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PK-8303 Crash: How Not To Cover A Tragedy

Awais Saleem writes about the fundamentals of ethical journalism that remain missing in Pakistan. When the newsroom gets into the rut of breaking news first and getting hold of the closest shot of the victims or their families come what may, they only end up aggravating the problem.

News media’s job is by no means easy under normal circumstances, but it becomes even more challenging when tragedy strikes. When the event is unfolding at a fast pace and information flow is not structured, journalists need to be extra vigilant. Rumors circulating on social media make it even more puzzling to separate reality from fake news. That’s when a conscious display of responsibility and professionalism is required the most.

To err is human, and journalists are no exception. But when they are covering similar kinds of news stories repeatedly, the expectation is that they will learn from their slips and become better at it. When unsure, sticking to the basics is the fundamental rule.

However, the question is: Do these journalists know what those basic rules are? When was the last time any Pakistani media outlet organised a training on disaster coverage or trauma reporting for their staffers? They have covered at least four fatal passenger airplane crashes in the last decade, other than some narrow escapes. If the coverage of the PK-8303 crash in Karachi is any indication, they appear to have hardly learnt anything from previous experiences.

Let’s see what those basic rules of disaster coverage are that students and rookie journalists are expected to know.

The first rule is that under no circumstances, the families of victims should get to know the whereabouts of their loved ones from the media. The journalists should wait for such information to reach the families through official quarters before printing or airing it.

The second rule is to double-check any information (particularly in a breaking news scenario) and not rely on unverified bits or sources in an attempt to be the first to break the news.

The third rule is to be empathetic to the victims and their families. Journalists are supposed to think twice what they would’ve felt like if they were in such a position and if there is any other (better) way to cover it.

Now consider this scenario. You are a young man who just passed out from the military academy. You have just been commissioned, but your celebrations remained incomplete because your family couldn’t make it to the passing out parade because of Covid-19. You are returning home and your family is eagerly anticipating your arrival to celebrate your accomplishment.

There is another person who hasn’t even informed his father about his arrival because he wants to surprise him on Eid. The plane crashes and passenger manifest starts flashing on television screens with names, ID card numbers, and other personal details of those aboard. Go back and read rule one. Violated.

Consider another scenario. Rescue efforts are still underway, but television presenters are already asking questions from the field reporters about casualties implying that nobody survived. Then there are reports of some miraculous survivors. The race is now about the number of survivors. Is it just one? Or two? No, no there are seven. One media outlet also claimed fourteen. Some of the passengers were more well-known than others. Are they dead? No, survived. No no, dead again. The line between social media speculation and mainstream responsible coverage was frequently and conveniently blurred. Go back and read rule two. Violated.

Let’s consider a third scenario. Rescue work is underway. It is a difficult task, made even more challenging by the narrow street where the plane crashed. The fire brigade is finding it hard to reach there and rescuers have to carry the passengers and injured people from the locality on a stretcher by foot before the ambulances can take them to the hospitals. In any civilized country, journalists are to stay away from the barricaded area. But this is Pakistan. A journalist in the field is required to get close access, and an even closer shot of the wreckage, bodies, and injured for the camera. Ambulances can wait. A soundbite first. If for some reason the victim isn’t available, let’s ask a family member “how are you feeling?” Who knows the family member might be elated at receiving a loved one who passed away after a plane crash? If they can shed a tear or two, pure gold. Go back and read rule three. Violated.

Understandably, the field has its own frenzy. That things don’t always go according to plan when you are covering a disaster that is unfolding. That the lack of coordination among government agencies and law enforcement on the spot makes the job of journalists difficult. That’s where the newsrooms come into the picture. They are required to steer their field staffers towards finding a good story angle, but also make them do so without compromising on the ethical guidelines.

When the newsroom gets into the rut of breaking news first and getting hold of the closest shot of the victims or their families come what may, they only end up aggravating the problem.

Another lesson that students are taught in journalism schools is to sit back, take a deep breath, and think about what they had been through once the immediate coverage is over. They are also supposed to apply the lessons learnt in the follow-up stories for days and weeks after the tragedy. When they start appearing all decked-up in Eid transmissions a couple of days later, it is easy to infer that the issue at hand is not just of professional training but also of common sense and sensibilities.

This sorry trend permeates the entire fraternity. Journalists in the field can’t take on the newsrooms. Newsroom managers can’t offend the media outlet’s owner for whom any question about ethics is always subservient to the business angle of things. That’s why prerecorded shows and signing and dancing had to go on air during eid days despite the somber environment owing to the plane crash just 48 hours ago.

Television is a ratings-driven medium. It needs eyeballs to survive. More often than not, that means preying on human misery. Cut-throat competition is the nature of the beast, and the beast knows no ethics. Once it smells blood, there is no looking back.

But should the media persons be copping this blame alone? There were others in responsible positions who contributed to the mess. The federal aviation minister, Ghulam Sarwar Khan, appeared on a television channel and declared that all passengers had died. Sindh government’s minister, Saeed Ghani, went to the hospital and clicked a picture with the first survivor before instantly releasing it to the media.

PIA chief, Arshad Malik, immediately issued a video statement in which he claimed that there was nothing wrong with the aircraft “but we’ll fully investigate what happened”. If the investigation was yet to be carried out, how could he give assurances about aircraft fitness remains unclear.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) released the last conversation with the crew to the media which kept repeating it on a loop. They didn’t ask whether the CAA had violated any rules by not giving it to the formal inquiry committee first.

It is clear that the rot is deep-rooted and multi-faceted. The media is just happy to play along. Whatever the government functionaries, PIA, or CAA fed them, they aired it without a second thought. Everything is exclusive and every outlet wants to be the first with it. If it means pulling pictures of the flight crew and passengers from their social media pages, so be it.

It is also evident that they refuse to learn any lessons from their mistakes or global best practices. Yes, the ugly side of the corporate and unfortunate reality of our times. There is no ready answer or insight. However, if all those dealing with a tragedy involving human beings start thinking as humans first, perhaps that will be a good starting point.

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