A pertinent question indeed at a time when anchors want to be known more for their wardrobe than for their library, and when hosts posing as journalists prance around parks demanding to see nikahnamas. The crisis that Pakistan’s broadcast journalism is going through is deeper than it appears and certainly not confined to one ratings-hungry anchor, or one revenue-thirsty channel.
At the heart of this crisis lies a fundamental question, which at one time or the other has been asked in almost all media markets across the world: “What is journalism for?”
Trust a pope to come up with an explanation. This is what John Paul II said in 2000: “With its vast and direct influence on public opinion, journalism cannot be guided by economic forces, profit, and special interest. It must instead be felt as a mission in a certain sense sacred, carried out in the knowledge that the powerful means of communication have been entrusted to you for the good of all.”
The operative part is the “good of all”. In essence then, journalists have a wider responsibility to the citizenry at large, a responsibility which hinges on them to uphold the sacred public trust by telling their readers/viewers the truth. Truth itself may be open to many philosophical interpretations, but in the context of journalism, it can simply mean protecting information from all external agendas and saying it as it is.
These agendas take many shapes and forms. Personal, political, and corporate, to name a few. The first two are usually not hard to detect, and neither are they hard to grapple with. Probably because mostly they come in shades of black or white. It’s the corporate agendas that pose the biggest challenge. And especially so in the Pakistani context. Here’s how: Pakistani channels are corporate entities, just like most channels in the private sector the world over. No issues here. Corporate entities exist to make profit. No issues here either. But here’s where a traditional corporate entity and a media organisation should begin to diverge.
This is exactly why in traditional newsrooms there exists a firewall between the editorial and marketing divisions. The corporate side of the media house has to look at the balance sheet, but expecting the journalist to do the same is not only unfair, it undercuts the very basis of journalistic principles. Proprietors who treat their media business like any other business end up falling into this trap, perhaps not realizing that a media house by its very nature has a social responsibility within a democratic polity which far outweighs consideration centred around dollars and cents. They fail to realise that journalists are not like employees of other companies because they have an obligation and a responsibility that overrides their employers’ immediate corporate interests.
By fulfilling this responsibility, journalists can accumulate a “trust capital”, or in other words, credibility. And credibility — if nurtured lovingly — ultimately translates into financial gain for the proprietor and his news organisation. After buying the Washington Post in 1933, Eugene Meyer laid down a principle which stated: “In pursuit of the truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such a course be necessary for the public good.”
Such an approach frees the journalist from the burdens of corporate pressures, and allows him to pursue professional excellence. This is what is expected from him. But to do this requires a deep understanding of the philosophy of journalism which is deeply woven into the fabric of a free and democratic society. What are the chances that the likes of Maya Khan know such a responsibility weighs down on their shoulders when they venture out with cameras and DSNGs? What are the chances that proprietors of media houses are aware of the sacred trust they have been bestowed upon when they get a license to start a news channel? And what are the chances that journalists working in the electronic media in Pakistan realise that their primary loyalty lies not with their corporate organisations, but with the average citizen of Pakistan.
This here is where the root cause of the media crisis lies. And to overcome it, we the media will need to do more than just fire an anchor who prances around in public parks demanding to see nikah namas.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 1st, 2012.