LAHORE: In the wake of the Bhoja Air crash, a debate began over the coverage by broadcast media, with condemnations pouring in for broadcast journalists from all quarters. The debate was led by social media and then addressed by the English press, while Pemra served notices to 17 TV channels for airing ‘unedited live gory images’.
What was largely left out of the debate was the voice of journalists from the mainstream Urdu TV networks, many of whom were not aware that a debate on ethical reporting was raging, or that their colleagues’ work was being critiqued.
For most, reporting on tragedy in a crisis situation is a challenge on multiple fronts:
“We get verbally abused”
Yasir Muhammad Khan – Camera Man, Samaa TV
Yasir Muhammad Khan has worked with a number of news networks including ARY and Express News in the last 8 years, and now works with Samaa TV.
“So many times, when we are filming the spots after bomb blasts, we get verbally abused by people. Because they are hurt and in pain, it is usually us and police that get to hear all of that, which is ok, it is part of our job. We understand that they are hurt, we have families too and we respect that. But my understanding is that we need to report the facts via our footage, so we try to manage and get our job done regardless.”
Khan says it is not easy to witness tragedy and then stay alert.
“We ignore the blood and gore we see at sites, and control our emotions in situations where people would usually be very emotional, and try not to think about our families and keep working. It is not easy and simple as it looks on the screen and my only priority is to always record footage without coming in the way of rescue efforts.”
If there was a code of conduct formulated for the sake of ethical crisis coverage, Khan says that will be good for journalists, “it will make our job much easier.”
“A sword over heads”
Qazaffi Butt – Senior Correspondent, Geo TV
Qazzafi Butt – a Lahore based senior correspondent with Geo television who has travelled across Pakistan to document conflict and cover natural disasters like floods – says, “A sword hangs over the heads of reporters and cameramen. They work under extreme fear of what the executives would say if they don’t bring footage the other network aired.”
It is time that editorial policies are defined by the organizations so the quality of reporting improves, Butt insists.
“There is too much sensationalism on our news channels. Sometimes a trivial incident is exaggerated, and then a very important story is completely sidelined just because it does not fit with the current editorial policy of the organization.”
Training is considered the most vital step in improving news coverage.
Butt, who made the transition from print to broadcast news eight years back without any training says, “There is absolutely no training for conflict or disaster let alone for basic craft skills. A loaded gun is handed over to the new anchors or reporters, who lack any training. The journalism schools are not teaching students according to the circumstances either.”
Butt further says that, “It is very difficult to not get emotional when one sees dead bodies and injured people, so only proper training can make reporting unbiased and objective”. He insists that the government should step in and help organize workshops for journalists.
“Frantic due to newsroom coordination”
Fatima Ali – Correspondent, Express News
Fatima Ali was at Mayo Hospital after the Lahore railway station attack till midnight. A Lahore based correspondent with Express News, Ali has reported on bombings in the city from hospitals where she comes in contact with survivors and grieving families.
She says showing respect to survivors or injured and their attendants, always works. “Some of our fellow workers just walk up to the grieving families, stick a mic in their faces and ask them what they think about the incident. Which of course you cannot do, it does not work like this. You cannot attack people who are traumatized. You have to give them some time, ask respectfully and then take permission.”
While discussing obstacles during live coverage of crisis situations, Ali says, “The coordination between the newsroom and reporter, and then among the sections of the newsroom also makes the on-ground reporter frantic. In an emergency, I may be in the middle of hundreds of people, constantly in-touch with the newsroom, gathering information and because I am a woman I am usually trying to fend off men groping me as well. So it is a very tough situation to manage.”
“We’ll improve over time”
Umar Javed – Correspondent, Dunya News
Umar Javed, currently a Dunya News and former Samaa TV correspondent said that the media will improve with time.
“On the railway station blast in Lahore, I kept saying whenever the information was not verified, that it was not. We also communicate to our desks if information is from an unconfirmed source. Media is still young, so hopefully things will get settled.”
“We are not angels, but…”
Sajjad Shafiq Butt – Senior Crime Correspondent, Express News
Sajjad Shafiq Butt, a senior crime correspondent with Express News says that during live coverage of developing stories involving loss of human life, the margin of error is always there.
“We try our best to not speak irresponsibly. While being careful, one tries to give undiluted information and we make sure there are no lacunae in the information.”
He added, “I am not saying that journalists are angels, because they are not, but we try our best. We need to show the magnitude of the incident, because in our minds our effort might help people get the affected some degree of justice. And as for the critique and debate, that should definitely continue.”
Need for training, rational critique
Zebunnisa Burki taught Media Law and Ethics class to South Asian journalists at the South Asian Media School run by SAFMA in Lahore, and is currently based in New York.
In an email interview she said, “Criticism leveled at the media is fair, but the critique should be moderately rational”. Burki emphasized that, “Practical training workshops for reporters and editorial sections is a must, particularly for a young media such as ours, (also because) the reporters are probably still pretty clueless about conflict and disaster reporting, gender sensitivity and media ethics.”
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