A dummy’s guide for journalists in Pakistan

Published: January 13, 2012

Irresponsible journalism has affected many in Pakistan because most journalists have never studied the subject itself

Two years ago, I took a course in war reporting. In one year, we learned what we could about embedding within the military, media effects, propaganda, and censorship, amongst other things. Most importantly, we learned the basics of all basics: the nine principles of journalism. We were asked to memorise, interpret, scrutinise, and above all apply them in context.

In Pakistan, the media has taken on various roles, often acting as analyst, policy maker and even judge.  At times it has lost the entire notion of censorship and theconcept of contextual objectivity (as difficult as that may be). Over the past few years, soon after the media boom occurred in Pakistan during Musharraf’s regime, we, the viewers, have become accustomed to the daily blood and gore, the loud shrill voices of our anchors, the filmy Star Plus soundtracks played during headlines, the sheer sensationalised repetition of one political hoo-haa after the other. I have repeatedly heard that this drama sells like hot naans to the masses in Pakistan. Like entertainment. But, just because a news story sells does not make it a good story. This is the distinction our media personnel find hard to grasp.

Let me mention some examples of journalism that have been rather frustrating, for me at least.

The Airblue crash of 28 July 2010 was a tragic incident that took the entire nation’s spirits down with it. It personally affected many of us whose families, friends, or acquaintances were on that plane. Granted, our media acted well in terms of informing us of the death toll and the inquiries that followed. What was extremely disgusting was to watch reporters and cameramen shove their equipment in the faces of grieving family members merely hours after the crash, minutes after they heard news of their loved ones. The notion of privacy seemed to have evaporated.

A more recent example has been that of Mr Shamsul Anwar and his reportedly fraudulent story of the kidnapping of his daughter. The story was not verified and many a people in Pakistan and abroad donated funds for Mr Anwar’s daughter. Now, although Pakistanis feel proud for standing together for a cause, most of us have been left feeling foolish.

Irresponsible journalism has affected scores of people in Pakistan, perhaps because most journalists have never studied the subject itself. Admittedly, I am no expert in journalism, but I would like to take up this virtual space to list nine principles of journalism that should be etched in the minds of all journalists.

In 1997, the Committee of Concerned Journalists began their research to outline a Statement of Shared Purpose. After four years, the original Statement of Shared Purpose outlined nine principles of journalism to comprise what could potentially be described as the theory of journalism.

  1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth (read: assemble facts and verify them)
  2. Its first loyalty is to the citizen (read: not to any political party or politician)
  3. Its essence is the discipline of verification (read: separate yourself from fiction, propaganda, and entertainment. Refer to principle 1. Also refer to Shamsul Anwar)
  4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover (stay neutral; stay fair. Your credibility as a journalist comes from accuracy, not your devotion to Imran Khan or your fondness for the judiciary)
  5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power (read: journalism can serve as a watchdog over those in power; that freedom need not be exploited!)
  6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise (read: we love discussion. Najam Sethi, though whatever his background may be, has one of the most peaceful talk shows. Discussion and foul-mouthed arguments during live broadcasts are two different modes of communication.)
  7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant (read: entertainment engages your audience; news enlightens it. Understand the difference.)
  8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional (read: know your demographics.)
  9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience (read: carry a moral compass)

A few weeks ago, as I worked on my computer, my brother-in-law was intently tuned into an evening talk show airing on a Pakistani news channel in London. Four participants, including one female host, went at each other like raging bulls heading for a red flag. After20 minutes of listening to pure noise blasting from his television set, I turned to my brother-in-law and inquired:

‘Have you understood anything anyone has said since this show started?’

He threw his head back and chuckled:

‘No, but it’s entertaining’.

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Zoha Waseem

Zoha Waseem

A masters graduate from King’s College London who blogs for khudipakistan.com

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • ana

    nice article..i agree that ethics are perhaps irreligious to our journalists…even the top notch of Sana Buchha, Talat Hussain end up having their guests fight….
    although objectivity is essential to journalism but it is very difficult..also it brings in less audience..fox news is more popular in US than msnbc,,Dawn news is less popular than other Urdu Channels despite it having a code of conduct..

    also Pakistani journalists are not gender sensitive..have you seen the news on chand raat..”mandi mei bakrey qurban, bazaar mein husband qurban) because the wives are on a crazy shopping spree

    but Pakistan still has one of the best journalists in the world- Sharmeen Obaid ChinoyRecommend

  • sherry

    very nicely written,
    i totally agree with your point on talk shows, 1st priority of today’s news channels is entertainment. Recommend

  • http://syedaabidabokhari.wordpress.com The Only Normal Person Here.

    Well put it. Recommend

  • http://www.sadafhafeez.blogspot.com Sadaf

    Blog minus the last anecdote = great write-up

    Whenever a story-hungry reporter tries to make a shameless show out of the grieving family ,declaring : Viewers lets see what the family has to say about the deceased , I wonder how does the family resist giving him a tight slap across the face …Recommend

  • Reader

    What about sensationalising headlines of express tribune? In most cases they are quite offending and targeted.Recommend

  • Yuri Kondratyuk

    @Zoha Waseem

    Journalism’s first obligation is to
    the truth (read: assemble facts and
    verify them)

    May be ET itself is a nice place to start. More than a few occasions my comments (presented with references) were moderated out. My only guess would be that the facts and the arguments show Pakistan in none too flattering light.Recommend

  • Syed Hussein El-Edroos

    Well written article. Hopefully our media will come close to following the principles highlighted by you.

    I think what has to be remembered is that it has only been a few years since we have had an open media. People in the media will require more time to get matured.Recommend

  • Mia Khan

    Once again i have to disagree the press does not always present all the facts and truths as we in the west have seen they have been totally biased against Muslims especially after 9/11 and after the recent revelations against the news of the world reporters admitted during the public inquiry they misled the readers so miss zoha please get the facts first and not be a DUMMY..Recommend

  • Umar

    Very well written. However a comment on “Embedded Journalism” I do not think that is impartial by any means, A reporter gives away his/her impartiality when you are tagged with one side in a conflict and are dependent on them for your lives. I remember a CNN reporter reporting from the front and said “WE” are taking fire from Iraqi forces. That makes you a party in the conflict and you are a propaganda tool for the side you are with and not a journalist. Recommend

  • Baba Ji

    you mixed up the do’s and don’ts titles in the picture !!! Recommend

  • http://myspace.com/taravadu Kulamarva Balakrishna

    Vienna,January 14,2012
    That is it; young lady Zoha Waseem.Let me condense it
    as “addiction is not journalism”! Commentary: addiction
    serves both seller and buyer submerge themselves in
    distorting reality. They both have no goals external,but
    all internalized consummation.24/7 journalism is magnetic
    reality.I hope you remain embedded to reality.
    Taravadu Taranga Trust for Media Monitoring TTTMM India
    –Kulamarva BalakrishnaRecommend

  • alicia

    One of the worst thing Pakistani media has done quite often was to publicize the personal details and adresses of rape victims. Plus often some anchors do cheap programs to analyse the ‘character’ of raped women and how they caused their own rape. A program by a famous journalist with mukhtar Mai comes to mind who spend 30 mins trying to prove that Mai wasn’t raped instead making up tales.

    Another thing is that there is no self censorship. I remember the karsaz bomb blast when Benazir came back mutilated dead bodies, cut away body parts were shown on live telvision as well as in the sarfraz shah case

    And lastly media presenters have no empathy at all. I remember after the sialkot incident a presenter asked the father of the poor kids how their dead bodies looked and the father was too shocked to respond.Recommend

  • Hina

    well a good article. Pakistani media is newly established media, it will take sometime to become mature. The idea they are following at the moment is to attract viewership and earn financial assitance together with fame . they are in a competition but unfortunately they are fighting for a cause which is not helping the journalism but this fight is somehow taking them away from ethics, morality and responsibility. the code ethics should be followed strictly.under the disguise of freedom of media we have lost the objectivity in our attitudes.Recommend

  • http://khaqanshati.wordpress.com Shati

    Few days back I had written the similar about media and their spiced news. (goo.gl/hPKqE)
    Indeed a good article and really needed to all-free media. Freedom practiced without any check or control is more than a crime and it is happening everyday on our TVs.
    I remember the 12 May Karachi incident, when a young guy got a bullet and was bleeding. He hide himself in a bus to have few more moments of his life and then comes a so called brave reporter and asks him ” ap ko goli kis ne mari , kesi lagi yeh goli ap kesa mehsoos kar rahe hain ” no one was worried to take him to the hospital and he bled to death in the same bus.
    Zakhmi ko maar kar geo…

    May our media learn to be a responsible one. Recommend