Over Chai and Arsenic: Drawing the line and sticking to it

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“My mother started guiding me when I was very small. For example, to teach me and to prepare me for the future, when I went to school, she always gave me two paisas, just a couple of small coins, and would say to me that you can spend one of those on yourself, but you must use the other one for someone who really needs it, be it a child or a grown-up.” – Abdul Sattar Edhi (excerpt: Half of Two Paisas by Lorenza Raponi and Michele Zanzucchi)

There was plenty said after Abdul Sattar Edhi’s passing. So much so in fact, that one wonders if adding one’s own two cents to the pile would even matter. And then one remembers that this was the man who believed that any effort made in the right direction – regardless of how insignificant it may seem – would be anything but. But, it is with that in mind that I would ask the readers to direct their attention towards a serious matter that may soon get buried in the deluge of information we have access to today. I’d like to write to you about ethics in the media. And if you’ve read this far, you’ll know exactly what brought this around: yes, this is about that “reporting live from the grave” clip.

For those of you who made good on their threats to migrate to Mars after the incidents of the past few weeks and are therefore unaware of what I’m talking about: a major news channel aired footage of one of its reporters lying in the pre-dug grave of one of the world’s most famous humanitarians hours before his burial. The clip about reporting “live from Abdul Sattar Edhi’s grave” was aired on the television and made its rounds on the social media. Was there outrage? Yes.

Was there a flurry of comments denouncing the news channel, its staff, its reporter and the Pakistani media as a whole? Yes.

Was there anything done about it? Not that we know of, besides pulling the clip off air (reported by the channel’s executive news director’s tweet).

Where, for instance, was a statement by PEMRA, condemning the beeper and asking for an inquiry? Where was (at least) the fine and lawsuit that should have been brought against the channel? Where was the report that should have been released afterwards, detailing just how the reporter made it to the grave site in the first place: who he (possibly) bribed, cajoled or persuaded to get that particular “scoop”? In the event that the reporter got to that site by alternative means, where is the arrest warrant for that crew – because that was clearly trespassing? And in the aftermath: where are the reports of implementation of ethics workshops and higher journalism standards for training reporters? Where are our authorities and the outraged society when the chance to puff up their chests and waggle their fingers disappears?

One of the most iconic lines in fictional history is “with great power comes great responsibility”. It is the responsibility of the media to find that line drawn in the ground and stick by it, because it is the media that is in a position to see all the information that people could have access to. I admit that there is a competitive edge to our work – there are deadlines to meet and quotas to fill and pay cheques to collect – it’s a job after all. But there is a very clear line drawn in the sand as to how far we are required to go for that job, and while we have the power to cross it, it is our responsibility to not. We’re not infallible, but that’s why the civil society and organisations like PEMRA exist: to keep a check on the media and its powers, and, at all times, to keep that line drawn in the sand.

In college, I sat in on a class with friends majoring in Media Studies. Funnily enough, that particular class was on media ethics and ethical standards for reporters. It was a simple exercise: the instructor handed out an appropriate sheet of instructions. Illustrations about a young reporter’s first day on the job aided the students in answering Yes or No questions regarding how appropriate said character’s behaviour was.

“Was that it?” I wondered, “Is that how simple it is to be a good reporter?” Of course not. That was just a class they needed to graduate, something they needed to do to get to something “better”. If that’s how media professionals with formal educations are trained, one can only imagine what other, less educated reporters are taught. This is where PEMRA must step in. It’s not enough to simply tweet a condemnation – there has to be some practical change.