THE night when the government was consumed with generating an adequate response to the petrol crisis, I sat and watched all the 9pm bulletins on the major channels carefully to see how television was covering this important economic event.
It’s not often that economic matters find themselves at the centre of such saturation coverage by media. All channels devoted the first half of their bulletin entirely to the petrol crisis. Most came out of the crisis towards sports after the 30-minute break, but one stuck to the petrol story till the 45-minute mark, deep into its rundown.
That channel came out with a story on how two dogs were disallowed from being taken on a Manchester-bound flight, and the owner left them behind rather than miss his own flight. This was quickly followed up with a story on Spiderman. Clearly, the news director of this channel had no ideas beyond petrol.
But even in their coverage of the petrol crisis, it was surprising to see how much of the coverage was similar. Each channel followed the same format. They had a reporter standing at the site of a petrol pump, irate consumers holding plastic bottles standing around him, and yelled emotionally into the camera that the people were suffering while the government was enjoying a lavish lifestyle.
Periodically, the microphone would be thrust into the face of an irate consumer, and one after another they would shout whatever popped into the heads. “There is no gas, no electricity, no petrol!” they would say. “We are suffering and the government just doesn’t care!”
One channel at least had a little information to share. They ran a press release from PSO saying that a large number of tankers had left Karachi for Lahore, Faisalabad and Rawalpindi and soon the petrol shortages in these cities would be overcome. They gave another figure for the amount of petrol that PSO was claiming had already arrived at the pumps in Lahore.
“But where is this petrol?” the reporter asked in a voiceover as random footage and graphics switched fast on the screen. “If so much petrol has already arrived in Lahore, how come there are still lines? Where did it go? Did the ground seep it all up? Did the sky drink it all?”
I couldn’t help wondering, isn’t this your job to find out? I mean, why is the reporter simply asking these questions on screen and leaving it to the viewer’s imagination to provide an answer? What was the reporter doing if not finding out an answer to these questions?
During the petrol crisis, the visuals were at the pumps, but the news was elsewhere.
I’ve worked in television for many years and have an idea how coverage is shaped. Some reporters are either too lazy to fetch a story, or too busy gathering the visual elements to be able to go after a story.
Here was a big question that night: how come the shortages persist even after the dispatch of such large quantities of petrol to pumps across the city? The answer is not hard to find; all it takes is a few calls, a few visits and you know which pumps received this consignment, or if it was languishing in a depot somewhere.
In any case, the coverage was loud, shrill, and sensational. To some extent this is to be expected; it is television after all and much of the viewing public isn’t interested in the nuances of things. But things had got out of hand that night.
Every channel used street language to dismiss everything the government was saying, without even bothering to carry the voice of government ministers, preferring to show footage of the minister speaking at a press conference while the audio ran a voiceover of the reporter saying things like “he preferred to lecture us on supply and demand rather than give us a solution to the problem”.
In the 10pm talk shows, one anchor started on the petrol crisis then took the bizarre angle of defending the military budget, and attacking the integrity of those who thought differently. Then he played a complete video of a conspiracy theory posted on the internet by a famous conspiracy theorist that began by talking about the state of inequality in the world and ended by arguing that Osama bin Laden never really existed and Al Qaeda was the name of a computer programme developed by the US military. Or something like that.
I know television speaks to the lowest common denominator, but when it comes to economic issues, television loses its mind altogether. The problem is it takes a little expenditure of mind and capital to build coverage that seeks to inform rather than confuse, entertain and dazzle. And mind and capital are two things the channels are not willing to cough up. This is even more true when it comes to economic issues, because it takes a little more mind to figure out the right angles and know the difference between news and visuals.
Those reporters who carried the 9pm bulletin that night were almost all standing in the wrong locations.
The visuals were at the pumps, but the news was elsewhere. All you needed was one reporter standing at a pump, the rest out gathering the news and finding the answers to the questions that were repeatedly flashing across the screens.
I know how hard TV is, and I have every idea what it takes to build the rundown of a 9pm bulletin. But I also know that one way to distinguish yourself from the rest of the pack is to go for the news, and angle it right, and get the right people on your screen to provide analysis and commentary.
It’s hard to arrange, but it’s not impossible. And contrary to popular misconception, informative coverage that clarifies an issue actually does fetch ratings. Try it once, and find out for yourselves.