Media and the nation -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Media and the nation

Shafqat Mahmood

How many of our problems are real and others overhyped by the media? And how many of our successes are going unsung because the media tends to ignore them?

This and other such thoughts came to me after two recent encounters. A reporter from Radio Pakistan called and wanted a brief response to some questions on the current political situation. Fair enough, I thought. If the government radio people really want an honest opinion, why not.

The questions, when they came, reflected a government line that was obviously being hawked on institutions under its control. I was asked, isn’t it true that the departure of the JUI-F from the government is a non-event and has been overhyped by the media to suggest a political crisis?…

A few days later, at a sunny lunch in a well appointed garden, some friends, who have held important ministerial positions in the past, said something similar. This time, not on the JUI-F’s departure or on politics but generally about the media’s tendency to highlight the negative and overlook the positive.

These people were no admirers of the Zardari regime and were reflecting a common complaint. In fact, it would be fair to say that ten years after the electronic media exploded — there are about thirty news channels reporting round the clock, seven days a week – the stock of the media, at least among the intelligentsia, is pretty low.

While the viewership is still quiet high of the talk shows, there is also a growing cynicism about what is said and weariness with what is often described as poor-quality discussions. Perhaps the general sameness of the talk show format on most channels and similar guest lists may be a put-off, but there is more.

The depressing nature of the message seeping through is because the focus is on state and politics, and relatively little on society. While both politics and our governing institutions are a disaster area, there is much good that is being done by ordinary people.

It is a point of pride, for example, that Pakistan has one of highest rates of philanthropic giving in the world. Institutions like the Edhi Trust or the Shaukat Khanum hospital are well known examples of giving, but there are many, many more.

One gentleman I know gave Rs200 million of his own money to an educational institution. Many hospitals, schools, and social-welfare institutions are being entirely run on donations not from abroad but from here.

Foreign donor money is also flowing in but it seldom reaches smaller outfits beyond the bigger cities. The only exceptions perhaps are some madressahs, but generally there is more going on these places than philanthropy. It is the unknown organisations in smaller cities running a multiplicity of welfare institutions that are truly heart-warming.

This may not be news to the media, but it is a message that needs airing to balance the failures of state and politics. It is also necessary to go beyond the Islamabad-centric mindset. It is not hard to imagine that sitting in the newsrooms of the capital, any political blow-up appears to be big.

But to discuss it endlessly and seek hidden meanings where none exists is also boring after a while. Particularly when every channel is having the same discussion and, thanks to juggled hours of taping, the same guest seen holding forth on multiple channels simultaneously.

In terms of ratios, the shenanigans of politicians need to be given a shorter space than serious challenges to the economy or governance. It is rare to see a truly informed discussion on economic issues, and by people who know what they are talking about. Even when this happens, there is generally little research informing the questions or the direction of the discussion.

One of things that has been bothering me about the economy, for instance, is the difference between the economic reporting in the media and anecdotal evidence I gather talking to industry and agriculture people. The common theme among the agriculturists is that they have never had it so good. The prices of cotton, sugar cane and other commodities are high and the crop this year not bad.

The industrialists, while not over the moon, express quiet satisfaction about how their particular industry is doing. This is true of textiles, engineering, and pharmaceuticals, to name a few. Real estate is down and has been for sometime, but its slide may be a correction because it was overhyped before. I don’t know much about retail business but, considering that few are closing down, it cannot be that bad.

The main point is that while macroeconomic indicators are awful and we keep hearing horror stories of a meltdown, why is this not being substantiated by anecdotal evidence? Here is something that the media needs to explore. Lay people like me who do not understand economics very much need to be informed about the seeming disconnect between looming apocalypse of the state and no real panic among the people.

Without wanting to labour the point too much, another seeming anomaly is between the ground situation and employment. On the face of it, given poverty statistics, people should be knocking down doors whenever an employment opportunity opens up.

In reality, that only happens with government jobs. People see them as a free ride, with little work and, in lower scales, a better pay package than the market. There is not that much enthusiasm visible in private-sector jobs or for employment in domestic service.

This is not to belittle the statistics or economic theory but a genuine befuddlement at what should be and what is. This is something that the media should get into by going beyond the statistics and trying to figure out what exactly is happening in the job market. It would then be educating confused folks like me.

It is early days for our media and, over time, the degree of professionalism is bound to improve. It is doing a great job in holding the government to account and, were it not for its exposures, more damage would have been inflicted.

But crooked and incompetent bureaucrats and politicians are not the only story in town. Neither are the latest pyrotechnics of the arch politician, Fazlur Rehman. There is more to this country than such people, and good news is also news. Let us begin to, at least occasionally, put our best foot forward.

This is particularly true at a time when our global image is at the lowest ebb. Because of the internet, people everywhere read and can see what we think of our country. While the bad should not be hidden, there is a need to balance it with true of stories of courage, fortitude and caring.

Source: The News