TV in black & white -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

TV in black & white

By: Alefia T. Hussain

Day after day, minute by minute, TV takes us places in pursuit of ‘drama’ — to private quarters of private people, to crime scenes, to studios where heads meet to create noise; a lot of noise. TV looks for drama at all the odd places — in hospitals, police stations, court rooms, public offices, just about everywhere — and to the centre of controversies and judgments.

Truthfully, this little ‘idiot box’ of ours has come to become all intrusive and all powerful. Yet, it has not matured to be called an ‘intelligent box’. Today’s television, to activist and journalist Beena Sarwar, is “dynamic and evolving, with boundaries between news and entertainment being blurred for commercial reasons.”

And, it is distressing: “I do not spend too much time in front of the TV screen, but whenever I do, it makes me feel very unhappy,” says veteran journalist I. A. Rehman.

Or, is it more than this? Dawn News anchor person and journalist Syed Talat Husain believes the electronic media is a game changer; a new evolving profession. One of the follies perhaps, he admits, has been to push the news bulletins aside and allow the current affairs talk shows to take over. “Now that’s what is opinionated and arrogant — and, therefore, hits the viewers on the face.”

So, what do we want from our TV?

Behind such calls for introspection is an accumulation of grievance about how this medium has acted and expanded over the last decade. For the big critics, the television journalists have begun to tinker with the boundaries of their profession and follow weak professional ethics. To quote Sarwar, “When they mix up entertainment with journalism, it serves the cause of neither.”

The more pertinent question, perhaps, would be to ask what the prior good practices in journalism are being replaced by. As Rehman says, “Today, since the viewers are not in a mood to be enlightened and since they no longer find knowledge and information fun, the TV journalists have learnt that sensationalism and shock is the only course available to survive the cutthroat competition and market pressure. And, in the process, the pursuit of fair assessment of truth and values is failing. They have become party to moralising. Their purpose is to make noise and not necessarily initiate quality debate and discourse.”

TV professionals have the record of getting carried away with sheer urgency of their 24/7 coverage and make mistakes. Take the Maya Khan show which put the electronic media in immense turmoil, leading to jitteriness to defend the medium at one end and at the other overconfident shrills to take it in the right direction. There was deafening noise emanating from all directions, so much that no one could be heard clearly and effectively.

This happens when television channels try to increase ratings and get more commercials, they are fulfilling a commercial and business requirement, and hence allow overshadowing the basic rules of journalism — reporting on all sides of the story, being accurate, getting a two-source-at least-confirmation, etc — when they get into the news reporting business. “For that side of their ‘business’ they need to put aside those commercial interests, and enable and allow the reporters and producers to focus on the requirements of journalism, not trying to increase viewership, popularity and ratings,” stresses Sarwar.

ARY News talk show anchor Fahd Husain agrees. For him, the news channels are veering away from information and truth in their race for ratings. “Today’s TV journalist is akin to a salesman, airing content that sells,” he laments.

Husain holds the proprietor responsible for the mess, because he hammers the journalist to produce content that sells and which not always meets the basic principles of journalism. “This classic conflict is essentially between the journalist and the marketing executive. The journalist eyes the story, the marketeer eyes the revenue; the journalist looks for social impact, the marketeer at the financial and commercial impact; the journalist has a responsibility to society, the marketeer to his boss’s balance sheet. This differentiation between salesperson and journalist must be addressed. Otherwise the journo will continue to get rot from the owner, and fail to add value and veracity to his work.”

Syed Talat Husain, on the contrary, is quite comfortable with the marketing formula adopted by proprietors of TV channels. He equates TRPs to the circulation of newspapers. “Since the very beginning, the success of a newspaper is judged by its circulation; it’s a given. So why can’t we digest the idea of ratings.”

In effect, TRPs go against the grain of being a journalist whose ultimate pursuit is the truth not ratings. “Running a news channel is about balancing these two,” reminds Sahar Habib Ghazi, editor-in-chief, Hosh Media, a news website.

Also the industry has experienced the massive proliferation of amateur journalists without appropriate institutions and colleges to train its professionals. “Our universities offering journalism courses did not grow with the same ease nor did they adjust their curricula to the needs of 24/7 live news; when the news environment in Pakistan was on fire… Many untrained and inexperienced reporters were pushed into a dizzying environment of breaking news,” adds Ghazi, pressing for news organisations to fill the gap by offering training courses to its employees.

Here Fahd Husain draws a distinction: Where the newsroom people are professional in gathering and prioritising news, the production people are inept at using journalistic tools and lack understanding of news per se. “Producers have been reduced merely to technicians. They have world class equipment at hand but no knowledge of world class journalistic expertise”, he says.

So, TV is anarchic and shaggy. Because “[Only] some TV channels in Pakistan follow informal editorial guidelines or codes that have developed organically through trial and error. But to the best of my knowledge no one has compiled and documented a formal list. All Pakistani channels and media outlets need to do the same to be considered transparent, accountable and ethical,” says Ghazi.

And, it is freewheeling. In this milieu, should media owners, producers, journalists and concerned citizens hammer out a mutually agreed upon code of ethics that can be periodically reviewed? Should they have their own ombudsman that people can turn to for complaints and redress? Should PEMRA take charge? Or, should professionals self-regulate?

“Regulation prolongs the illnesses and weaknesses of the system,” thinks I. A. Rehman.

“TV journalist should essentially self-regulate,” asserts Beena Sarwar.

TV channels have traversed a long, winding path. Its coverage area has increased. It takes viewers close to rights issues, poverty, corruption and issues that are dear to their heart. With reporting, it digs in and comes up with qualitative research. But the fact is that refinement comes only with experience. Clearly, refinement is what we want from our TV. “But the demand for refinement must come from the viewers,” stresses Rehman.

Source: The News