Journalism in Pakistan needs to go beyond the daily political discourse
National media, mainly perceived to be the electronic media or TV news channels, informs its audience relatively well but educates less. It’s probably the best and quickest when it comes to breaking news and follow-ups on political developments. However, utility in answering/ explaining non-political issues has been limited. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of its coverage is dedicated to politics.
Do we really need such a daily dose of hardcore politics? Why do we miss out on enlightened debate on the economy, travel and health issues? The answer given usually is that these don’t get enough eyeballs and therefore, the proposition is not financially sound. All news channels seek mainly to increase their influence but also business. They have not been asked to or put under pressure by regulators to ensure that a significant percentage of their programming is for social good.
Politics is the main staple of Pakistani news channels. Show after show in the evenings either features comment or political satire. Hence, the electronic media ends up further polarising the society in reporting and commenting on bitter politics. There is uninterrupted coverage of courts, parliament and politicians. This creates an environment where many citizens feel that nothing is going well for the country. This also tarnishes the image of politicians; they all might be ‘bad’, narrow-minded and self-possessed, but they are what we have. This raises the question: how much of politics do we really need on our television screens?
A typical news consumer needs much more than politics. Television channels, it seems, have left it to social media platforms to quench the consumers’ thirst for sound advice on social and economic matters. A consumer not only wants to know about the sad state of the economy but also to be educated on how to save in such times and where to invest his savings. In the vacuum left by the traditional media, the rising digital medium is meeting people’s need to know about such decisions in various sectors. Several health-related channels are doing great too. Some of the still printed newspapers and digital news platforms are trying to fill the gap but are finding it hard.
Crucial sectors such as development, poverty, education and health do not matter and therefore, rarely get any coverage. The Covid-19 epidemic was a rare instance – maybe because it was an international story – that the Pakistani media did some justice to. According to a study carried out by Media Matters for Democracy, 57 percent of the public found mainstream media the most trustworthy source of Covid-19 news and information. This is not a reassuring figure but still slightly better than family-and-friends’ networks which were the second most trusted source for coronavirus information (56 percent).
To be more acceptable to our audiences, our media should reflect our diversity. Our viewers should be able to relate.
How many talks shows or special programmes are there on, say, the recent m-pox scare or the yearly phenomenon of the dengue fever virus? Some TV anchors openly admit that they have had to switch to politics because shows on health or educational issues did not get them the ratings they desire. The skewed ratings mechanism is another institutional failure. Also, there is a need to challenge the notion that health and education are boring subjects; it’s the treatment and creativity that’s lacking, not the beauty or the interest or relevance of the subject. The major reason for lack of such content is the lack of investment in these programmes.
The news coverage is dominated by low-cost broadcasts such as live press conferences, parliamentary sessions and experts sharing their analyses. Once, I went to a university in Mardan with a famous TV anchor on a students’ engagement event. The students kept complaining of the dominance of politics. The popular anchor had no real answer. He simply asked them to switch to ‘animal channels’ if they didn’t like the talk shows. “You have remotes in your hands, just press away,” he said.
Being partisan has become trendy in our media; many journalists and presenters are supported by some political parties or the establishment. Journalists supporting a party’s narrative get all the interviews, rare access and juicy stories. On the other hand, independent journalists get almost nothing. They are hardly given access. This doesn’t look good on the part of the politicians, but they hardly listen to good or fair advice.
An important factor in the media’s prestige is plurality. How many faces do we see from our Sikh or Hindu minorities on our television screens? Or for that matter how many special persons? Adedoyin Olayiwola, a Nigerian-born British television presenter and wheelchair basketball player, hosts a range of travel documentaries and sports programmes for the BBC. Paul Carter is another great example. To be more acceptable to our audiences, our media should reflect our diversity. The viewers should be able to relate with the people they see on their screens.
The Pakistani media should probably cut down drastically on political shows. A different mix of perspective and amusement and educational value is needed for the programming to stay relevant.
The writer, a journalist for 33 years, has been an editor at the BBC in Pakistan for over two decades. Currently, he is the managing editor at Independent Urdu