The main focus of the current media-related debate is about professional standards and adherence, or otherwise, to a universally agreed code of ethics in the broadcast media, particularly TV.
The beginning had looked highly promising. The way the private sector TV channels reported the 2005 earthquake or for that matter the lawyers’ movement of 2007 was simply scintillating. Without much experience in handling the equipment or covering disasters or mass political movements, the staff of various private TV channels performed with a heart. But as competition heated up and the phenomenon of unscientific rating system made its appearance, both professional quality and ethical standards took a backseat.
As opposed to the print media, whose reach is limited to only those who can read, broadcast media enjoys an almost limitless access to potential consumers. That is why it is called mass media. And since TV is a visual media, its message makes a more powerful impact on the consumer than the one carried in the printed word. Moreover, unlike print, which normally takes almost 24 hours to reach its consumers, broadcast media conveys its message almost in real time. It has brought events like wars, elections and natural and man-made disasters into the drawing rooms in real time.
The difference in the format of the two media, therefore, demands that not only the packaging of the message be different from that of print but even the selection of the message and the language to be used for presenting it would have to be made keeping in mind the fact that the message is visual and for the unlettered masses. So, it is, therefore, imperative that we evolve technologically-updated gatekeepers, a new set of professional performance criteria for the mass media and a new code of ethics for broadcast media rather than judging it by the values of the print media.
Mindful of all these challenges facing the broadcast media, a couple of conscientious media persons and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) have made a number of proposals for bringing about some order into the chaos. In the same spirit, a coalition (The Coalition for Ethical Journalism — CEJ) of some media persons and media-related NGOs led by a former secretary general of the International Federation of Journalists, Aidan White, has launched an initiative, seeking to help broadcast media to improve its standards and evolve an agreed ethical code. In this connection, the CEJ has prepared a proposal requiring each media organisation to do an internal audit, providing information on the company and its performance. This information to be provided for an ethical audit covers the following:
1. Management and ownership of the company: a) Status, name and address of the company, its objectives and its range of activities; b) Board of directors; c) Structure of management; d) Financial holdings, e) Income received from state sources (advertising, grants, etc.); f) Details of membership and participation in groups such as industry associations or national/international advocacy
2. Information on economic performance: a) Details in general of revenues, operating costs, wages, and community investments; b) Comparison with performance in previous year(s); c) Budgets and predictions for coming period.
3. Company commitment to good governance and ethical standards: a) Mission statement; b) codes of conduct; c) governance rules (conflicts of interest); d) engagement with external regulators (press council, Pemra).
4. Industrial relations, labour standards and training activity: a) Respect for national and international labour standards including trade union recognition, collective bargaining and gender equality; b) Provision of training for staff; c) Numbers of full-time, part-time and freelance staff; d) Actions to promote diversity in staff employment.
5. How company deals with complaints and concerns of audience: a) Internal systems for dealing with complaints; b) Numbers of complaints received; c) External systems for dealing with complaints (press council, Pemra, etc.); d) Actions for engaging with the audience and readers.
6. How company protects editorial independence: a) Separation of commercial activities and editorial activities; b) Independence of the editor in chief; c) Obligation of journalists to respect ethical codes.
7. Company objectives and targets: a) Set out targets — editorially and commercially — for the company; b) Assess successes and failures.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2012.