Go on and find a living room, gather around a group of people you know and ask them what is wrong with the media today. You’ll get a whole bunch of responses as everyone stampedes to condemn the various evils afflicting our media. The media is too sensational. The media is money hungry. The media is the puppet of ethnic groups. The media is a Zionist conspiracy. But you’ll find that the most common complaint being parroted about is how ‘the media isn’t objective’ and ‘they don’t show both sides of the story’.
It’s time the public in Pakistan realised what journalists in the West have known for a long time, that objective journalism is a myth, an outdated ideal and possibly even an oxymoron.
When the Taliban bomb a girls’ school and kill several innocent people, the headline isn’t going to read “Taliban bomb girls’ school, kill several innocent people but also score important victory in their noble resistance against the un-Islamic education of women’. Being a writer means you pick a side and you stick to it. If you’re Fox News or Geo, then you pick a narrative and you repeat it ad nauseam. What people don’t want is confusion or dithering. They don’t want the ambiguity and complexity that are essential components of any major real life event. When you have a news channel that tries to have it’s feet on both sides of the bridge you end up having a cluttered, schizophrenic approach to reporting that ultimately achieves nothing.
Journalists are supposed to be watchdogs, a position that is in stark contrast with that of a sober, objective, presenter of facts. As Robert Fisk said: “There is a misconception that journalists can be objective. What journalism is really about is to monitor power and the centres of power.”
There is no objective journalism because humans cannot tell an objective story. Everything comes down to an opinionated decision; what news to omit, what to put on the front page, who to interview and who to ignore. Every one of these decisions reflects the political bias and corporate interests of the people making them.
It’s no coincidence that Fox News and Geo TV are the top news channels in each of their respective countries. There’s a reason why newspapers are expanding their editorial sections. It isn’t simply enough to go around peddling ‘the facts’. People want an opinion. They want their news to have an opinion so that they can either use it to vindicate their own or have something to rail against. Either way, they want to hear it, because the alternative is too benign. Having an opinion means you have at least a smidgen of activism within you and this comforts people.
We shouldn’t be looking for ‘the truth’ in any one publication. Somewhere between the cacophony of opinions, news reports, expert panels, blogs and columns lies the truth but it isn’t something you can find, it’s something you have to make on your own. The smart reader will gather news about a particular event from several different places and form their own opinion about what happened and how they feel about it. Unless you were there when it happened, and most of us weren’t, this is the best we can do in our quest for objectivity.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 7th, 2010.
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