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Sensationalism, not journalism

The lack of accountability and first hand investigative reporting has lead to a decline in journalistic ethics in Pakistan, writes Syed Irfan Ashraf

Monday, August 24, 2009

By Syed Irfan Ashraf

The sensationalism that accompanied the advent of TV journalism in Pakistan is fast becoming the bedrock of media professionals here.

This feature is the natural outcome of a missing investigative spirit, the trivial nature of reporting and the absence of accountability. What were once regarded as journalistic ethics have been replaced by an insensitive media culture where information is spiced up and then fed to the audience.

Interestingly enough, sensationalism and journalism went hand in hand for a long time. But alarming consequences made it necessary to separate the two. In 1898, William Hearst, the owner of the New York Journal, sent two reporters to the then Spanish colony of Cuba where they were asked to highlight the alleged atrocities of the Spaniards against the American settlers.

After some time, the journalists wired back to their boss that there was no conflict and requested to be recalled. Hearst sent a cable: 'Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I will furnish the war.' What followed was the Spanish-American war, fuelled in large part by Hearst that saw the end of Spanish domination in Cuba.

But history never spared Hearst for his professional dishonesty. He was henceforth labelled the father of yellow journalism for publishing fabricated and exaggerated versions of events in Cuba just to mobilise American public opinion in favour of a war.

Although the print media learnt to evolve guidelines following criticism of its sensationalist stance, TV journalism continues to perpetuate this ignominious tradition. This is having a negative impact on the print media today.

In unstructured societies like Pakistan, where fixing responsibility and holding accountability is not part of media routines, there is considerable damage. News is measured less by how objective and credible it is and more in terms of the potential devastation it can wreak.

Lack of organisational checks, not to mention encouragement, has seen news not only being dramatised but also created with ingredients being added to stimulate public interest. The result is that often unverified facts constitute a major part of the information telecast throughout the day, seven days a week. This has blurred the line between the do's and don'ts of journalism in Pakistan.

An eerie reflection of this was the scene staged at the security forces' headquarters in Saidu Sharif, Swat, some time ago. Six teenagers with trembling hands, half-covered pale faces and shabby clothes were paraded before a group of media men at the Army Circuit House. The boys had apparently deserted the militants after a few days of training sessions.

Later, their parents willingly handed them over to the security forces to avoid the wrath of the intelligence agencies.

No sooner had the press conference ended than the media men rushed out. However, before they could get into the Digital Satellite News Gathering vehicle for live broadcasts, the reporters received a shock. Some of them were asked by their producers at the headquarters to announce that the children were would-be suicide bombers. The reason? One of the channels had flashed a ticker branding them as such.

The next week, on July 27, NWFP senior minister Bashir Ahmad Bilour somehow obtained 'information' that the security forces in the Malakand division had got hold of 200 brainwashed children who had been trained for suicide bombing to be carried out in Swat etc. The 'news' caused a huge stir, and no other broadcast item could lessen its impact.

The national and international media began to digest unverified facts. Bashir Bilour was on air almost everywhere. The country's top newspapers published editorials on the children; TV anchors and presenters in their talk shows gave free rein to their imagination as they discussed the issue.

Although journalists reporting in the conflict zones in the NWFP and Fata knew that would-be suicide bombers do not roam about in their hundreds and cannot be easily identified, hardly anyone bothered to challenge the veracity of the information. Perhaps this was part of a professional conspiracy to retain the element of sensation in the conflict zones of the 'hot Frontier'.

Interestingly, the ANP minister's revelation put the information wing of the army in a fix. According to one official, 'We were perturbed as to how the army could produce 200 suicide bombers before the media.' Surprisingly, the ISPR office in Swat did not issue any clarification despite accepting that the information was wrong. A senior ISPR officer said that a clarification would have resulted in a confrontation with the ANP government.

Director-general, ISPR, Maj Gen Athar Abbas accepted that the news was highly disturbing and admitted to this writer that the wrong information had been leaked to the minister. In retrospect, a serious probe on the part of a single journalist could have met the requirements of responsible reporting. But perhaps the media men were not interested in verifying the information -- although news from conflict zones is indeed hard to confirm as it is always accompanied by confusion.

Inaccessibility and the involvement of violent interest groups force media men to stay away from the gory scene. This makes journalists dependent on second-hand information gleaned from different sources. In such a scenario, quoting well-informed officials is a blessing in disguise to keep the information clock of the TV channels ticking.

However, are media men justified in feeding half-baked and sensational information to the public? Does a political stunt, not corroborated by facts, provide the basis for solid news? Do journalists know that professionalism requires them to probe beyond the apparent facts? And do media men realise how insensitively the most sensitive issues are being dealt with?

The answers to these questions require considerable introspection which is important if media men are to stop, consciously or unconsciously, contributing to conflicts and violence through sensational reporting.

Date Posted: 8/24/2009