Clashing Views on Media Ethics in Pakistan

I am afraid I have a bias. Being part of the growing media industry in Pakistan, perhaps it is in my best interest to side with my fellows rather than with others. Frankly speaking though, it seems impartiality and objectivity is a utopia – something which has remained a controversial case since many ages – perhaps since the first annals were written on the order of ancient kings to today’s much debated BBC’s refusal to air Palestine’s post-war fundraising. But since this ‘feel good’ ethics has been laden by the society, I shall try to be as nonpartisan as possible; although being inherently biased, I would like to start in defense of the media. 

Laymen think that the business of media is easy. After all, all one has to do is talk or write. They even seem to know what ‘news’ is. But here is the thing: if all ‘new events’ were appropriately considered news and reported as such, then there would not be enough airtime on television – and newspapers would be about the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica and anything of interest to us would be lost in a welter of information that we could not possibly process. Hence, we need some idea as to what guides the process of selection and to enable us to distinguish newsworthy events from merely news events.

There is a public
interest in the freedom
of expression itself.
(PCC – UK)

For the purpose of news selection, there is a gene-rally accepted norm of ‘public interest’ developed over time. This includes protection of public health, national security, crime and social behaviour, significant incompetence in public offices and other ancillary issues relating to and which affect the society at large. However, this is just a broad concept of ‘the public interest’, because really there is no one firm definition of the term. A BBC policy maker once said: “It is hard to define the public interest with any immense clarity, because the moment you start defining things, it’s what you thereby exclude.”

Another senior BBC radio figure said: “It will always be a grey area. There are never simply two sides to a story, there’s a multiplicity of sides, which stretches out and stretches back. There’s a multiplicity of effects and of what’s in the public interest, which will vary from issue to issue, from story to story. I don’t see how you can logically, and rationally, impose some sort of blueprint which enables you to know whether it’s in the public interest or not.”

The truth, unfortunately, is relative. One man’s truth is another man’s distortion. People differentiate between truth and falsity through a certain sieve they adhere to. And in today’s world where there is a cocktail of religious ideologies and philosophies, figuring out the truth is at best an educated guess – unless of course the whole world starts seeing things through a single lens.

Moreover, at the heart of media’s obfuscation is the question of how to differentiate between objective and subjective realities. This confusion worsens in case of a conflict because it is not in the nature of the conflict to be balanced. There will always be, whether it’s a military or a diplomatic conflict, at least one party which acts in excess relative to the other party/parties.

To be a good patriot
one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind.

Some insist on including patriotism as one of the benchmarks of media ethics. This would require the media to side with the government in many cases to exhibit and promote national unity. But then in a political climate as volatile as Pakistan’s (or that of a banana republic), where many leaders are alleged to be traitors and conspirators, identifying patriots is a tricky call. The dilemma worsens if a country is actually at fault; then should journalists care about national interest or should they stick to the hallmark of truth and provide all true news for greater interest of the ‘global society’, considering the globalized world we live in?

For instance, the Japanese finance minister was recently seen drunk in public. Was it ethical for Japanese media to raise hue and cry over it or not? Similarly, Mumbai blasts case was ‘mishandled’ by Pakistani government, some critics say. Should journalists analyze the case? If they question any government in such circumstances, they are perhaps compromising national unity, image and pride. But if they do not, they are not building a perspective enough to help the public chose better leaders.

With so many comparative ethical standards, perhaps now critics outside the industry know what journalists do and how complex it is, and how it makes them feel torn between right and wrong everyday. I think media in Pakistan deserve a little appreciation here. But if one still doubts this, stay tuned.

There can’t be any public virtue in the absence of private morals

Public, somehow, sees inconsistencies and unethical behaviour only in media practices. But that’s not where the problem lies. Rather it lies in the failure to recognize that media is both a function and a mirror of the society itself. And when the public sees this reflection they are not only aghast by it, but as a consequence they blame the media for mirroring their true picture. The critique that the Pakistani media is obsessed with negative news, also falls within this context.

Just observe a typical drawing room or office conversation and it will most likely centre around traffic problems, a troubling car, lack of good domestic helpers, racism, government glitches, or otherwise complaints and more complaints. And this is exactly what media reflects. People tend to enjoy negativity …like a dense crowd of onlookers at an accident site. This is reality and rarely do we see it, so lets gather around and watch it. But if it’s on TV, it’s such a shame.

Catch 22 folks: If journalists raise too many issues they are spreading negativity and if they don’t, they are either playing ostrich, or have ‘sold their souls’. One has to bear in mind that media after all is a business venture and caters to what its consumers want, and if they want spice, then spice is what they get.  

Then there are those, who argue that media should be more ethical because of its high impact on society; and the answer to them is this: let us not make ethics a function of level of influence, power and so forth. If unethical behaviour is to be condemned then capital market speculation, commodity hoarding, risky lending by financial institutions, subli-minal advertising which impairs natural decision making of the consumer, and so forth should also be ‘equally’ lamented upon. A thief is a thief: doesn’t matter if he steals a penny or a pound, so let us not rebuke journalists while letting others off scot-free. 

The Other Side of The Story

As promised, here I am with a balancing view.

Of blood is a better story to sell, or should it?

One of the fundamental problems with Pakistani media is to treat news more as a commodity than as a social good. This crude concept leads journalists to use fancy words, metaphors, proverbs, and emotionally-charged arguments etc which exaggerate or misrepresent the meaning. For example, “When we say ‘the man is a lion’, we use the image of a lion to draw attention to the lion-like aspects of the man. The metaphor frames our understanding of the man in a distinctive ‘yet partial way’. One of its interesting aspects is that it always produces this kind of one-sided insight. Another interesting feature rests in the fact that metaphor always creates distortions. The man is a lion. He is brave, strong, and ferocious. But he is not covered in fur and does not have four legs, sharp teeth, and a tail!” states Morgan in ‘Images of Organization’. 

The commodity concept also pushes TV journalists to use high pitched tones – often choosing to report heavily on juicy aspect of stories with shock value rather than reporting on more pressing issues to the general public. One might say that if media is reflecting the society, then these sensational ways of speaking are justified, considering that Pakistanis are nonetheless loud and emotionally charged people, relative to say the British. But then there is something called ‘Adab-e-Mehfil’: simple things like not speaking before one’s turn, not speaking loudly and so forth. Plus, it would not hurt to ask TV guests to present cultured and educated way of argumentation, based on facts and logic, instead of campaigns of slander, filled with cheap tricks and mocking undertones.    
A related part of the problem is: ‘If It Bleeds, It Leads’ to borrow the title of Mathew Kerbel’s famous book. This implies that media in Pakistan is obsessed with the short end of the problem, or the symptom as it is quite rightly said. The challenge of social inequities, usually the root cause, rarely gets air time…at best a personalized story or a documentary and then, move on to something more exciting such as a blast.  

Selective freedom

Then there is the question of selective freedom, that is, Pakistani media criticizes the government a lot for its wrongdoings, but when it comes to highligh-ting the wrongdoings of private firms, it’s a big hush. These double standards perhaps stem from the premise that one mustn’t bite the hand that feeds. However, if Pakistani media is really as righteous as it claims, then it should as an industry, also raise issues relating to the corporate sector.

Advertisements would still come if all media firms unite and eventually corporations would have to mend their act to be responsible citizens. But wait a minute. This situation is more complex, because most big Pakistani media firms have ‘other’ businesses too, thereby creating a big question on their so-called independence.

Let ethics decide newsworthiness

It might be of public interest to show that a certain building made by a certain contractor collapsed, or a certain man opened gun fire in a shopping mall; but it is certainly not in the public interest to show a zoomed close up of a weeping mother, a bleeding child, or scenes of guns going rampant. A wide angle shot will do just as good.

When it comes to grief there is a simple principle: let mourning be private. And when there is iolence: speech is better visuals. These might be moral limitations, but the general finding from a great deal of research is that exposure to violent portrayals (includes related grief) in the media increases the probability of several negative affects. The most often tested affect is learning to behave aggressively. Two other affects – desensitization and fear – are also becoming increasingly prevalent, according to James W. Potter on Media Violence.    

This implies that in newsrooms, when evaluating the newsworthiness of a story or footage – the morality of the situation should be assessed first before editors evaluate other journalistic ethics such as accuracy and so forth.

Lack of sincere efforts

Disregarding whether media ethics is subjective or not, the case against the Pakistani media is their lack of empathy towards its critics. At one end they would construe government regulations as a clamp on free expression, but at the other end there are no visible and concrete signs of self regulation. There is hardly a media organization which has an ‘ethics and compliance department’; a department which is independent of, and has the right to supersede over-eager editors trying their best to sell their news; a department which must be consulted by reporters and editors in case of ethical dilemmas, without any regard to timeliness of the scoop. 

The following suggested measures can mend this problem:

  1. Set up an ‘ethics and compliance department’, which, besides the functions discussed above, should also offer a ‘hotline’, where anonymous calls can be made for any query regarding a dilemma or a complaint against any employee and so forth. Subsequently, consider failure to report by an employee having knowledge of an unethical behaviour, as an accomplice to the issue.
  2. Draft case studies of ethical dilemmas and take opinion polls on those issues in order to understand how the public expects media to behave on challenging controversial content. Blogging is also an option in this regard.
  3.  Set aside a section of the newspaper/air time (weekly/fortnightly or whatever deems fit  initially) where a panel of experts shall discuss the errors made during the period under review, debate controversial issues and take questions from viewers. One might also like to consider that the panel should not be of senior journalists posing as polymath experts, but those having adequate academic and practical understanding of society, morality and ethics.
  4.  Lastly, it is pertinent to note that, barring few exceptions, media organizations (even giants, which have ample funding available) barely invest in human capital. Most training sessions are typically confined to technical aspects of  production, in the case of e-media; the print media rarely sees this, thanks to the declining state of the industry. In this context, media firms should ensure that journalists should have at least some sort of academic understanding of their main beats. Learning on the job without having a basic understanding of the subject and its history, is clearly unsuitable in present times.

These measures of course are not the end in themselves, but the means to an end and thus they have to be improvised further. And although these tools will not help completely eliminate the grey, it would certainly aid the industry to at least identify and derive general guidelines for subsequent use.   

Yet with all its fallacies, the Pakistani media is perhaps the last straw to keep our country’s crippled democracy, afloat. And it can also be a strong voice of reason much needed in these disillusioned times of political and economic turmoil. Let us work together and let us not shun it.


 Media Ethics: A Philosophical Approach – Matthew Kieran

 The Public Interest, the Media and Privacy Professor – David E.    Morrison Michael Svennevig – March 2002.

 Images of Organization – Gareth Morgan

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Author Information

Sohaib Jamali is a financial journalist from Karachi.

3 Responses to “Clashing Views on Media Ethics in Pakistan”

  1. rashid #


    Good writing. Perhaps it needs to be presented in documentary form? I would like to do it, if the writer agree. It needs more research to bring into alive. I can do it certainly because I have done Master in Documentary practice.

    March 23, 2012 at 7:02 am Reply
  2. Alickicwiz #

    Hi, nice posts there :-) hold responsible’s exchange for the gripping word

    May 24, 2009 at 10:46 pm Reply
    • Hello, thanks for your comment and we look forward to your continued feedback.

      July 27, 2009 at 2:54 pm Reply

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