In the aftermath of an unspeakable tragedy, there have been countless columns written deploring the awful state of media and news reporting in the country. Intelligent and civilized people have spoken clearly and eloquently about the irresponsible and unethical treatment of the tragedy by major news corporations. The best memorial to the tragic loss from the Airblue crash would be a lesson taken to heart by media corporations and a permanent improvement to reporting standards.
The government and the owners and managers of media groups (including the one this newspaper belongs to) need to come up with a policy on media ethics. Attempts to do so are usually taken by the media as a curb on its freedom. But would it rather have complete freedom to do whatever it wants to the point that the government ends up thinking that such freedom is too much and then the plug is pulled — as Musharraf did when he was power, or would it rather adhere to some kind of standard? The Five Rupees blog asks a question that needs to be answered in light of the crash: do we “prefer a free and irresponsible media over a sedate but muzzled media?” If it is the media that has gotten us used to sensationalist journalism, the media alone can rectify this. But it has to be a unified decision, just one or two channels changing their ways won’t help.
The blog post that Ms Saleha Riaz refers to is this one by the blogger Ahsan Butt. In it, he very correctly writes,
Nonetheless, this episode, amongst others, has really made me think. It goes without saying that on balance, I’d prefer a free and irresponsible media over a sedate but muzzled media. But that’s a false dichotomy. I’d really like to hear from various Pakistani journalists — I know some of you read this blog — and see what you think can be done.
The most obviously unfortunate thing is that when a channel does behave relatively responsibly and calmly, it gets absolutely no ratings. Remember good old Dawn News? Okay, the English language thing didn’t help, and neither did the Shah Mahmood Qureshi-wannabe accents, but I would also say that they weren’t nearly sensationalistic and loud enough for the Pakistani palate. Ultimately, we as consumers bear as much of the blame.
The outrage when such a tragedy is treated so glibly by our media is indeed warranted. But when will we see the same level of outrage about the poor quality reporting on politics, current events, and society? Is this not just as much outrageous? Just as much an affront to our national sensibilities?
Interestingly, the same blogger noticed that media coverage of KP floods was much different from that of Airblue. Still, these are both horrific tragedies with an obvious human element to them. So why the difference? Mr Butt suggests that it is a class bias.
Getting to the point of the post, I would argue that class really matters here. The type of person who is likely to die in an Air Blue flight, socio-economically speaking, is very different from the type of person who loses their family in flooding in KP. I’m sorry, but that’s just the truth, and anyone pretending otherwise is just being silly.
I would further submit that that distinction matters when deciding upon the coverage given to this. Ask yourselves this: do you really think Dawn would’ve buried this story that low down if the floods took place in Karachi in Gulshan or Nazimabad, or God forbid, Defence or Clifton or KDA? (assumie that Karachi had a river running through it). For the types of people who read (and work for) English newspapers, a plane crash simply resonates more than a flood in a relatively sparely populated province, and that seriously affects how the balance is struck between the two tragedies in terms of coverage. Mind you, I’m not arguing it’s a conscious decision — I’m just saying that the ability to feel empathy for a certain type of victim really matters, even if it’s under the surface of our cognitive faculties.
This is the same type of bias that results in “reporting” rumours and innuendos and accepting as “truth” that Zardari or Nawaz or any person is corrupt or terrible without having any proofs or evidence to back it up. How often do I hear people tell me that they just know that this person or that person is corrupt? They don’t have any way of knowing if such is true, but their biases take over their reason.
This same problem is more apparent to us with tragedies like Airblue or KP floods. But let us not lose the lesson of these tragedies for journalism. Reporters, editors, and publishers must take responsibility to act ethically and not report what is not evidence based facts. And when evaluating what is important, they must also evaluate their own class and provincial biases to determine if it is their own prejudice influencing the reporting.