Friday, February 8, 2008

Pakistani Media: Where Are The Fact-Checks?

Fact Checks
Politicians in all parts of the world deal in hype, half-truths, exaggerations, conspiracy theories, inaccuracies and wild allegations. This applies to politicians of all stripes; ruling parties, opposition, left, right, center, etc. Pakistan is no exception to this reality. While there has been a tremendous growth in the media outlets, Pakistan still seems rather unique in that its burgeoning media lack the knowledge, the ability and the desire to expose these infractions as independent, objective observers and reporters of facts. The tradition of investigative journalism and fact-checking has not taken hold in Pakistani media. There are no examples of outfits such as USA's CBS 60 Minutes, India's or CNN's Fact-Checks.

Examples of media representatives' failure to challenge their guests are many. I'll cite just a few of them here. While there are lots of factual data available on Pakistan Governments missteps in the wheat crisis, the pro-government politicians continue to argue that the government was not at fault. The media reps, however, do not cite the data from reputable sources such as the US Dept of Agriculture to challenge these politicians' statements. My blog post at South Asia Investor Review addresses wheat crisis in Pakistan.
In an interview with an economist favoring opposition, Dr. Shahid Masood was surprised and alarmed to hear that the national debt has increased over the last 5 years. The economist then went on to further exaggerate the debt without also mentioning the fact that the GDP has doubled and the debt has actually dropped significantly as percentage of GDP(from 90% to 54% of the GDP) during this period. Shahid Masood did not have a clue on how to intelligently handle the subject. Any half decent journalist talking to an economist would have prepared for this subject and challenged the guest. Please read my blog post at South Asia Investor Review on the subject of Pakistan's debt.
It is very fashionable to talk about poll rigging in Pakistani media just prior to the elections of February 18, 2008. There are many general and specific allegations made without seriously pursuing the facts behind any of them. In fact, I find much better coverage of these allegations and rebuttals in the US and International blogs where knowledgeable international analysts and observers contribute. One such blog I have found is Informed Comment: Global Affairs. You can also check my recent blog post at Haq's Musings on this subject.

Navel Gazing
I am a big fan of Pakistani media, particularly the TV channels such as Geo and ARY. Pakistani media have come a long way in the last five years. In order to continue to improve their performance, they and their supporters should not become defensive when their shortcomings are pointed out to them. They should do much more self-analysis (also known as navel gazing in the US) and look at themselves more critically. I would suggest that they watch and start producing TV shows such as CNN's Reliable Sources by Howard Kurtz that look at the journalism standards and practices on a regular basis.

While I fully expect accusations of being an ivory tower commentator from the defenders of the media in Pakistan, I would suggest that the media not use any government restrictions as an excuse to avoid doing their jobs well, to the extent it's reasonable and possible. This is the only way they can avoid mediocrity and achieve excellence.


Riaz Haq said...

Pakistani media are reporting agreement on code of conduct reached among them:

ISLAMABAD: Top news managers from Pakistans eight television channels have voluntarily evolved and agreed guidelines, governing terrorism coverage, says a press release.

Representatives of KTN, Samaa, DawnNews, Dunya, Express News & Express 24/7, ARY, Geo and Aaj television met in Karachi at the weekend to successfully conclude a two-week-long debate on how best to respond to viewer feedback on reporting incidents where large-scale loss of human life has occurred.

In a maiden initiative, the group comprising key news decision-makers in their respective organisations, recognised that the public’s abiding trust in the media placed a heavy responsibility on news managers to further improve the quality of the news product.

Applying their collective experience and judgment, they agreed on harmonising existing professional methods to perform the task of honest reporting in these times of extreme national crisis and a perilous security environment.

Members of the group, a voluntary gathering open to all, agreed among themselves that formalisation of policies on reporting and news gathering in terrorism-related cases was needed.

The areas where agreement was reached pertained to field and live reporting, viewer exposure to extreme and disturbing visuals, dead bodies, badly injured people, accounts of the emotionally-distraught as well as eyewitnesses, and real-time decisions on releasing information during war (or warlike situations) or in the case of hostage taking.

The news managers decided that they would refrain from showing graphic and disturbing images on screen and, as and when required, utilise a time delay mechanism in their live transmissions.

This will enable the channels to edit out undesirable footage. The news managers developed a consensus on putting in greater effort to check information before flashing breaking news about bomb blasts etc.

The news managers agreed to exercise extreme caution when covering incidents involving hostages. They decided that in such situations they would take all steps necessary to ensure that information being relayed through the channels did not, in any way, help the hostage-takers or endanger the lives of the hostages.

Better training for camera crew and safety orientation of reporters were other areas where the group agreed to implement swift measures in line with the potential and constraints of each channel.

It was also agreed to introduce strict safety measures for their crews covering disaster situations.

They also requested all other TV channels to cooperate with them in following these voluntary guidelines, and said they would welcome suggestions to further improve their coverage.

Riaz Haq said...

Here are some excerpts from an interesting Newsweek Pakistan Op Ed by Mahreen Zahra-Malik:

In Pakistan, media is a regulated business—at least in theory, since the governing laws are not worth the paper they are printed on. Editors, publishers, and TV executives insist on “self-regulation,” which is code for taking editorial decisions with an eye to the bottom line. The timeworn local tradition of a secret government fund to plant official platitudes across media platforms continues without questions or concerns of integrity. There are advertorials. There are potted phone-ins on talk shows. There are bribes. There are bribes by other names (“foreign tours”). There is cheerful disregard for the country’s feeble antidefamation laws. Yes, wagging fingers at Fleet Street represents an utter lack of self-awareness.

Let’s be clear. There is no such thing as a free press in Pakistan. For each story that is run every now and then to give the appearance of no-fear, no-favor journalism, there are a dozen that never make it—and only sometimes for legitimate reasons. One cannot authoritatively judge Pakistan’s power-drunk but self-preserving media without looking at the stories which are not being reported.

Some media organizations—including in the U.S. and Europe—serve as an ostensible insurance policy for big business, which is fair enough but hardly a foolproof strategy. Often journalists will pontificate and preach about their personal and professional virtue and valor merely to elude the fact that the news organizations they work for—however concerned for the public they may be—are, in fact, commercial enterprises. Media bosses know the cardinal rule well: Do not piss off paying advertisers. In Pakistan, the biggest advertiser is the government. The only complaint you will ever hear from a Pakistani media mogul in his (or her) less guarded moments about this inconvenient fact is that the government isn’t spending nearly enough. Some skinflint news channels and broadsheets have been known to go for the government’s jugular, not in a bid to expose wrongdoings, but to bare fangs and drum up their nuisance value. In the ensuing battle of kings versus kingmakers, what chance does truth stand?

Journalism in Pakistan has come to stand for all-caps scandal-mongering and sensationalism. Political news is the celebrity gossip of our media times. In zealous obeisance before ratings, the cannot-fail business model turns on appealing to the worst in people’s nature: reckless gossip, wild conspiracy theories, fervid and populist rejectionism. Raw emotions help rake it in. The result is a media landscape shorn of any real credibility, barren and bleak. At least in the U.S., there is a Keith Olbermann for every Bill O’Reilly, and there are solid, truly instructive platforms like PBS, NPR and even C-Span. We, on the other hand, have lemmings.

It’s a scandal. Ultimately, it’s audiences and advertisers who enable Pakistan’s media and who are responsible for its self-destructive degeneration. Raised on a bilious diet of distortion and dogma, people buy dailies or tune in for cheap entertainment. And they expect to get what they pay for: salacious half-truths and provocative stories that will elicit a dinnertime rant and then they’re done. But there is always that little bit of hope. After Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer’s assassination, advertisers were corralled into boycotting a local news channel. It worked, and the inflammatory P.Y.T. host was given the heave-ho. But is it really another matter that she resurfaced weeks later on a rival channel?

Riaz Haq said...

Has the explosion of media in India been a mixed blessing? asks BBC's Soutik Biswas:

With more than 70,000 newspapers and over 500 satellite channels in several languages, Indians are seemingly spoilt for choice and diversity.

India is already the biggest newspaper market in the world - over 100 million copies sold each day. Advertising revenues have soared. In the past two decades, the number of channels has grown from one - the dowdy state-owned broadcaster Doordarshan - to more than 500, of which more than 80 are news channels.

But such robust growth, many believe, may have come at the cost of accuracy, journalistic ethics and probity.

The media has taken some flak in recent months for being shallow, inaccurate and sometimes damagingly obtrusive. Former Supreme Court judge and chairman of the country's Press Council, Markandey Katju, fired the first broadside, exhorting journalists to educate themselves more. Predictably, it provoked a sharp reaction from the media.

Economist Amartya Sen is the latest to join the list of critics after being wrongly quoted in the mainstream media a couple of times recently. There are at least two huge barriers, writes Dr Sen in a recent article, to the quality of Indian media.

One is about professional laxity which leads to inaccuracies and mistakes. The other, he says, is a class bias in the choice of what news to cover and what to ignore.

Dr Sen offers unexceptional solutions to ensure accuracy - newspapers should publish corrections (a few like The Hindu and Mint already do) and journalists should be given more training. He suggests that reporters should make use of recorders during interviews rather than take rushed notes for accuracy - in fact, many reporters do use recorders and even when they don't, they usually do take correct notes. But stories can sometimes get mangled on their way to publication, resulting in inaccurate headlines.

Dr Sen's worry about lack of training is more pertinent. Most Indian newsrooms have no legacy - or practice - of editorial training. They still host energetic, sharp and argumentative journalists. But analysts say many newsrooms do lack rigour and there is a crying need for some serious, consistent training in fact checking and reporting ethics.

Dr Sen's other grouse about the class bias in Indian newsrooms is valid but again unexceptional....

Does this also have to do with low minority participation in newsrooms?

A 2006 study by the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found that of the 315 key decision-makers surveyed from 37 Hindi and English publication and TV channels, almost 90% of decision makers in the English language print media and 79% in television were from the upper castes. There is virtually no representation of Dalits (formerly known as untouchables), who comprise some 20% of India's population and live on the margins. This accounts for a serious lack of diversity in Indian media.
A 71-page Press Council investigation named leading newspapers that had received money for publishing information disguised as news in favour of individuals, including senior politicians. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an independent journalist who was one of the investigators, says a lobby of big publishers pushed the Press Council to water down the report. Even Vice President Hamid Ansari regretted the development, saying that the Press Council's inability to come out with the report was "a pointer to the problems of self-regulation and the culture of silence in the entire industry when it comes to self-criticism".

How do you stop this? Journalists like Mr Guha Thakurta argue for increased transparency, self-regulation and competition regulation.

Riaz Haq said...

#Pakistan media on alert after #ARY TV channel found guilty by British court of defaming #Jang group's Mir Shakeel

Ruling against ARY could act as a deterrent for stations that broadcast in UK and carry out defamatory attacks on public figures

A libel victory in a British court has posed a major challenge to the bare-knuckle style of Pakistani television channels that specialise in wild attacks on public figures, often at the behest of the country’s intelligence agencies.

Earlier this month Mir Shakil ur Rahman, a Dubai-based media tycoon who owns the Jang newspaper group and Geo television, won a significant victory against ARY, which like most other Pakistani television stations is answerable to British courts because it rebroadcasts in the UK.

The court found ARY guilty of making 24 separate defamatory claims against Rahman and ordered the channel to pay damages of £185,000. When costs are included ARY’s total bill is thought to be almost £3m.