When to use or lose identifiers

Ethnicity, religion, sect and gender. Do journalists not use these as identifiers in a headline?

Khurram Baig May 26, 2012
Ethnicity, religion, sect and gender. Do we or do we not, as journalists, use these as identifiers in a headline or in the introduction of a story when we are reporting on an incident -  that is perhaps a question that every journalist has to ask and the answer is never clear.

When is it right to mention ethnicities or religion? Does it add any news value to a story or can it be the catalyst or inciting possible hatred amongst ethnic or religious groups?

The question we journalists often ask is that if we do not mention these identifiers, are we aiding and abetting in a possible cover-up of something that needs to be exposed? This is a dilemma. It is a moral and ethical debate that perhaps has no single right answer.

The reason there is often no single right answer is that the first story that journalists are usually writing about an incident is usually never the full and complete story. Therefore, it is never possible to make an assessment that a murder, for example, was based on ethnic or religious enmity, or was just a random hit.

Debating with colleagues about this resulted in a range of opinions, but I have always had a very simple and basic rule of thumb when it comes to judgement calls. One colleague said that when someone is killed because of their ethnicity, gender or religion, we should report it as such - I tend to agree.

However, there is a caveat here. Who makes the judgement call that a person, who happened to be male, and of a certain ethnicity or religion was not killed simply to spread terror, as is often the case now.

How do, we, as journalists make the call? Or do we wait for all the facts to come in? As my editor said, if say, two Hazaras are shot dead in Balochistan, does that necessarily mean that they were killed because of their heritage? It could be so, but it also couldn't.

In another recent story, a lawyer slapped another lawyer. The one who got slapped happened to be female. But that was not the reason for the dispute, or the reason the first lawyer hit her, so the editorial call here was to peg the story as one lawyer slapping another, not a lawyer slapping a female lawyer.

It is always very risky when journalist tends to start letting ‘trends’ creep into their judgment. We are advised to never let traditional stereotypes have a bearing on our copy. So just because an Ahmadi was killed does not necessarily mean that it was targeted. It may be, but until we are sure, the rule on this should be that a man was killed, who happened to be Ahmedi, rather than an Ahmedi being killed.

For example,  the recent case of the killing of a journalist in Karachi who happened to be Shia. The initial feeling a lot of us had was that it might be sectarian, because we were looking at trends. We were wrong.

It is a fine line, which will get pushed and prodded on a daily basis. It is a valid question that will get asked and needs to be asked every day. Journalists need to be very careful, and make sure they do not take out an identifier when it is essential to the story.

And in the same way they need to be careful to take it out when it has no bearing on the facts and might simply result in giving an unnecessary slant to the story.

As reporters we are supposed to just ‘report’ and not assume.

Read more by Khurram here.

Khurram Baig The writer is content and style editor at The Express Tribune khurram.baig@tribune.com.pk
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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