When to use or lose identifiers

Published: May 26, 2012

Who makes the judgement call that a person, who happened to be male, and of a certain ethnicity was not killed simply to spread terror, as is often the case now?

Ethnicity, religion, sect and gender. Do we or do we not, as journalists, use these as identifiers in a headline or in the introduction of a story when we are reporting on an incident –  that is perhaps a question that every journalist has to ask and the answer is never clear.

When is it right to mention ethnicities or religion? Does it add any news value to a story or can it be the catalyst or inciting possible hatred amongst ethnic or religious groups?

The question we journalists often ask is that if we do not mention these identifiers, are we aiding and abetting in a possible cover-up of something that needs to be exposed? This is a dilemma. It is a moral and ethical debate that perhaps has no single right answer.

The reason there is often no single right answer is that the first story that journalists are usually writing about an incident is usually never the full and complete story. Therefore, it is never possible to make an assessment that a murder, for example, was based on ethnic or religious enmity, or was just a random hit.

Debating with colleagues about this resulted in a range of opinions, but I have always had a very simple and basic rule of thumb when it comes to judgement calls. One colleague said that when someone is killed because of their ethnicity, gender or religion, we should report it as such – I tend to agree.

However, there is a caveat here. Who makes the judgement call that a person, who happened to be male, and of a certain ethnicity or religion was not killed simply to spread terror, as is often the case now.

How do, we, as journalists make the call? Or do we wait for all the facts to come in? As my editor said, if say, two Hazaras are shot dead in Balochistan, does that necessarily mean that they were killed because of their heritage? It could be so, but it also couldn’t.

In another recent story, a lawyer slapped another lawyer. The one who got slapped happened to be female. But that was not the reason for the dispute, or the reason the first lawyer hit her, so the editorial call here was to peg the story as one lawyer slapping another, not a lawyer slapping a female lawyer.

It is always very risky when journalist tends to start letting ‘trends’ creep into their judgment. We are advised to never let traditional stereotypes have a bearing on our copy. So just because an Ahmadi was killed does not necessarily mean that it was targeted. It may be, but until we are sure, the rule on this should be that a man was killed, who happened to be Ahmedi, rather than an Ahmedi being killed.

For example,  the recent case of the killing of a journalist in Karachi who happened to be Shia. The initial feeling a lot of us had was that it might be sectarian, because we were looking at trends. We were wrong.

It is a fine line, which will get pushed and prodded on a daily basis. It is a valid question that will get asked and needs to be asked every day. Journalists need to be very careful, and make sure they do not take out an identifier when it is essential to the story.

And in the same way they need to be careful to take it out when it has no bearing on the facts and might simply result in giving an unnecessary slant to the story.

As reporters we are supposed to just ‘report’ and not assume.

Read more by Khurram here.



Khurram Baig

Business Editor at The Express Tribune. Baig has worked at Dawn News as a host and news anchor and was city editor at The News. He writes on sports and current affairs.

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

  • Tin Tin

    Amazing that such a mature writer works for such a biased and news twister “tribune” ! it might be because he has worked with other media groups or more importantly he is a nice unbiased loyal reporter/writer by profession.
    It’s crystal clear (even if his background had not been mentioned) that he is surely not one of the “faujis” of twister tribune who are hell bent on annihilating some core values of this country through their blogs/articles on some religious or social matters.
    Dear Khurram Sahab, please teach ALL of the things you discussed above to the “faujis of twister tribune” writing on social/religious matters. They’re just wasting their time and energy on an agenda that’s bound to fail badly. They can never achieve any success and would bite the dust. You would get huge rewards for doing this. God Bless !Recommend

  • Ahsan Omer

    Great work by the writer…..i wish our journalists follow…..Recommend

  • Parvez

    Your last line sums it up well.
    My view is that a good reporter should report all the facts available to him in a manner that does not ‘colour’ or ‘taint’ the reporting and let the reader or the viewer (TV) decide. The presumption that the reader or viewer needs to be educated or led in the ‘right’ direction is a fatal mistake.Recommend

  • M Adil

    Brilliant. Just brilliant. Well said young man. Keep up the good work. I live in the Uk, and every time an Asian or a black gets mugged, it’s labelled a racial attack. I often think that white indigenous people get mugged too. And Asians and Africans get mugged in their home country as well – not just abroad. Why label everything because it seems it must be so. A lot of time it’s just so easy to slam bang a label. And get a headline. Millions of sharks are killed each year by fishermen and trawlers, not a word. But let a shark kill a human and its Jaws 3 and worse!Recommend

  • Cynical

    Journalistic ethics was the first casuality of corporatisation of media.It’s a global malice, not Pakistani as such.Needless to say that this trend is worrisome.Recommend

  • Illusionist

    Finally a sane piece of writing in ET Blogs !

    More power to writer…Recommend