Generalists in journalism


Over the years, the line between being a journalist and a generalist has become thinner and thinner, in that journalists are now expected to have all the answers. At least that is what the coming of the electronic media has done to the people of my country. The press corps is no longer treated as what they are stereotypically supposed to be, i.e., independent and detached observers reporting on what they see. In theory, a good reporter must never draw conclusions from incomplete facts. And that is exactly what reporting in my country is like now, a race for incomplete facts and, sometimes, half-truths and baseless speculation.

The real money, as many large Pakistani media houses have concluded, lies in sensationalism and drama. What makes for good viewing is good for business, especially given the kind of cutthroat competition that is inherent in the news business. But we must face facts and the fact is that the news media is, at the end of the day, just another corporate entity; a money-making machine designed to generate profits. This means that all the lofty ideals such as how the independent media always has the interests of the public at heart are actually just so much hot air. The truth is that newspapers and TV channels will only run with stories that sell. Accuracy and academic discourse, therefore, find little airtime on the dozens of news channels that populate my cable TV.

Hindsight, they say, is often 20-20. I, however, disagree with that notion and believe that unless you have all the facts (a possibility as remote as finding the answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything), you can never have the complete picture. This statistical improbability can be defeated though, and my weapon of choice would be background knowledge. The best way to acquire said knowledge is to go to school, because it is only in an academic environment that one can truly question, poke, prod, dissect and explore an idea. This is also the ideal environment in which to learn to empathise, disagree and find common ground simultaneously. Empathy is important, because it lets you better understand the kind of person (or persons) you are dealing with and help you arrive at a better solution than you would get if you tried to impose your views on someone.

Disagreement is as indispensable, in my opinion, as language is in a conversation. This is because you cant understand what someone wants without first discovering what they dont want. And finally, establishing common ground is the only good way to solve most problems, and that is what I want to do.

As I pointed out at the beginning, the people of Pakistan now look to the media as if it were some sort of messiah, waiting to deliver them from their respective fates. Everyone wants their problems to end, preferably immediately. This would be a perfectly reasonable demand, if anyone was prepared to listen to reason. In a place where the average viewer tunes into the night time chat shows expecting to see a good entertaining fight between members of the treasury and the opposition, or better yet, ministers and treasury backbenchers, you can hardly expect logic and level-headedness to prevail over histrionics and drama.

The only way to save the Pakistani media, therefore, is to educate the generalists. It is unfortunate that while the US, UK and other first-world nations are at pains to offer mid-career professionals scholarships for higher education, there is not a single credible institution in our own backwater that imparts training and/or background knowledge to the people who everyone looks up to.

The writer is a broadcast journalist.