By BB :
It was the morning of March 3, 2009. Nine a.m. to be exact.
Slivers of information had begun trickling in. The Sri Lanka cricket team – on their way to play the second Test against Pakistan – had come under attack. Bullets were zipping back and forth across Liberty market.
Back in the newsroom, phones were buzzing in synchrony. Producers were menacing reporters to make sense of the happenings on the ground. A pandemonium had erupted. Nothing was clear. Assumptions and heresy had been mashed with facts. How many militants were engaged with the police? Any casualties? Who were these militants?
A litany of answered questions sat heavy in the newsroom.
A few minutes later, the content head ambled in. An emergency meeting was in session. Producers from every department scrambled inside the brightly lit office. Notepads in hand, ready to scribble the order of the day.
“Here is what is going to happen,” explains a surprisingly unperturbed content head, sipping on his daily dose of coffee, “The channel will run a special transmission the entire day. Lets just talk about this and nothing else.”
Sip. “By the end of the day we will prove that these militants had hitchhiked from across the Wagah border and that is where they will return. Any questions?”
Only one. Did he know something we didn’t?
Hasan Belal Zaidi recently wrote in an op-ed “There are those who believe that all the media does is manipulate what people think. Honestly, we don’t have the time .” I beg to differ. What the media actually lacks time for is checking the facts and that is manipulation.
It is a mad rush to finish, each day. Every channel aspires to be the first to report, regardless of how absurd or how unreliable the source.
During last year’s harrowing dengue outbreak, a minister of the provincial assembly was declared dead repeatedly, for a week, before his actually demise. His family was inconsolable. The emotional roller-coaster they had to endure for over a week was horrifying, to say the least. Yet, no apology came. No statement was retracted. News channels moved from bulletin to bulletin as unremorsefully as ever.
And that wasn’t all. The dengue epidemics death toll varied from channel to channel. Some placed the number at 100, others at 300. Panic and hysteria ensued. The team of experts visiting from Sri Lanka – the only country with a dengue success story – insisted that such jaw dropping reactions were unnecessary as many of the deaths were caused by natural causes and not the bite of an Aegis Aegypti.
Misreporting can take many forms. In some case, if you can’t get the facts right take what you have, add a bit of sugar and spice to make it nice – and sellable. There is a concept taught in film school called, Verisimilitude. Its underlying principle: just because something seems the truth does not necessarily mean it is the truth. Cameramen and editors are in the habit of shaving off information, which does not fit into their perspective of the news. Dense crowds are made to appear larger, with the simple use of a zoom. Music is added to sway the emotions. Defunct sound bites are regurgitated so they may seem dated. The Advisor on Interior, Rehman Malik, was the most recent victim of this newsroom ritual. A snapshot appeared of Malik clenching the collar of a Waqt TV journalist. The visual and social media was in an uproar. But the truth was soon revealed and the matter was put into context. The advisor tweeted a video of the incident, which detailed how Malik was merely using the reporter to demonstrate a point.
In this race to ‘break news,’ often the line, between what is off significance and what is not, becomes blurred. Of all the media’s sins, the overuse of the ‘Breaking news’ is the most preposterous. ‘Breaking news’ is an old concept. It was codified by the Associate Press in 1906 when the wire wanted to designate news of transcendent importance. The initial term used was ‘Flash’ which prompted the public to drop everything and take notice. Something important had just happened (a storm, a war) which was of national significance. Not much needs to be said of the inordinate use of the term in Pakistan. True that politics in the country is quite unpredictable, where every hour can be breaking news worthy. But did we really need to know what the All Parliament Conference (APC) served as appetizers, main dish and desserts to those attending? I kid you not this was Breaking News. Or was there a subtle insinuation we all missed?
The media has the power to set and structure public opinion. Even the terrorists understand that. A few months ago, militants sprayed with bullets an Aaj TV office after the latter refuse to air their views.
If TV journalists in Pakistan were to take an oath of journalism, it would go something like this.
“I, formerly an IT student, do solemnly swear to report with somewhat accuracy. To let my millionaire boss be my ventriloquist. To hold those accountable my millionaire boss dislikes and write with passion about the topics which bring in the adverts and ratchet up the ratings.”
While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, everyone is also entitled to the facts. This does not mean, in any way, that the media is embroiled in some clandestine gambit of world domination, which hopes to make zombies out of us. All we advise is a little caution, please!