Media Hostility – Entertainment or Incitement?

Jan 29th, 2011 | By | Category: Ethics, Samaa TV

Learning from TV

The past two days we have looked at two subjects that might seem unrelated, but actually have quite a bit in common: Meher Bokhari’s treatment of Salmaan Taseer and the theory of ‘Amusing ourselves to death’. These two seemingly unrelated items are connected by the common bond of entertainment and influence. A question must asked – when does media hostility transform from entertainment to incitement?

Omar Waraich mentions the role of a hyper-sensationalist media in an article for The Independent, noting specifically Meher Bokhari’s open hostility to Governor Taseer and her discussion of his murder.

Meher BokhariMany blame Pakistan’s sensationalist news channels for blurring the distinction and whipping up hostility towards Taseer. Chief among the accused is Meher Bokhari, a voluble political talk-show host famed for her high-decibel interrogation style. In December, she interviewed Taseer. Even by Bokhari’s standards, the hostility was striking.

“It’s said that you’re doing this for point scoring,” she asked. Minutes later, she flourishes a fatwa denouncing Taseer, deferentially quoting from it. The day of Taseer’s funeral, Bokhari opened her show by comparing Qadri to a Muslim “hero” from the 1920s, who killed a Hindu man for publishing a blasphemous book.

Bokhari denies any wrongdoing, and insists she was presenting facts. Taseer’s family feel otherwise. The first show, says daughter Shehrbano Taseer, was “plain incitement to murder”. The second, she says, was a “senseless condonation” of it. Bokhari again is no fundamentalist. She doesn’t cover her hair, dresses in western clothing and has vociferously denounced the Taliban.

So what does this mean when a journalist who is clearly not a fundamentalist plays one on TV? Is it possible that projecting extreme views and playing a hostile character on news programmes can actually make someone kill? For most people, the answer is no. We can turn off the television if we don’t like the content, and even if we do we’re more likely to be misinformed than influenced to take a violent action. But that does not mean that media has no effect on our society, especially when the same message is being broadcast from multiple channels.

Dr Matt J Duffy is an Assistant Professor of Journalism at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. Writing for MidEastPosts.com, he examines the role of ‘cultivation theory’ in his article ‘Pakistan Media Mainstreaming Extremism’. The professor’s interested was piqued by the difference between the public reaction to Governor Taseer’s assassination in Pakistan and the reaction to the attempted assassination of a US Congresswoman by Americans.

The reaction differs dramatically from the recent assassination attempt in the United States in which a gunman tried to kill a congresswoman and succeeded in murdering six others. Despite what some call a “hate-filled” sphere of public discourse, everyone in the United States widely denounced the gunman’s actions.

In the US media, the discussion quickly turned to the role of ‘toxic political tone’ inciting the gunman to go on a shooting rampage. In Pakistan, however, we did not see reflection on political hate speech rather we saw the talk shows asking if the gunman was a ‘hero’.

After the assassination, a popular talk show host, Meher Bokhari, nodded in agreement with a guest who explained that the bodyguard acted justly given the slain governor’s views. And other talk show hosts, such as Hamid Mir and Javed Chaudhry, said that Taseer brought his death upon himself.

Dr Matt explains a phenomenon communications researchers have termed ‘mainstreaming’ – constant exposure to television messages creating a common set of views on issues. This is an amoral phenomenon; it can result in good outcomes or bad outcomes depending on the messages. American media has used the effect to reduce intolerance and racism.

The effect can lead to positive developments for a society. Since the 1970s, the mass media in the United States have peppered their news media and programming with subtle messages of tolerance, particularly of other races. At the same time, polls have shown a steady decline in racist beliefs and opposition to interracial marriage. The results of the 2008 elections were rather stunning as well.

But the opposite effect is also possible, and the constant stream of vicious hostility has an effect on our society. Meher Bokhari may dress in western clothes and condemn the Taliban in English-language newspapers, but when people watch her on TV, they are being sent a very different message.

In Pakistan, the cultivation effect appears to be leading to a reality that is damaging its society. The nation is suffering from the “mainstreaming” of extremist messages. But, the media are not merely reflecting these extremist beliefs. They are helping to make these beliefs acceptable – homogenizing them for the masses.

It may be entertaining to watch people yell and insult each other over inanities. But when the line begins to blur between yelling on TV and yelling in the streets, entertainment turns quickly to incitement. We each make our own decisions in life, but these decisions are influenced by those we look to for information and guidance: parents, teachers, friends…and now TV. Perhaps Meher Bokhari did not look into Qadri’s eyes and tell him to kill Salmaan Taseer, but she didn’t have to. The message was already clear.

Watching horror movies also can be harmless entertainment, but when we find ourselves turning into monsters, maybe we should consider changing the channel.

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