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Pakistan’s media needs introspection. Urgently

Journalist tells Qamar Zaman Kaira his son had an accident
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That now infamous press conference represented a Black Day for Pakistan’s media. Yet equally shameful is the way that the industry has seemingly moved on, writes Miranda Husain

The aftermath of that now infamous press conference ought to have been a time for the fourth estate to engage in collective introspection. For few were in any doubt: live television was no way to inform a politician that his son has been involved in a fatal road accident.

Make no mistake, this represented a Black Day for Pakistan’s media. Yet equally shameful is the way that the industry has seemingly moved on. Thereby giving new mileage to that rather retro adage. The one about today’s news being tomorrow’s fish and chip papers. Except that in the age of twenty-four-seven broadcasts — news cycles hit the airwaves running.

Admittedly, there was an editorial here. An op-ed there. All appearing to bemoan the death of decency and journalistic ethics; as if this had happened overnight and by magic. Amid the focus on reporters and the need for sensitisation was much second-guessing about impulse. With the general consensus being that malicious intent played no part in the regrettable incident.

Yet what didn’t occur was any sort of collective responsibility. This is a gross misstep. For there are prevailing chains-of-command in newsrooms across the digital-print divide. Meaning that the buck ultimately stops with editors, news directors and heads of programming. Especially given that some of those at the helm have spent close to the last two decades — since the Musharraf era of media liberalisation — simply filling in the blanks.

From allowing photographs of a rape victim lying on a stretcher in a hospital; while printing her father’s name and address to publishing images of children scavenging for food whilst the latter are visibly trying to cover their faces. And to everything else in between. Including overlooking copy in which an anonymous source fearing reprisal is named. Or else a television channel patting itself on the back for having secured exclusive footage of Dr Aafia Siddiqui’s son (at the time still a minor) being reunited with his aunt shortly after his mother’s arrest; with no concern for safeguarding the rights of the child against an invasive media.

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Unfortunately, the battle for ratings and circulation figures appears to be the common denominator. Reporters are repeatedly told that only privileged information or quotes will guarantee a byline. The frequency of which impacts salaries. And given the dire financial straits facing journalists in this country — the fallout is plain to see.

What is needed, therefore, is solidarity across the industry and within newsrooms themselves. Particularly on the matter of remuneration. Both managements and governments must be made to recognise the severity of not being paid on a monthly basis. For a workforce that is coerced into providing free labour becomes bonded in nature.

What doesn’t help is when those at the helm tackle the issue by trying to turn themselves into one-man shows.  By pledging to bring out, say, a daily newspaper without a team. Such scenarios give way to copy-pasting news stories with scant regard for fact-checking or even proofing. And those who do show up to do the nuts-and-bolts work are under pressure to grab the attention of those who hold the purse-strings. Indeed, when journalists are compelled to petition the highest court in the land in a bid to receive pending dues — all the while fearful of being sacked for such ‘impudence’ — their attention will not be fully fixed on the job at hand. Hence, the time has perhaps come to contemplate collective strikes or else have the courts force certain news outlets into liquidation; selling off assets to pay staff for services rendered. Because, to be sure, things can’t continue as they are.

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A vibrant media must mean more than the number of newspapers in circulation or channels available.

Content matters. As does an evolving landscape. It has become increasingly difficult for both print and electronic media to break news in any meaningful way. Indeed, digital media — when boasting fully integrated multi-platforms — is beating both these traditional formats on this front.

Thus the spotlight must now shift towards investigative journalism and informed analysis. And this means slowing down the pace to offer readers and audiences alike something more than simply regurgitated sound bites.

But unless and until the media has either the means or inclination to train those working in its name — it will lose the right to call itself the fourth estate. And in the meanwhile, the industry will continue to suffer many more black days. Sadly.

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