Media sensationalism trumped by online insensitivity

Published: November 28, 2010

Masala and sensationalism gets the highest number of hits because readers enjoy it.

When the Airblue flight ED 202 crashed into the Margalla hills, there was a barrage of criticism against the media reportage of the incident. Sensationalist, unethical and downright insensitive were the allegations against the Pakistani media, and to be honest, they were not misplaced.

From boasting to be the first ones to have broken the news to showing gory footage of blood and body parts, running after families of the victims for juicy soundbytes depicting their pain and giving false hope by airing incorrect reports of survivors, the media certainly had a chargesheet of complaints against it, and justifiably so.

Bloggers and Twitter users in the Pakistani cyberspace were the first ones to jump up and attack the media for its insensitivity and lack of ethics. Twitter was awash with criticism and so were blogs. There were calls to rein in the media and complaints that the freedom everyone had so passionately fought to get for the media was being misused. But yesterday, when another plane crashed in Karachi, I saw the whole situation in an entirely new light. When I logged on to Twitter to check tweets about the crash while updating the story on the website, I realised that it is not only the media that was unethical and insensitive.

People jump at tragedy, and they jump at conspiracy and spicy bits of information all the more. Amid the chaos of sifting through tweets that carried information and perspective about the crash I also came across numerous tweets like these:

Who cooked up the name CHIPA ;) its a weird name for an ambulance service #karachi – still cant stomach it

This guy says he heard heavy gun fire just b4 plane crashed in #Karachi / w00t now the fun starts, UFOs?

no it wasn’t a UFO. it was HAARP or probably a missile by militants or blackwater

me likes the Blackwater twist > do you think Blackwater had anything to do with #Karachi ;) [jking]

I do not blame the entire Twitter community nor would I judge these bloggers based on a single incident. There were indeed a lot of serious and helpful updates on Twitter that helped spread awareness and possibly assisted reporting and rescue efforts. But, one thing that I did realise after this experience was that media’s sensationalism does not exist in a vacuum. Media barons and decision makers prefer to air gore, tragedy, sex and controversy because the readers and audience like it. Spicy bits of information are highlighted because those are things the readers and viewers jump at. Masala and sensationalism gets the highest number of hits because readers enjoy it. So, can we blame the media for what people want to see and read?

Perhaps all of us need a dose of ethics.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 29, 2010

The tweets quoted in the article had been edited for clarity, but lost some of their context as a result. The original tweets have been reinserted.


Naureen Aqueel

A Karachi based journalist working as subeditor on the web desk of The Express Tribune

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

  • shobz

    I think the author jumped to conclusions before she could even understand what the tweets were all about. A couple of tweets mentioned above have been mentioned in the wrong context mainly because they were meant to be sarcastic. I am the author of the tweet referring to HAARP and blackwater. It was meant to be a dig at people who tend to come up with conspiracy theories. There was a tweet earlier which was referring to some sort of alleged conspiracy linked to the plane crash. It is funny how only an hour had passed by since the plane crashed and people came up with conspiracies so fast. If the author believes that tweeting something sarcastic about the alleged people behind the crash was insensitive then I suppose she is not aware of what sarcasm is all about. I would advise her to have a look at those tweets again before she comes up with her judgement. Recommend

  • xeeshan

    I agree that sensationalism works because people like it. I thought that was the idea! However, the tweets you have quoted appear to be attempts at tongue in cheek humor rather than sensationalism. Didn’t quite get your point.Recommend

  • Ali Hassan

    Viewers, I have just reached the place of the bomb blast and as you can see there are so many dead bodies around here and —I think this guy is alive, bhai are you alive, did you see the suicide bomber, I will get you water later, but please for the viewers can you tell me, what did you see— viewers, I —think he has passed away. Let see if we can find someone else to talk.
    Indian and Pakistani media, they can sensationalize any thing and don’t care even if the event is tragic where hundreds of people lost their lives.
    I agree with you, we also like to listen to this stuff.Recommend

  • nadiyah rahman

    Insensitive people exist everywhere, in all categories. I won’t disagree with the writer’s viewpoint. The fact is that some people do look up to the bloody and gory parts as the spicy bits, which infact is a shame!
    And media will never curb this outflow of sensationalism as they don’t want their ratings to go down, do they?Recommend

  • TwitterUser

    I think humour at such a time is insensitiveRecommend

  • Teeth Maestro


    I totally object to you selectivly using a few set of tweets as judgmental on our effort to share the citizen journalism reporting of the Air Crash – Had you dug just a bit more you would have realized that of the 100+ tweet I personally made yesterday most were providing far more credible information then what our media was selectively doing

    You quote “This guy says he heard heavy gun fire just before plane crashed in Karachi – now the fun starts, UFOs?”

    But it was actually “RT @EliyahuNaNach This guy @oOol_JaLoOl says he heard heavy gun fire just b4 plane crashed in #Karachi / w00t now the fun starts, UFOs?”

    While the second one you used “I like the Blackwater twist. Do you think Blackwater had anything to do with Karachi (joking)”

    But it was actually “@shobz / me likes the Blackwater twist – @davidmacdougall > do you think Blackwater had anything to do with #Karachi ;) [jking]”

    So you also coincedentally refused to use the invaulabe pieces of information I shared in the entiure fours hours where twitter was abuzz with this tragic breaking news

    For example

    RT @babushka99: Aircraft was refueled at Karachi for flight duration of 7 hours and 40 minutes. #Karachi
    Russian Plane crashes 1 minute after takeoff – eye witness on #GEO saying right engine was on fire before crash #karachi
    RT @babushka99: The aircraft had picked-up load of tents from Karachi. Load of 31 tonnes was carried by the aircraft. #Karachi
    RT @babushka99 @abidifactor Empty weight is 72 tonnes, max takeoff weight is 157 tonnes. #Karachi
    Russian Cargo Airplane on way to Sudan (Khartoum) crashed 5 minutes after take off from #Karachi Airport #Pakistan #AirCrash
    RT @SheerazRaza: RT @arafattehsin: – Situation near the crash site. #Karachi #Planecrash

    Twitter is a place where there is a fluent exachnge of comments to pick one particular tweet and asume the meaning of an entire conversation is to be unjust and unfair

    So next time when you start quoting tweets DONT alter the text, also try to understand the context of the tweets, the two tweets you selected, by merely altering the wordings you have twisted the meaning and misrepresenting the actual meaningRecommend

  • Samiya A

    Shobz Xeeshan and Teeth Maestro are so into Twitter they have forgotten that making jokes during an ongoing crisis is the very definition of insensitive. Wake up out of your BlackBerrys guys!!! she didnt say youre all losers, she just saying our media is feeding a demand which is visible in some twitter users as well. In fact i think she has also said overall tweets were useful. Way to ignore the whole blog and jump all over it – like oour TV talkshow dramaybaz? #twitteratiFAILRecommend

  • Atif

    The fact that there were a million tweets about this plane crash yet NONE about killings going on in FATA and KASHMIR DAILY, DRONE attack DAILY is also very representative of how Twitter facebook crowd is just as biased in reporting as media.Recommend

  • Teeth Maestro

    @Samiya A:

    Did you notice that my response was NOT on her twitterati or the online insensitivity comment but I questioned the fact that she selectively MODIFIED my tweets –

    What humor flows or does not flow during a disaster can be debated both ways – when I joked I categorically indicated “[jking]” if someone does not like it – I can apologize, but it was in context to what someone was saying and not my own reactionRecommend

  • Naureen

    Out of the 1000s of useful tweets, you take a few tweets out just so you can write an article, whilst you ignore 100s of useful tweets that were retweeted.

    Bravo to diluted, myopic, tunnel-visioned journalism.


  • Sam A

    @Teeth Maestro:

    I stopped reading after your first ‘corrected’ tweet. A plane crash is something to go ‘ woot ! ‘ about? Could there be not better opportunities than a major human tragedy to show off talent in humor writing for you and your friends? Your explanation is sickening. A plane crash is nothing to get all humorous or satirical about. Imagine if someone close to you were involved in a plane crash and someone’d tweet all funny about it. Would feel real nice, would it?

    FAIL !Recommend

  • Sam A

    wouldn’t it?

  • Ali

    To the offended Twitter boys:

    You guys were caught being insensitive after a plane crashed which caused loss of life, because i don’t know perhaps you have experienced so much pain in this life and have seen so much that you feel you have the right to blow everything in jokes

    Quite over confident I must say.Recommend

  • shobz

    I believe that the issue is more about how the tweets were used here and modified which made us look insensitive. I believe Teeth Maestro was passing really informative tweets at the moment and no one was poking fun at a human tragedy. A lot of the twitterati were quite horrified and were providing important updates so that the rest of us were up to speed. The only thing we condemned was how the media was being truly insensitive about the air crash and were looking to exploit people to get an exclusive. It was also mentioned that people would come up with conspiracy theories within the hour and that was proven correct. The comment about HAARP, Blackwater or militants was not poking fun at the air crash but was targeted towards people who were likely to come up with their own conspiracy theories. We all know whenever something happens people are quick to come up with a conspiracy theory. If those tweets had not been modified to make us look insensitive then it would not have been a big deal. Recommend

  • Saadi

    @Shobz This is the media trying to make conspiracy against twitter people! Down with the media and their conspiracies! Oh wait… it is oyu who are suggesting a conspiracy is afoot……now I’m just confused :DDRecommend

  • TwitterUser2

    uhhh…..the new tweets are actually more insensitive than the originals…Recommend

  • shobz


    If you read the tweet carefully you can see that I was referring to conspiracy theorists who would end up blaming one of the three elements. I don’t believe a conspiracy theory is valid if it comes up barely an hour after the incident has occured.Recommend

  • TwitterUser2

    “;) [jking]”

    That is height of insensitivityRecommend

  • xeeshan

    @Sam A / Samiya A

    Sigh! Perhaps what I wrote earlier was not very clear. Let me try once again. I agree with that sensationalism sells (see my original comment).

    However, by what stretch of imagination can the tweets mentioned in the article be classified as sensationalism? Insensitive yes, but sensationalist? (Now, is that a word I wonder?)

    In fact these tweets were ridiculing the first idiotic attempts at sensationalism. It seems that at least for this particular incident twitter did a pretty good job of self regulation which the media could do well to emulate!

    Oh wait the media needs to make money so while twitter users laugh at the suggestion of black water, the media would like to run with it as a valid story. To quote from the article itself: “can we blame the media for what people want to see and read?” Yes we can and should!

    By the way to loosely quote Jon Stewart, if the mainstream media is looking to twitter for ethical direction then … :)Recommend

  • Teeth Maestro

    @Sam A:
    If you so conveniently stopped reading my response after my first tweet, how convient did you read the full tweet
    “RT @EliyahuNaNach This guy @oOol_JaLoOl says he heard heavy gun fire just b4 plane crashed in #Karachi / w00t now the fun starts, UFOs?”

    Its not a joke – but a sarcastic punch at @oOol_JaLoOl when he speculates to say that he heard Gun Fire before the crash /// my response – to say, “w00t the fun starts now – UFO’s” is without doubt a jab at his gun fire logic – the reference to UFO’s is more like to say “what next UFO’s”

    Sam – next time when you choose to respond read the entire thing in context and trying to stomach why the UFO reference was used !! and next time be courteous enough to read someones comment before responding to it, if you got this far, thanx ;)Recommend

  • Tyrone


    I’m on the fence here and I think both are wrong the author for using selective tweets and changing the words (or did do that ?) and comin down hard on the ‘twitter people’

    Dr Awab and others have done a great service of dissemination of information thru twitter and other new media when the Airblue crash occurred. They were busy passing on useful info about the crash site, who to call, how to help, what to do and what not to do.

    At that time they were also passing on what the media was saying and any errors in those tweets lie squarely on the media’s shoulders.

    As for this incident I think Dr sahib and others info about the plane’s weight, cargo doesn’t really seem useful (my opinion). The other tweets in my view are fine I mean ur having a conversation with a friend or many friends you can make jokes and laugh without being labelled insenitive.

    I’m sure we all are insensitive and prejudiced let’s not be also bigotted?

    I mean there are people spewing hate and promoting violence some sitting in the mass media and people are after twitter people who I know aren’t insensitive but these comments appear insensitive?
    If they make fun of people who spout conspiracy theories they’re doing a public service as those people directly/inidrectly promote violence and things worse than insensitivty!

    Aren’t there other people to call to task? Recommend

  • sidrah roghay

    You can’t blame people for wanting masala…..the media can and has in many places created the right sort of attitudes in people. If you give people what they want then you shouldn’t call yourself journalists….you might as well be a market researcher, or grocer or a butcher!!!Recommend

  • Amna Mela

    I don’t think people watch the news because they want masala. People turn on the tv when something big is going on because they’re afraid. When Jinnah hospital was seiged by terrorists, I had just come home from the hostel a few hours earlier. I was on the phone with my friends, who were stuck in the hostel not knowing what to do. When I was watching the news with my family, it wasn’t because we were enjoying it. It was because in times like these, we want answers. We want to watch the news until we see some kind of happy ending. The news media feeds off our fear, not our thirst for entertainment. If they can prolong the drama and worry us more, we’ll stay glued to the screens.

    And also, can’t help but agree with Teeth here. I also found out about the crash through Twitter. I can’t stomach the TV news channels, so I prefer online news (because they don’t have cartoons buildings and planes blowing up next to the headlines, along with dramatic music). I find Twitter to be very helpful when it comes to sharing/finding information. The texts do seem to have been taken out of context. They seem to be jabbing fun not at the plane crash, but at the conspiracy theorists.Recommend

  • Teethgrinder


    Twitterati (I think that’s what they are called)…. such cry babies.. Recommend

  • Sarah B. Haider

    LOL @ the defensiveness of the people.

    As for the article, I do agree that media capitalizes on things which people want to see, hear and read. Anything which is masalafied or relates to deviance receives immediate response.

    For Example, See the number of comments.

    And this, article

    as against these, look at this article

    Just understand the difference and demands! Recommend

  • Yasser

    Nice. Very Nice postRecommend

  • Talat

    @the author

    People like to see and read obscene stuff too, but this we all would say does not justify publishing such material. My opinion is that media should prescribe for itself a code of conduct or alternatively the government should pass some sort of restrictive law. At the moment, however, Pemra’s regulations are largely neglected. Commercial T.V channels can show advertisement for only 12 min in an hour. However, we all know they don’t do it.Recommend

  • Talat

    more advertisement than is allowed is shownRecommend

  • Sarah B. Haider

    @Talat: media all over the world is supposed to practice self-imposed restrictions. There are ethics and code of conducts in journalism. The problems is that, in Pakistan media organizations are run by seths. Board of directors include family members of the seths. Few professional journalists are there on the top-level management, the rest are hired on the basis of foreign degrees, elite school affiliations and of course, pawwas.

    What good could be expected from the Pakistani media?Recommend

  • Talat

    @the Sarah Haider

    your point, essentially, is that because of their commercial nature, the media companies don’t follow the ethics and the code of conduct. In that case, the Pemra must ensure a code of conduct is uniformly followed by all the media companies. Recommend