News consumers, beware
By Hajrah Mumtaz
JOURNALISTIC credibility is an oft-debated issue in Pakistan. Much time and effort is expended by news consumers on discussing whether any journalist is in the pay of the shadowy establishment, which writer is effectively a spokesperson for the extreme right or left and who is touting whose line.
It is, sadly, Pakistan’s chequered political history and the way in which journalism developed that left us with these suspicions. Yet such concerns are not our cross to bear alone. Consider this: in 2004, the Bush administration had proposed controversial changes to the US public health insurance system Medicare. A video was produced by the administration highlighting advantages of the changes and constructed in a way to resemble a news report. Upon being disseminated, a large number of American stations used it in their newscasts.
When the truth emerged, shocked media analysts pointed out that this amounted to duping the public. News reports are meant to be investigative pieces undertaken by a news organisation to make independent and dispassionate assessments. In this case, the video, the equivalent of a press release by a party with vested interests, had ended up being presented as a news report.
As downsizing of staff in media houses continues, the credibility of news is becoming a greater issue because amongst those losing their jobs are reporters. If the trend continues, large organisations may have to make decisions such as shutting down non-local and offshore offices and reduce reporting staff based in other cities or countries.
This would not be unprecedented, though it would constitute a major blow to the giants of the business. In most countries, including Pakistan, it is the norm to take many of the international news stories – even on occasion local ones – from newsgathering agencies such as Reuters or Associated Press.
In fact, the number of newspaper stories that come from press agencies or carry a byline is a good method of estimating the scale of a paper’s reporting staff. The more there are of the latter, the more extensive and widely distributed the organisation’s newsgathering network. This practice of picking up stories from outside sources has so far not posed any problems.
There are increasing concerns now, however, particularly in North America and Europe. As media organisations reduce their reporting staff, they will be forced to increase the amount of material from outside sources. This will create the demand for more and more organisations that do the primary gathering of news and then distribute it. And as this happens, it will become increasingly difficult to ensure that the news items in question are true and unbiased, have not been planted and the agency making them available is above board and free of bias.
To put it simply, news will come from an increasing number of sources, about which the readers or newspaper editors will know less and less.
It is true that publishers and broadcasters have always relied to varying degrees on outside sources and freelance journalists. Until recently, however, other organisations from which papers drew news stories numbered in the handful and had baseline credibility. These worthies remain in the field, but shrinking newsrooms have led to the proliferation of many smaller newsgathering organisations, important examples being Global-Post, Politico and ProPublica. Such organisations sell, and sometimes just give, stories to the publishing or broadcasting media.
The fear is that falling resources will force the traditional media to outsource, but the selfsame falling resources may translate to lowered levels of diligence on the background and links of the news provider.
An example of the risk, which is often quoted in media circles, is an article published late last year by The Washington Post. It concerned the debate over federal spending and was provided by a relatively new organisation called The Fiscal Times. The newspaper either failed to notice or decided not to disclose that The Fiscal Times was financially backed by a man called Peter G. Peterson, who was an interested party in terms of the federal spending issue and had links with the experts the article cited.
Significant lapses of this sort, or the Medicare example, are unlikely to become the norm. Yet the risk is real, and must not go unaddressed. Reporting gaps are bound to be filled by others, some of which will inevitably have their own agendas. The problem is, the more newsgathering and disseminating outlets there are, the harder it will become to keep track of them or their potential hidden agendas.
This phenomenon of newspapers being used as tools to promote the interests of certain parties or groups is hardly new. In Pakistan, for example, there is no shortage of newspapers that regularly publish reports that are essentially press releases. And the press barons of the early 20th century, owners who were not hampered by the need to answer to shareholders, used their papers to further their political ideologies and ambitions – William Randolph Hearst, for example, or Harrison Gray Otis (who, incidentally, coined the phrase “you are either with me, or against me”).
Diffuse and relatively accountable media ownership in the developed world only became the norm towards the end of the century.
The difficulties of outsourced copy are not much of a problem in Pakistan, because the traditional media generally have their own staff to cover local and national news while agency stories come from well-reputed organisations.
Yet Pakistan has other issues of news credibility, which refer to the bias and influence of news organisations’ owners, and the political links or agendas they may have. Politics and the media have become intertwined in the last decade, and the proclivity of certain organisations towards certain political ideologies, parties or personalities can in many instances be identified. Speculations and suspicions about ‘bought’ journalists or ‘establishment’ spokespersons only make the waters murkier.
Does a newspaper or channel take a consistent stance against any person or party because that is the path dictated by its independent and unbiased reportage, or is it because someone, somewhere along the line is benefiting or allowing their personal opinions to dictate their journalistic output? News consumers must learn to ask the right questions and connect the dots.