Monday July 15, 2024

How to be a journalist

A good journalist or media professional would do better by making a habit of reading newspapers

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
January 07, 2024

During my recent visit to Karachi, I attended the Sixth International Conference ‘State of the Media 2023’ at Greenwich University (GU). It took me back to the 1990s when I used to teach there as a part-time faculty member.

Dr Irfan Aziz of Federal Urdu University (FUU) had invited me to deliver the keynote address at the conference. As I am not in favour of addresses and speeches, I prefer interactive discussions with participants instead of indulging in monologues. But there are occasions where one has no choice.

Representational image. — Unsplash
Representational image. — Unsplash

This conference was a joint effort by Federal Urdu University and Greenwich University to discuss the state of the media in the 21st century.

There were sessions on topics such as ‘Effects of social media on mainstream media’ by Mazhar Abbas; ‘Social media integration in society ‘by Rehan Hassan of Riphah University Islamabad; ‘Freedom of Expression and social media’ by Riaz Sohail of the BBC; ‘Social media and democracy’ by Dr Janice Collins of Ohio University’ and many others.

What follows is a summary of my keynote address to the students of media studies from FUU and GU: I decided to talk about what young media professionals need to do and keep in mind while embarking on their journey in this profession.

A good journalist or media professional would do better by making a habit of reading newspapers. To my surprise, many students responded by saying that they did not read newspapers regularly. Some of them would skim through the front and back pages of newspapers but hardly anyone said that they read columns and editorials.

So my first suggestion to them was to make a habit of reading at least four newspapers daily. It does not matter if they read in print or online – they must read at least two English and two Urdu newspapers daily.

For English newspapers, I recommended ‘Dawn’ and ‘The News’, and for Urdu, my suggestions were ‘Jang’ and ‘Express’. They may read other newspapers too, but these four should form a core reading habit on a daily basis. In addition to front, back, and national pages, there are certain columnists that are worth reading.

From ‘Dawn’, columnists Abbas Nasir, Asim Sajjad Akhtar, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, Mahir Ali, and Shehzad Sharjeel; and Harris Khalique in ‘Dawn Sunday magazine’. From ‘The News’, columnists Abdul Sattar, Dr Ayesha Razzaque, Mosharraf Zaidi, and Dr Tahir Kamran from The News on Sunday (TNS).

Must-read opinion writers published in ‘Jang’ include Aizaz Syed, Ammar Masood, Bilal Ghauri, Hamid Mir, Mazhar Abbas, Saleem Safi, Wajahat Masood, and Yasir Pirzada. For ‘Express’, columnists Wusatullah Khan, Dr Tauseef Ahmed Khan, Zahida Hina and Javed Qazi provide great insights into various topics. These columnists will help you build a solid knowledge base for your profession.

For good journalists, a sound knowledge base is as significant – if not more – as their technical skills. This knowledge base may come from reading daily newspapers and from the books that some senior journalists have written.

On top of the list of must-read books is Zameer Niazi who meticulously documented the history of censorship in Pakistan. His work is unique not only in Pakistan but in many other countries as well. ‘Press in Chains’, ‘Press under siege’, ‘The web of censorship’ and other books by Zameer Niazi must be compulsory reading for all journalists. Knowing about Sabeen Mehmud, Saleem Shehzad, Hayatullah, and others – who became targets but stood tall – is imperative.

Reading about the history and society of Pakistan after Partition is of vital importance to understand the problems we have faced as a nation.

In this regard, books by Ahmed Salim, Akbar Zaidi, Ali Raza, Ali Usman Qasmi, Ali Abbas Jalalpuri, Ammar Ali Jan, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, KK Aziz, Mubarak Ali, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Riaz Shaikh, Shahidur Rehman, Sibte Hasan, and Taimur Rehman are pretty important. This will help in building a sound knowledge base about Pakistan. Then all journalists should also possess a certain attitude towards their personal and professional lives.

Personally speaking, any worthwhile work in journalism and media requires a lot of sacrifice. If one is after money, they should open a sweetmeat shop or take up a burger franchise. Good journalism requires responsibility and some spirit for public service; if this sounds too demanding perhaps one should take up another profession and forget about journalism. There may be shortcuts to fame and money, but there is no shortcut to knowledge and respect. Though perhaps all professions call for commitment, some professions require much more commitment and devotion.

Education, journalism, law and medicine are much more demanding and one should never compromise their ethics and principles. In this era of social media – while there are many advantages in terms of access to information – there is also some downsides. One of them is a drastic reduction in people’s attention span.

Many journalists are also suffering from this reduction of attention span resulting in a perpetual desire to scroll on your mobile phones. Entry-level journalists must control this obsession with their phone before it becomes a compulsive disorder.

An ability to read in long format such as articles, books, essays, papers, research documents is necessary for journalists. Without this reading habit, a journalist is likely to end up as an information bot and not as a knowledgeable professional. Of course, a certain level of information is needed to build knowledge, but an obsession with insignificant pieces of information may harm any useful knowledge-building efforts. That’s why not every informed person is knowledgeable too.

Journalism is about holding others accountable and in turn being accountable for our actions and the words we use. One cannot hold others accountable if one does not possess a feeling of accountability to others. There has to be some balance in what we do and what we don’t.

Democracy is all about checks and balances and even journalists are not beyond these. A commitment to democracy means one agrees to be held accountable for any fake news or disinformation one may propagate. Keeping a balance also means avoiding hyperbole.

In this world of surging social media and instant information, one of the primary tasks of journalists will be verification of information bombarding us from all sides. The main difference between the mainstream media and social media is that journalism still commands some respect and dignity. Amid a plethora of fake news, people will rely on journalists and mainstream media for verification.

If the mainstream media fails to verify or ends up suppressing information, journalism may lose its credibility. For example, recent incidents in Islamabad with Baloch women deserved better coverage. Journalists such as Hamid Mir, Shahzeb Khanzada, and Asma Shirazi were exceptions who dared to challenge authority.

We need to remember the famous maxim: ‘journalism is about challenging authority, everything else is public relations.’ In 1971, when hundreds of thousands of people were being killed in East Pakistan and millions were forced to migrate, there was strict censorship on newspapers. Most newspapers failed to challenge authority and the result was disastrous as West Pakistanis remained unaware of what atrocities were being committed.

Those relying on international media had more or less accurate information about what was happening there. But strict censorship could not prevent the surrender, or safeguard the crumbling regime, of General Yahya Khan.

I concluded my keynote address on a positive note that we must keep our hopes alive. Those who say that Pakistan is doomed or there is no hope left for the country are perhaps not aware that there are many countries where freedom of expression is much worse than Pakistan. Journalists of this country have always fought well and new generation of journalists much keep the torch alive.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: