It’s a constant war, a war for the ratings and more views. In the race to get more eyeballs and page views for channels and the websites, we, the journalist community, often forget one of the most basic things: ethics.
Not a single day goes by without us hearing about an instance in which a journalist or a TV channel has done something so unethical that it makes you question how low we are going to stoop in the race to get ahead of the competition?
The latest incident is the case of the death of PPP leader Qamaruz Zaman Kaira’s son. On Friday, after a meeting of PPP leaders at Zardari House in Islamabad, Kaira came out to talk to the media. What ensued was one of the ugliest examples of unethical journalism in recent times.
In one of the videos that has gone viral, you can see Kaira, flanked by other PPP leaders, getting ready to address the media as one of the journalists present interrupts him.
“Yeh koi aap ke liye khabar laye hain, koi beta accident me mara gya ha (someone has news for you that some son has died in an accident),” a voice from behind a camera is heard saying. Kaira not being able to comprehend the question, asks, “Kis ka?” Who’s son?
“Khabar ai he ke aap ke betay ka accident hua he,” another voice is heard saying. The news is that your son had an accident. The stunned fear is visible on Kaira’s face as he leaves, just barely able to utter, “Thank you”.
As the PPP leaders move away from the cameras, another voice is heard saying, “Check to karain, sun-nay me aya he ke death ho gai he.”
The way a father was informed about the death of his son can be blamed on a lack of training to sensitise reporters. But what is unforgivable is that some TV channels deemed it acceptable to run the footage.
This incident proves one thing: the reporters who blurted out the information have completely disconnected from their humanity. Every reporter is propelled by the instinct to break news, but when they forget that not all information is news, and not all news should be broken, they have been swallowed by the maw of the ratings machine.
If a reporter received information that indeed Kaira’s son had met with an accident, they can be forgiven for wanting to immediately inform the man so he could rush off. But this should certainly not have been done right in front of the entire national media with the cameras rolling. Perhaps the only appropriate thing to do would have been to tap an aide on the shoulder and whisper in their ear what the bad news was. The last thing you want is to hear your son has been killed in a live update.
There was an educative scene in the hit CBC show ‘Newsroom’ directed by Aaron Sorkin in which the anchor, Will McAvoy is live during a shooting involving a congresswoman. False coverage spreads on the other news channels and McAvoy comes under pressure to declare the congresswoman dead. He refuses and moments later reports emerge that she has survived and is in surgery. The principle was that only a doctor can declare a death and ideally the family hears first.
Voyeurism of the pain of others has grown to epic proportions in the Pakistani media. We see it in the hits that rack up on CCTV footage of violent crimes. Our appetite for the grisly and gruesome is bottomless. We are a violent society but we are also a society that likes to watch violations of the human spirit and flesh too.
The spectacle of pain makes for great viewing. But it deadens the spirit. There is a fine line between informing the public about news that they need to know to make better decisions for their lives, which is the core job of the fourth estate, and gratuitous, salacious titillation from regarding the pain of others. We are drawn to it as we want to test just how much pain we can view. But this is easy because it is not our own pain.
One of the core ethics in journalism is to do no harm. That takes many shapes and forms. TV journalists and news managers, ticker writers, non-linear editors who chop and edit footage, script writers, reporters, directors of news need to all ask themselves if they are doing the kind of journalism that Pakistan needs by endorsing or making excuses or apologies for running that footage. Our reporting on the dead is bad enough, but perhaps we should spare the living on these accounts.