Why the media is pathetic
If there is one thing that has been made abundantly clear through this entire Imran Khan saga, it is this: the media in Pakistan has enormous agenda-setting power, but is largely filled with blithering idiots who have absolutely no idea how to use it for the public good.
I am not suggesting, of course, that every journalist in the country is stupid. Just some of them. All those anchors you see on television producing such irresponsible journalism. They could not produce a good show if you held a gun to their heads. Our problem in the media, as in other realms of society, is not of corruption, but gross incompetence.
I spent four years as an economic and financial journalist in Pakistan. During that time, I met some honest, intelligent, hard-working journalists who produce high quality reporting on issues that truly matter. I am happy to say that I am still friends with all five of them.
I jest, of course, but the number of such journalists is depressingly small. The vast majority of people who work in the media are the product of a badly broken education system. Even if they wanted to produce good reporting on substantive policy issues, they simply lack the capacity. I have met people with a master’s degree in economics from the University of the Punjab who do not know how to calculate a simple percentage. I have met people who have spent decades reporting on economic affairs in Islamabad who still do not know how to look for data in the Economic Survey of Pakistan. And there are precisely three reporters in all of Pakistan who know how to read the federal and provincial budget documents. I wish I were exaggerating about that last one, but I am not.
Now, of course, the skills I am highlighting are not ordinary skills. Not every reporter needs to know where to look for government statistics on the economy or society or how to read budget documents. But we do need a lot of them, and too many of the people who are currently staffed to do the job are simply not qualified to do it. Some of them hold the requisite degrees, but the quality of the educational institutions they have attended is so poor that they simply cannot do the job.
Of course, there is also the problem of incentives. Here the argument to be made, even if one did find the right people to do the job, there would simply be no incentive to allow them to do it properly. The harsh truth that most journalists around the world learn very quickly is that no matter how hard one works to produce a quality piece of news, it will always be easier and cheaper to produce absolute nonsense that will easily garner a much larger audience. In purely economic terms, the incremental effort to produce responsible journalism is simply not worth it (although it certainly is on moral and civic grounds).
There is merit to this argument, but it does not tell the whole story. There is no reason why, for every five hours of morning show claptrap, there cannot be one hour a week for somebody like Khurram Husain explaining the energy crisis. The same people who would watch Maya Khan for entertainment would not mind occasionally learning about more substantive policy issues. People are perfectly capable of regularly watching more than one type of show.
But for that to happen, journalists would need to get their act together. There are, of course, structural impediments to producing quality journalism. But too much of bad journalism is the product, not of those impediments, but of journalists being lazy or incompetent. There is, for example, absolutely no reason why not a single news organisation in Pakistan can correctly calculate the percentage by which electricity tariffs have gone up over the past year. (Hint: start by first looking at the different components of the tariff, and then figure out which part has been increased).
There are too many things that journalists in Pakistan cannot control: media owners’ priorities, advertiser pressure, irate political parties and government officials, or incensed militant groups. But quality control is firmly within the hands of editors. And it is dependent entirely on their intellectual capabilities and professional competence.
The writer is a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame in the US and a former financial journalist. He tweets @FarooqTirmizi