Re-Casting The Media

By Madeeha Ansari with research by Sana Saleem
Sensationalism reaches outstanding levels.

“If Natha commits suicide, the election will flip.”

Such is the power of journalism projected by “Peepli Live”, Aamir Khan’s satirical portrayal of the media in India. The sensation produced by a single “human interest” story can open the gates for a sea of political rhetoric and manoeuvring; a nation-wide wave of protests and candle-lit vigils; and, in the process, the turning of real human tragedy into a farce.

In this new atmosphere, the value of shock – or petty sensationalism – is a complicated variable for the modern ethical journalist who also wants to survive.
If the film was meant to draw an exaggerated sketch, it was uncannily close to a snapshot of the Pakistani reality. After the loosening of the media laws in 1999, the sector has undergone a rapid revolution. No longer does the state-owned PTV monopolise the provision of entertainment and news; over a hundred young private competitors are beginning to flex their fingers and discover their outreach. The print media, too, is adapting to the challenges of the time, with leading newspapers going online, discovering multimedia and creating space for citizen journalism. In this new atmosphere, the value of shock – or petty sensationalism – is a complicated variable for the modern ethical journalist who also wants to survive.

While vying for public attention and sponsorship, the media is in constant danger of getting carried away. I remember interning at a reputable news channel a few years ago, when a rival channel aired a story of human negligence. An elderly lady who lived with her son had developed painful bedsores, without her family realising it. Suddenly, there was a mad scramble to get more and more trivial information about her son, her daughters, her history and life story. I remember blushing and thinking, even then, about how my fast-talking colleague should just let it go after a point. Go to a public hospital, I thought. Talk to some of the bed-ridden patients there and perhaps there would be even more to report.

In the attempt to catch the eye of those who habitually flick through channels, broadcast journalism has also come to rely on different kinds of gimmickry. Among these is the animated simulation. When people switched on their televisions after the Air Blue plane crash, the first thing they saw was a 3D Pixar-inspired image of a plane colliding with a hill and disappearing in a cloud of smoke on the side of the screen. At the time, the animation was distracting in its insensitivity. Such devices trivialise – even aggravate – the suffering of those directly touched by tragedy.

Other embodiments of commercialism serve to detract from the real story, which is often bizarre enough to render gimmickry superfluous. If the Prime Minister of the country was taken in by a fake medical relief camp, then the media should be lauded for holding a mirror to his (surprised) face. Not only did the incident highlight the lack of transparency in official relief efforts, it was a clear illustration of the divorce of the political elite from the reality of the country. The picture was powerful and ridiculous, all at once. Scenes from the Bollywood comedy “Munna Bhai” did not need to be played in the adjacent screen, as they were by channels like Geo. It is different to have slapstick humour on “Hum Sab Umeed Se Hain”; during the national news-hour, it is enough just to present the facts and trust the audience to form its conclusions.

The demand is for truth[…] It is not for the sensationalist trappings of “exclusive” coverage, the pursuit of which can lead to a serious lack of responsibility when reporters swarm to the same spot.
The same can be said about the print media, which has been growing ever bolder. There needs to be a much clearer demarcation between op-ed pieces and regular news stories. Veteran writers like Ansar Abbas, having been threatened by the establishment in the past, have adopted a singularly dramatic style of writing. The journalist’s job is more difficult than it seems, requiring a removal of the self from the black and white newsprint. In a news piece, objectivity of tone and language are of the essence.

The current trends in the press might be reflecting a skewed perception of public demand. It is true that we have become a nation that is hungry for news “as it happens”; we live in turbulent times, when there is much for us to know on a daily basis. However, the demand is for truth, whether it is in coverage of the government, the incessant violence, or the situation of flood victims in different districts. It is not for the sensationalist trappings of “exclusive” coverage, the pursuit of which can lead to a serious lack of responsibility when reporters and their vehicles swarm to the same spot.

One of the most disturbing instances of reckless distortion to date occurred during coverage of the Ashura bombing in Karachi, December 2009. Immediately after the blast, television channels flashed images of the head of a person alleged to be the suicide bomber. Later, it was discovered that the recovered skull actually belonged to a boy scout leading the procession. No public apology was made for the mistake by the forces that seek to increase accountability in the country. It was an important omission, even if the acknowledgment could have brought but little comfort to the aggrieved family who had lost a son and seen him defamed in the national press.

Perhaps that is an isolated, particularly terrible incident. It is true that broadcast and print media do represent a unique industry that has the potential to create real positive change, by creating awareness. In Pakistan, it has come to play a pivotal role in bringing a sense of empowerment to the masses and highlighting the role of civil society. In the recent past, it has had a definite hand in facilitating a regime shift, reinstating a chief justice and instilling a sense of national pride in an apathetic generation. Television has also risen to the occasion in difficult times, running campaigns against extremism and airing fund-raising telethons lasting entire days in the wake of natural disasters. The problem is discovering how to effectively present information without resorting to melodrama.

More than the headiness of newfound freedom, I blame the dismal science of economics for any misguided trends. Even in the foreign press, issues of sensationalism arise when there is competition in the free market for support from advertisers. That is where the gimmickry stems from, as well as the exploitation of shock value. The first step towards constructing a code of media ethics would be to switch from the libertarian model relying on corporate sponsorship, to reliance on financial support from the public audience itself. If the media were to turn to the social responsibility model followed by the likes of BBC News, its survival would depend on the news-hungry audience. Then, there could be an automatic shift from tabloid entertainment mode to a commitment to providing simple, important truth.

Of course, that would be the objective academic analysis, assuming an idyllic transition.

Though reality is never so smooth, the change is not impossible. If there is a sense of hope remaining in this battered country, the media has much to do with it. It would not do for the pens of commentators to flow in fluid criticism without accepting that there is so much potential and room for growth. While realising its power to shape the mindset and collective memory of a nation, the media is not yet set in its mould. It has not yet passed the exciting stage where its role can be rewritten to make it stronger, cleaner, more nuanced. There is still time to grow, to mature and to learn, and to steer around the sensationalist stereotypes of “Peepli Live”.

Madeeha Ansari served as Articles Editor for The Missing Slate and is currently a Fulbright scholar at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She can be found on twitter and her blog.

Featured Artwork: Babar Mughal.