Missing the Point

Nov 17th, 2010 | By | Category: Uncategorized

By now you have probably heard the story of Asia Bibi who was handed down the death sentence in Nankana district for violation of blasphemy laws. This has created quite a debate in parts of the media – but not the debate you might expect. Actually, most of the discussion has been about whether or not the government should overturn the sentence for Asia, with little discussion of the underlying issues. Saroop Ijaz makes an important observation in today’s Daily Times about the way that media reports often miss the bigger picture of a story.

Here’s what Saroop Ijaz says about how the media treats stories that have a personal aspect.

Stories about social problems are often framed with a focus on people rather than principles, single events rather than themes and easily understandable proximate causes rather than deeper and more complex causes. We may remember the video of the public flogging of a young girl in Swat. About half the time in the media debate on the incident was devoted to whether the video was real or fake. The veracity of the video was insignificant compared to the questions that it evoked about the society that we are, and the society we want to become. Similarly, the Lal Masjid incident is talked about even now in the media, but mostly with a unifocal approach of who was to be blamed for the operation. The question is indeed relevant; however, the incident also raised questions that go to the core of the existentialist crisis that the Pakistani state faces. Abstract concepts, though important, are not often marketable and hence not media-worthy.

The story of Asia Bibi case is a perfect example of this problem. While there has been some discussion of the justice in the verdict, there has been a smaller amount of discussion about the wisdom of Zia’s blasphemy laws. Writing for The News a few days ago, Ghazi Salahuddin says that the chances of a serious debate in the mass media about the issue.

Still, I see no possibility of a sober and rational discussion of these matters in the mass media, particularly the news channels. Any newsman would know in his heart that this is a big and important story. It relates to resolving our national sense of direction. Examples of how religion is used to create violent conflicts in our society and to subvert our social and political growth as a modern state are all around us but we are not able to objectively report and analyse them.

Meanwhile, just look at what keeps our talk-show hosts and panelists so passionately preoccupied. There is this hullabaloo about the media being free and powerful, as if it can lead to a strategic transformation of our society. There is, of course, no quarrel with the fact that the broadcast and new media has changed and is changing our society. At the same time, we should be aware of its blind spots.

We do have this façade of apparently no holds barred discussions in our talk-shows, generally featuring the same panelists who repeat their rehearsed lines. The subjects that are taken up are mostly selective and partisan politics is all grist to the news channels’ mill. We do sometimes have highly scandalous revelations of corruption and misdemeanours of the rulers. Yet the tragedy is that such exposes have little impact on the quality of our governance.

Since we have so many news channels and newspapers, it would be fair to assume that the viewers and the readers have an ample choice in what they want. Alas, all our channels keep chewing the same cud. And while we are flooded by their coverage, Asiya Bibi is almost totally ignored.

Saroop Ijaz points out that failing to focus discussions on substantive issues facing the nation is more than simply a nuisance, it actually prevents solutions from being developed. “The prevailing sugar crisis has been practically reduced to statistical point scoring of who owns more sugar mills instead of agriculture and trade policy questions”, he notes.

If we truly want politicians to stop avoiding difficult issues and start making the policies that are needed to improve areas like energy, inflation, and corruption, we are going to need a media that makes these issues a real priority. That means doing more than treating stories like a drama serial focused on one person. By focusing on an individual instead of the issue, politicians and officials can get away with making easy one-time solutions like overturning one conviction or introducing a temporary price control. If news commentators would have serious debates about the underlying issues that cause the individual problems, the politicians would have their feet held to the fire. Then the media would be serving the greater good.

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