Sensationalism in our electronic media



A case for real journalism 

Scottish philosopher and satirical writer, Thomas Caryle once said “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the reporters’ gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all”. As a student of law and political philosophy, the Trichotomy of power principle has taught me that in theory, there are three pillars of the state namely, Legislature, Executive and Judiciary; however, in practice, a fourth pillar (media) exists which indisputably is the most potent and influential among them.

Right after independence media in Pakistan started to dance to the tunes of orchestra set up by establishment. The sole monopoly in controlling media remained with the establishment who either ruled the country directly or behind the shadows. Pakistan, during much of its existence, has remained under media curbs but nonetheless the daring journalists, despite imprisonment, kept informed the public of the latest political developments. The media all along faced the brutal forces that wanted to muzzle the resurgent voices but no amount of incarcerations and gallows were able to stop the marching forces of liberty and freedom.

However, with the advent of independent electronic channels during Musharraf’s era, Pakistan’s media landscape has undergone complete metamorphosis. Now, media as a whole and especially electronic media in its new found independence is impacting every facet of the society. The media at the doorstep of the masses and only a click away to broadcast all types of programmes ranging from political, economic, social, religious and entertainment.  Media is strengthening the democratic norms in the country and resultantly the populace is more askance about the transparency issues in the governmental functioning. It has cajoled the superior judiciary to adopt more active role in safe guarding the fundamental human rights albeit vigorous watch on government functioning.

All the journalists are supposed to abide by five W`s what, when, who, who from and why, however, these rules are still alien. Journalists in Pakistan have become fortunetellers and catalysts of sensationalism. However, for higher ratings, media is often found spreading sensationalism and patently negating the rules of professional and responsible journalism. The negative aspects of Pakistani media are discussed hereunder;

First, Pakistan is finding itself at the crossroads of history and fighting the war on terror to save the tearing moral fabric of the society. The writ of the State is in all-time great jeopardy but media is proving instrumental in radicalising the society. The terrorist incidents get new dimensions when newspapers and channels try to outdo each other and go for showing gruesome aftereffects of terrorist attacks. Mutilated bodies and sobbing cries of the bereaved families are televised in contravention to media’s ethics. The terrorist agenda of spreading the news of any terror incidents far and wide gets recognition and this is the objective of the terrorists which media consciously or unconsciously is fulfilling.

Second, many media houses have clearly adopted a partisan attitude; it seems like some media channels are media partners of political parties and establishment entrusted with the task to defend their policies and propagate their manifesto. Many anchors rather than presenting independent opinions display utter bias during course of a talk show; they are by no stretch of imagination independent journalists instead are representatives of political parties and establishment.

Thirdly, Pakistani media believes in sensationalism, few journalists rely on investigative reporting thus leaving wide spaces for conspiracies to enter in the media’s domain.  The worst law and order situation has made the people susceptible to believing in concocted stories. According to many Pakistanis, the C.I.A. used a mysterious technology to cause the devastating floods that affected 20 million people in 2010. Malala Yousafzai was shot as part of a campaign to demonise the Pakistani Taliban and win public support for American drone strikes against them.

Although, there are many who have advanced this noble cause of originating conspiracy theories but there is one journalist who is undoubtedly the undisputed king of conspiracy theories. The fortuneteller has amongst others, predicted imposition of Martial Law at least 10 times in the last decade and has often decoded the messages behind bodily movements and facial expressions of Army Generals. However, the practical manifestations of such delusional predictions are yet to be seen. In addition to aforementioned, the media passionately cover the terrorist incidents but hold interviews of the terrorist leaders and provide them to cross their point of view to the public. These leaders during the course of interview present themselves as religious scholars who are bent upon to save the Islamic polity from western powers. They create imaginary conspiracy theories to influence public opinion and to induce sympathies into public for terrorist outfits.

Fourth, the format and content of the talk shows is largely uniform, repetitive and monotonous. Their substance tends to be based on speculation by the participants and anchors. Though the content lacks decency and substance and at times an endless verbiage but still underpinnings are felt and public gets the fodder to build their own arguments for and against any one.

Fifth, the anchors in search for higher ratings are found trying their utmost to initiate fighting and shouting amongst the discussants. There is no research in the media, the anchors and reporters are usually mediocre columnists in Urdu dailies and lack professional acumen, education and ethics. The anchors like third class poets focus on igniting emotions of the masses instead of trying to appeal to intellect and reason, all they do is sell negativity based mostly on speculations.

Sixth, while media freedom is much trumpeted, public-bashing-of-politicians and public brainwashing through airing loaded caricatures often bordering vulgarity is telecasted with impunity.  This childish newfound freedom washed in the laundry of moral righteousness clearly point that the media industry in Pakistan is still very juvenile.

Pakistan Electronic Media Regularity Authority (PEMRA) seems to be a toothless tiger as far as curtailing sensationalism and radicalisation is concerned; the only function which it is performing well is extorting exorbitant fees from media houses under the pretext of license granting and renewals. The sad reality is that the PEMRA is being is headed by an anchorperson (ex) whose views before his appointment were always in favor of Nawaz Sharif.

Pakistani Media in its new found independence and driven by commercial greed is not only violating norms of responsible journalism but also acting unconstitutionally. Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees the right free speech but it is subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by law (e.g.: glory of Islam, the integrity and security Pakistan, public, morality, contempt of court, incitement to an offence etc). However, Media has assumed the role of holy cow, an arbitrator in controversial, biased and at times harmful for the interest of the country.

Sensationalism is generated by exaggeration, which is not only spreading panic and terror in viewers but also even cause serious consequences. In the era of uncertainty, it is the duty of the media to affirm and authenticate the information rather than exaggerate as people are already tense and anxious due to incidents of terrorism and insurgency. Rating is all that matters without caring for that media is a source of informed analysis but unfortunately media at present state is completely oblivious of its prime responsibility. Investigative journalism is the benchmark to judge the role of media in terms of its credibility but unfortunately Pakistani media is mainly banking on statement journalism to sensationalise the news.