“Please, will you help advertise our parlour?” The plea of the saloon’s owner that I visit sometimes gave an interesting perspective on how media or journalists are perceived by society. She had seen me on television a few times and thought I was a journalist — someone who could influence public opinion and in this case, positively in favour of her home-run business. For me, it raised questions about the prevailing perception and reality of media and journalism in society.
Indeed, the general understanding is that everyone commenting on serious issues, especially international or national politics and economics, is a journalist. I have even heard literate and seemingly well-exposed people refer to op-ed column writers, commentators and anchors as journalists. Such confusion is due to the rapidly changing norms of the media industry.
First, there is an oversaturation in both electronic and print media. It is stunning to see so many new newspapers and an ever increasing number of TV channels when the market is so limited. Second, the media industry (both electronic and print) is increasingly dominated by non-professionals such as owners, anchors, column writers, news service walas (and even touts). Third, the dominance of non-professionals has shifted the emphasis from news-making to opinion-making where even reporters want to now comment and analyse rather than report.
Fourth, due to stronger emphasis on ‘visual’, the significance of the anchor has increased, giving rise to the misperception that anchors are journalists. Now journalists can be anchors, but not every anchor is a journalist. For instance, Larry King, who is almost every anchor’s heartthrob, is not a journalist nor are the numerous anchors that we see on Pakistan’s television screens. A majority of anchors were picked up for their looks, contacts and for having a gift of the gab for attracting audience to a certain channel versus the competitor’s — not because they were journalists. More important, months and years of anchoring has not turned them into journalists or made them better informed about issues.
Fifth, even the print media seems to suffer from shifting emphasis from the journalist to the column writer. Historically, good journalists were a product of experience, exposure, collecting and presenting information, who first had to learn how to report before they could analyse. A lot of the modern-day print journalists are not exposed to this training and, in fact, are a product of a top-down process rather than bottom-up. In fact, a journalist today need not be groomed in a journalistic institution or exposed to reporting events and building an understanding of social, political and economic dynamics in the country. In print media itself, there are new entrants in the field who are turned into stars without undergoing a rigorous process of journalistic training. But then, some of the old-timers also fall into a web of temptation and greed. Real journalism is still a tough job as media moguls do not invest in their human resource and it is difficult to access information in an environment where it is centrally controlled and manipulated. This basically means that the journalist either has contacts or perishes. This also means having a relatively elite background.
The above factors have an impact on the world of media, starting with an increase in corruption. Good money, foreign trips, expensive cars and political influence, things that were not associated with media in the past have now become its hallmark, attracting more and more people to the industry. Thus, making it akin to other professions like the civil service, police, etc. As someone jokingly said, the standards in media started to plummet the day parents began encouraging their children to join the field rather than refrain from it. Look deeper into this comment and one can notice it is about how the emphasis of the media industry has changed from hard work and professionalism to manipulation and individual marketing for specific gains.
In order to hide their unprofessionalism, a lot of anchors pretend to be doing things to satisfy viewer curiosity when actually most humbug is supply-driven. Infested with talk shows, television is no longer a medium for enjoyment, nor is newspaper a source for educated perspective. Centrally-controlled raw data in the hands of non-professionals is like a gun in a monkey’s hand!
Published In The Express Tribune, June 23rd, 2012.
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