How do you measure compassion online? Or empathy? How do we advocate tolerance towards migrant workers when negative stereotypes are being continually recycled and unchallenged in cyberspace?

Civil society is changing shape online but sadly it hasn’t brought with it civil discourse.

I stumbled upon this article yesterday about the death of two migrant workers in Geylang. It was ranked among STOMP’s Top 8 ‘Must See’ items on the site next to “Believe it or Not, These Pretty Women Are All… Men” and “Meet Getai’s Pole Dancing Queen.”

STOMP is one of those media inventions that has moved way beyond parody – a halfway home for online voyeurs parading as citizen journalism; even so, this article has managed to attract some 23,736 viewers since it was published despite being in flagrant breach of many international guidelines on reporting suicide.

Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide were designed to prevent sensationalising suicide: leading experts in suicide prevention and in collaboration with several international suicide prevention and public health organizations, schools of journalism, media organizations and key journalists as well as Internet safety experts devised them as best practice for all types of journalists.

Numerous studies have revealed the risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.

Instead of big or sensationalistic headlines on the homepage, the report recommends minimizing prominence; instead of photos of the method of the death and the location it advises including a family photo (which STOMP does) and a link to a suicide hotline (which STOMP doesn’t).

In between the pink fluorescent side panels and the signature footprint of the website, a picture of two migrant workers next to a blood-stained bed. The opening line to the story reads:

Do you know what your maid is really up to on her days off?

Singapore’s maids don’t yet have days off by law, but a campaign is gathering pace and the ruling PAP Party have indicated that they will by January 2013.

The article goes on to invite a STOMPER to publicly speculate on the fate of the couple, despite there being an open investigation. At the time of writing, it is not known whether these two young migrants committed suicide or whether this was a murder-suicide.

But STOMPER Fiona is invited to give her two cents worth nonetheless:

It must have been a tremendous shock for her employer and friends to discover that she had had a relationship she had kept under wraps, which only came to light because of their deaths.

Not as shocked, I’d imagine, as they were about their deaths.

Beneath the article a thread from the STOMP community protests the introduction of a compulsory day off for maids and questions the PAP day off policy.

“Too many days off already, lah,” says reaching_there said.

“And to think that some idiots wanna give us more problems to introduce compulsory off days?” says JohnEdward.

“The report already stated that the maid had no problems with her employer so what has the suicide got to do with ’employers not giving domestic helpers the due respect’??!! These are the potential issues our society gonna face with the upcoming compulsory day off,” says Pancake22.

“We have lost two foreign talent,” says Luckyozy640.
“Ya, what a great loss for sg!” answers sgspiddy.

More disturbing was this comment:

“The government should make it mandatory to issue dildos of different sizes to forerign maids when they come here to work,” from STOMP user hexroadammo.

None of this appears to have been moderated by STOMP, which could be excused if it were manned by a team of 13-year-olds. But it’s not. STOMP is part of The Straits Times – run and owned by Singapore Press Holdings, our leading media voice – the organisation that determines what news we read, watch and share. As en exercise in citizen journalism it is a fantastic innovation, but frankly, can you trust citizens to abide by best practice journalism? For the sake of growing online advertising revenue, do you just throw caution to the wind?

More concerning is the fact that Singapore’s netizens deem the issue of whether or not these migrant workers had a day off as more important than their deaths. The comments above are shocking. They send a shocking message about Singaporeans lack of empathy towards migrants. Is it really best practice for newspapers to parade these deaths online next to stories about pole dancers and transsexuals as linkbait… an item to be shared among friends?

It’s worth noting that the ubiquitous Facebook ‘Like’ button beneath the article is now approaching 200, those are people who have read this article and shared it, perpetuating the cycle of indifference towards migrants and the negative stereotyping that goes with it.

All of this, of course, is very much of secondary importance: families in Bangladesh and the Philippines have lost a mother, sister, brother, friend and child.

And whether they had a day off or not really doesn’t matter.