

Later, his daughter let me know that he did not want to contact me during the investigation.

At that moment, I realized there is a thin line between respect and bias in this job.

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