The Dangers of Armchair Journalism, US-Style

There hasn’t been enough news in countries like the US about how well Viet Nam is coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, so I was pleased to see this short NPR report on 16 April entitled In Vietnam, There Have Been Fewer Than 300 COVID-19 Cases And No Deaths. Here’s Why by veteran journalist Michael Sullivan. There was one problem, however, that was worth pointing out, which I did to both NPR and Mr. Sullivan. Here’s the offending passage: Those who break the rules in this one-party communist state are treated harshly. One man was jailed on a nine-month sentence for failing to wear a mask.

When I first read it, it smacked of pandering to a US audience that likes to believe that Viet Nam is an oppressive police state that controls everyone and everything. (Something along the lines of “We may have the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 and related deaths in the world but at least we’re free.”) Having lived and worked here for nearly 15 years, I can assure you that is not the case. It appeared to be a black mark on what was a very positive and inspirational story. It’s also not true. While I’m hesitant to use this oft-misused and abused term, if the shoe fits, wear it!: it really was fake news.

Have a look at this VNExpress International article entitled Vietnam jails two men for assaulting Covid-19 task force members that was linked in the NRP report (!), and you’ll discover that two men were sentenced to short prison terms not for failing to wear a mask but for 1) cursing and assaulting members of a task force with a stainless steel stool; and 2) grabbing the phone of the medical control staff and throwing it on the ground. The first was found guilty of assault and the second of obstructing officials on duty.

Fines for not wearing a face mask can go as high as 300,000 VND ($12.80), a nice chunk of change by local standards. No prison sentence. Just pay the fine, put your a mask on and, hopefully, learn your lesson.

The graphic below, posted by a Vietnamese journalist on his Facebook page, sums it up. “Parachute” or “armchair” journalism is a reference to the fact that the NPR reporter files stories from his perch in Thailand.

@Michael Sullivan – For God’s sake and the sake of quality journalism, check your articles and don’t leave these important details to your assistant or whomever. @NPR – Don’t you have editors whose job it is to do content editing, in addition to copy editing?

Postscript aka minor victory – On 18 April 2020, NPR posted this correction:

Shalom (שלום), MAA