Questions for the media
IT IS time for the media to take stock of its performance. This need for introspection applies to all media outlets but more so to the television channels, for they reach millions as opposed to the thousands who read newspapers and thus play a critical role in influencing public opinion.
It is important to ask whether political reporting and debate on most private television channels meet certain basic tests of responsible journalism: fairness, objectivity, balance and differentiation between fact and speculation. Debate in the form of a media spectacle may be entertaining or enlivening for some but not necessarily informative.
Honest discussion must be ruled by reason, not emotion alone, and a willingness to at least listen to the other person’s point of view. In the context of the upcoming presidential election, what we are witnessing on television is a sustained and preconceived rant – from quarters both pro- and anti-government – and precious little rational debate.
Indeed, the level of discourse may not be greatly affected if, instead of inviting guests, the hosts simply installed a few loudspeakers hooked up to tape recorders. These could then be switched on in turn – or all at the same time, for such is the din on cable TV these days.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court judges asked the electronic media to refrain from commenting on matters that are sub judice. First there are the country’s contempt laws to consider. When a case is in court, there must be no attempt to divert the course of justice or to question the competence and integrity of the concerned judges. Two, as one SC judge observed, talk show participants with no legal training are allowed to hold forth on highly sensitive sub judice issues. Legality aside, do such ‘debates’ add to the knowledge of viewers or swamp them with misinformation? Are members of the media, unwittingly or otherwise, becoming a party to propaganda? Is the media bringing clarity to public discourse or confusing matters further? It goes without saying that we vehemently oppose any curbs on freedom of expression. But these are important questions that the media would do well to ponder. There is no room in ethical journalism for media trials and character assassination, the very traits that the public and the independent media have long deplored in state-run television. True, the electronic media is still in its infancy in Pakistan but it is time it evolved its own code of conduct that incorporates the basic tenets of responsible journalism. Media ethics need not be an oxymoron.