Code of ethics or common sense? -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Code of ethics or common sense?

By Saima Mohsin

Crass terminology, gratuitous graphics and a shockingly cold desire to be the first to break the news has highlighted how Pakistan’s media still has a long way to go. When editors united last year to agree on a code of ethics for coverage of terrorist attacks, I for one, breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, I thought, we might give victims some dignity in death, allow relatives to grieve with some privacy and consider the sensitivities or emotional impact on the viewer. Not for long. That code of ethics was conveniently dropped when news of the Airblue plane crash dominoed through newsrooms and homes across the country.

As we have seen time and again with coverage of bombings, information comes flying out into the public domain with little verification and thought of the impact. Wild ‘guestimatesÂ’ about the number of casualties within the first hour toy with families’ hearts and minds.

Newsrooms will argue that over-zealous officials were releasing those figures, but given the location of the crash no one could have known the exact scale of the disaster within minutes or even a few hours.

Journalists are supposed to be one of us. Telling us what they see and have found out. When you are telling someone his or her relative has died, how would you do that?

Reporters talking about rotting flesh and describing how they could see limbs everywhere defied belief. The repeated use of the crass phrase “dead bodies” is still ringing through my ears — how about calling them “victims”?

The farcical reporting shocked and stunned one and all. Black boxes were apparently found and information leaked (by the way, it still hasn’t been located even while I write this), sources eager to start the blame game told how the pilot ignored repeated warnings, weather conditions were fine and dry and safe to fly then suddenly foggy with low visibility. While intrepid reporters mastered their skills at live reporting, anchors rattled off catchphrases without consideration for pace, tone or empathy. Cameramen clambered to get the coveted close ups of remains being brought into hospitals. There was no consideration shown for the relatives, no thought for the rescue teams whose way they were in and no dignity granted to those who had died.

Creative teams, excited to show their talents, delivered to our screens vulgar reconstructions of how the plane ploughed into the Margalla Hills and then burst into flames. What a sickening sight. If I felt this way, imagine how those who knew someone on board felt?

So let’s take a step back, what did the viewers gain by seeing this? Did we learn anything about the technical faults or errors that caused the crash? That is the only purpose of a graphic I can think of. So perhaps it could have been saved to illustrate the inquiry results, when victims had been buried and families had time to heal. Instead, victims’ relatives glued to their screens hoping their loved ones’ names might not appear on that fatal list, were forced to watch an “action replay” of the dreaded crash, over and over again.

When major disasters happen, the journalist community often gets together, shares footage and interviews. In Pakistan, there was not a single channel that missed the “opportunity” to paste “EXCLUSIVE” across their screens. What is so exclusive about a tragedy like this? Later in the day, the media frenzy was not exhausted by the enormity of the disaster, it got worse. While the wreckage still smouldered, the TV channels had already moved on from the death and destruction, to praising themselves for being the first on the scene. Reporters recounted their stories of the hardships they went through to reach the crash site.

I understand the pressures in broadcasting. I have been a broadcaster for more than a decade. I am well aware of the desire to please our bosses and be discovered as a shining new talent. But with all due respect to my colleagues, instead of becoming the story ourselves, we should remember we are merely guides to the story at hand… and 152 lives cut tragically short is surely the bigger story.

Our broadcast industry is in its infancy. With little or no training, young people are being put on screen. Training is essential. There is absolutely no substitute for experience. However, training and development of skills can go a long way to not only improving what we see and hear on our screens, but also avoiding the kind of coverage we all saw the other day. When dealing with major disasters or terror attacks, not everything can be taught or written down in a set of rules. So, as well as the much debated “code of ethics” and the much-needed call for training, perhaps we simply need to stop and apply some common sense and compassion.

The writer is a journalist and broadcaster. She can be reached at saima@saimamohsin.com
Source: Daily Times
Date:7/31/2010