May 13, Never Again: The riots that changed Malaysia

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: Malaysia

Organisation: Malaysiakini

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 13/05/2019

Credit: Aidila Razak, Lee Long Hui, Sean Ho, Thiaga Raj, Tham Seen Hau, Wong Kai Hui, M Fakhrull Halim, Annabelle Lee

Project description:

Part of a package to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the May 13 deadly riots, this multimedia project features a blow-by-blow account of what happened on the first day of communal riots of 1969 which changed the direction of Malaysia. It tackles this taboo topic by locating the incidents of the riot onto an interactive contemporary map of Kuala Lumpur, giving the reader a visceral experience anchored on geographical and archival data, plus corroborated eye witness accounts. It also sets the context and consequence to explain how this riot is pivotal in Malaysian history.

Impact reached:

This project was part of a series of articles on the May 13 riots. The package received million page pageviews, while the microsite (submitted here) received 307,831 pageviews and about 43,000 social media shares in the first fornight. This is at least three times more than other special reports we produce. It generated a record number of new subscribers.

The project forced a national conversation, especially among the younger generations who live with the taboo of May 13, but were barred discussing it. Young people told us it was first time they were learning about the riots in detail because it is not taught in school due to ‘sensitivities’.

Three US-based researchers contacted us to include our work in their research. We were invited to speak about it at journalist events and on television.  

About 100 people – mostly under 35 – attended our intergenerational discussion between eye witnesses (including one who was a police officer at the time) and young Malaysians. One of the eye witnesses died soon after, a poignant reminder of how important it was that his recollections were recorded. The forum was guarded by police as some conservative groups threatened to disrupt it. This, however, did not materialise.

Because the narrative of May 13 is so contested, our journalists received online attacks and had to lodged a police report after safety threats.

The page also featured a call-out to witnesses to share their May 13 stories. They submitted stories through Google forms, email, social media and through phone calls to the newsroom. We closed submissions on June 13, 2019. A total 42, which we could corroborate, were published on a linked page (https://pages.malaysiakini.com/may13/stories/), as a popular archive of the event. The National Archives told us it was also including the project into its collection.

Techniques/technologies used:

Google Sheets – We used this to collate the information from various sources into a timeline which could be used within the team. Team members would include short description of events of the riot which they discovered through their research into the spreadsheet, along with source, date, time and other details. This was distilled to a key number of events. We imposed character limits to ensure writers comply with the design. We also used sheets to organise with the order of the page and the corresponding media and text, and used separate tabs for translations. It helped communication between programmers, writers, translators, editors and designers. 

Google Drive – We organised all the material (photos, videos, books, other documents) into folders which could be accessed by all the team. The locations were linked to in the master Google sheet. 

WhatsApp – For team management and communication. We opened a separate WhatsApp group to accommodate discussions and sharing of discoveries, when we could not meet in person due to other commitments. This is key because we were working across seven departments in Malaysiakini. All communications were kept within this group. 

HTML, CSS and Javascript – For web design, including the interactive map.

Leaflet.JS and Waypoints – To build the interactive map and anchor the narration to the locations on the map. 

Adobe suite – For photo editing and video editing. 


What was the hardest part of this project?

The most challenging aspect of the project was keeping as balanced and as objective as possible. Despite a white paper published months after the riot, the event has been the site of urban myth and legend, with ethno-political narratives of the riot used to prop up power. We spent a lot of time in the research, writing and design to ensure the page had a neutral tone and was anchored by data. Corroboration was a key challenge, including locating specific points to the map because Kuala Lumpur has changed drastically since 1969 and the documentation of the riots in 1969 were usually tied to landmarks or roads which no longer existed.

However, despite our careful considerations, we made mistakes in some phrasings which caused outrage within some communities and resulted in threats of safety against our journalists. This also faced difficulties with police, who threatened to probe us for sedition. 

The project also involved multiple long-form accounts of witnesses, written in first-person format. We cross-checked everything we published against multiple sources to ensure they were corroborated, but some person details (like where someone was at a particular time of their account) could not be independently verified, although for every account, they were all plausible and historically accurate. To be transparent, we included a disclaimer about inability to independently verifying those aspects – but this was used by critics to the entire project as disinformation. 

Unfortunately, the format we chose (first person narrative) also encouraged others to published made up accounts – which we knew were untrue because it contained crucial historical inaccuracies. This was particular demoralising and difficult, especially when these accounts were published within the first week of our publication thereby challenging the integrity of our project. (We published the articles in a daily series which lates one week)

What can others learn from this project?

We hope the project inspires others to use technology and data to revisit and investigate important but unresolved events in their national histories.

A key learning for us was when faced with a controversial topic, it was crucial to be transparent to the reader and to link to or cite as many sources as possible to protect the product’s integrity and build community trust. As we increasingly learn in our field, journalists can no longer be the final arbiter of ‘truth’ and must let readers into how this ‘truth’ was derived so they can judge themselves.

We ensured we had a diverse team of journalists and editors, given the ethnic-sensitivities of the topic. We also ensured young journalists worked on the project because our target audience was young Malaysians – the post-riot generation. This was to mitigate our own investible ethnic and age biases. That said, in retrospect, we could have recruited more beta readers outside the newsroom, from a wider range of backgrounds.

For distribution, the fact that we published in a series and directed readers to the microsite in each of the articles within the series and helped keep the topic in the headlines and drive traffic. The combination of paywalled and free article helped attract subscribers. The number of new subscribers was that month was the highest in Malaysiakini history.

Another learning was in analytics collection – because we targeted young people, we could have done better to try to measure if this was successful beyond passively waiting for feedback from young readers and seeking opinions at the forum.


Project links: