Media’s Newest ‘Moment of Shame’

It has been one year since the media caused a national crisis by inaccurately reporting that the government was plotting to withdraw notification to reinstate the judges sacked by Musharraf. Unfortunately, it seems that journalists and TV anchors did not learn from this ‘moment of shame’ and are once again causing alarm by rushing to report unsubstantiated rumour without conducting the proper background checks. We cannot even call out one or another media group as the sad truth is that so many were guilty that the entire profession has been stained by the event.

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We are referring, of course, to reports that created a stir on Wednesday night when media groups rushed to report the resignation of Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani. As the evening progressed, the reports escalated. Not only had the Ambassador resigned, but he had already moved out of the official residence. Then we were told that not only had he resigned and moved out of the official residence, but he was not returning to Pakistan. As it grew later there were even reports that Haqqani had applied for asylum in the US! The media frenzy had reached a full peak.

Of course, not one single one of these reports was true. It was all lies and fabrications invented by reporters and their sources and given the green light by unquestioning editors and producers.

Following the media’s false reporting of a conspiracy against the judiciary last year, Farrukh Khan Pitafi wrote the following:

In the golden days of journalism, we were taught not to carry any report unless there was prima facie evidence or at least three separate sources available. In the case of a breaking story or report of critical importance, this rule was relaxed to either two independent sources or word from the horse’s — in this case the prime minister’s or the law minister’s — mouth. As evident however, none of these precautions were taken, nor was any patience shown for such details to emerge. Innocent until proven guilty is the universal principle in case of unsubstantiated allegations. However, in this particular case it was deemed fit to consider the government guilty until proven innocent.

Unable or unwilling to find anyone at the Embassy in Washington or the presidency to confirm the rumours, our media not only ran with the story, they ran riot with it. Were the false reports necessary?

By 1:30am, Dr Firduas Awan was available to give a statement that the government had received a letter from Ambassador Haqqani offering his tender resignation by saying that he did not want to be “a distraction from the major challenges facing our country and our government”, but that no decision had been made to replace anyone. It was less than 24 hours later that Geo was able to contact Ambassador Haqqani by telephone to get his statement on the air.

Imagine if the news channels had simply taken the time to check not with their ‘reliable sources’ who every time prove embarrassingly unreliable, but with the actual people involved in the story. It would have prevented confusion, misinformation, and the continued humiliation of the media as incompetent and untrustworthy.

As the dust begins to settle, it is worth once again revisiting the recommendations of Farrukh Khan Pitafi.

The best practice would be to ask the concerned reporters or the channel managements to produce the evidence. It is important not to confuse a source with evidence. Even when we have sources we are not supposed to air an item without our own satisfaction. And in any case, no source will ever accept that it had generated such information in the absence of recorded evidence. If media outlets do not produce evidence they should be fined and asked to ground the reporter for a bit. This is about the only civilised way.

Now let us focus on the source of the problem in the heart of darkness. Apart from the culture of cynicism that has mushroomed around the current government and for which the government’s poor media policy is to be blamed, the institution of a professional editor is almost extinct in this country. In the presence of owner-editors the assurance of content quality and adherence to media ethics becomes impossible. Our profession has become highly complacent and in a conflict between the business owners and a professional editor, most journalists wish to stand with the former. Had there been professional editors in place, even if unverified information was produced, it would not have made it to the screen or print. Also the professional editor, given the damage caused, would have sacked someone.

Of course, there is the issue of talk show hosts-anchorpersons and their reckless attitude. It must be recognised that since each anchor-host is responsible for the content of his program, he/she is usually expected to act as an editor for the content. But remember in the heat of live programming there always is the chance of some inappropriate behaviour. A professional editor as the media’s conscience should always be there to remind the anchor and to issue the corrigendum. Yet these are mad times and even at stations with elaborate infrastructure, a tendency of getting carried away has been witnessed.

Getting carried away has become not only a tendency, but an addiction. It is time to break the habit.

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