Media bias: Upon land almost dry

Mainstream media has a penchant for melodrama. Anchors with urban backgrounds cannot understand the issues or needs of flood survivors. Community media is key in this crisis.

Altafkhan September 06, 2010
"Nothing can describe the confusion of thought which I felt when I sunk in water; for tho' I swam very well, yet I could not deliver my self from waves so as to draw breath, till that wave having driven me, or rather carried me a vast way on towards the shore, and having spent itself, went back, and left me upon land almost dry, but half-dead with the water I took in."

Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe defines a very pertinent human condition. A condition we can sympathize with, but can not fathom. We need not fathom it. Our responsibility is not to analyze how much pain one (or all) felt when they suffered at the hands of water. This is done. People are left "half-dead." They don't need our analysis. They need our understanding.

The question is how to understand

The instrument of understanding is naturally our heart and mind. It is being fed through information. Information that comes through different sources. One being the modern mass media. Media brings sorrows and pleasures from distant, and not so distant lands into our immediate presence. But media always brings a bias with it. It prioritizes one happening over the other. It helps and blurs our vision of reality at the same time.

There are however, other human faculties that help us understand the sorrows of the ones who are "left upon the land, almost dry." The best instrument is identification. Identification is the human faculty of putting oneself in another's position. We cease to remain human once we are unable to empathize ourselves with the ones whom we consider our own.

Absorbing pain

The people who are left in the lurch by the existing disaster are a resilient group, since "Pakistani society is a pain-absorbing society", a German TV channel commented at the very beginning of the disaster. The aids to our perception, namely the media are but important instruments in this struggle against the inevitable. Natural disasters can not be stopped. These are the testimony of power of nature over the struggle of man to survive. But disasters can be managed. This could be done through preemptive training or post disaster management efforts. The time for preemption has passed. It has already been lost.

The reasons are numerous: inability of state and society to understand the meaning of interactive, community based, responsible, humane structures could be cited as the main reason. All the talk about corruption, inefficiency, and many many other ills could be brought to one point: non-participatory, vertical system of social interaction, in simpler but more elusive terms absence of grass root democracy; democracy whose natural outcome is responsible attitudes, not only in the political sphere, but more importantly at the social level and down at the very grass-roots.

This is the problem lying at the heart of all problems of relief and reluctance of the world to come forward with hearts and minds to help a disaster clearly accepted by the world as one of the worst in recent history.

Re-learning humanity

The media could be used in two ways in the present crisis. One is the mainstream media. This could be used in a proper manner to cover the disaster. Here, despite the intensive debate on the issue, a coherent understanding of the issue is absent. Anchors with urban bias reach a devastated site and the camera focuses on them most of the time. People are shown in their third world miseries, while the host sympathizes with them. This isn't a service to the people at all. Now if we turn to the other side of the equation, we see the same overdressed, unpreparedness in the newsroom.

Guys, this is no Eid transmission

Be human. Try to empathize. Your images are being floated for miles and all the viewers appreciate your appearance and mannerisms. This is ensured. Now let humanity flow through your body, your words and your body language. No training can teach this. It is you who can unlearn pretensions. Harmony with the hapless will naturally flow through you and become an integral part of the image world. And believe me you all will look much prettier, once you become more humane.

The missing link

The other important media vehicles are altogether missing in the present episode. Not that it has been snatched away or swept away by floods. It never existed. This is community media. We do have FM channels, FM radio. The anomaly between cheap and handy broadcasting and community service has shown itself at the worst moment of our history. Whenever this country has needed a mouthpiece for the poor it doesn't have it. FM community radio stations went through many phases in Pakistan, but never reached this destination. From hobbyists, to militants, to the money mongers, to aid aspirants; but never to community journalism.

There is a dire need to instal FM radios in the camps or in the immediate vicinity. Many would think of this idea as a mad man's dream amid such a situation where people are suffering in all possible ways. I can understand this and also empathize with the feeling. But at this moment of dearth of resources we should not underestimate the role of this cheap and handy instrument of communication, this voice in the neighborhood, the voice next door. At a moment when we have few resources, this handy media could help manage them by increasing awareness among the affected people.

Information is the solution

Health and hygiene, helping the people through trauma, information about what is available and what is not and why, weather updates, and updates on conditions of the homes they left - all this could be done most easily through interactive broadcasts on community channels. How will people listen to them, how will they respond?

Mobile phones helped people to keep in contact with their near and dear. Every villager buys a phone that could catch FM radio. This job has already been done. What is left is the government's (PEMRA's, to be precise) earliest decision to draft a contract structure for issuing community radio licenses. PEMRA can do this, They are neither struck by the disaster nor are busy in relief. Their bit would be to make it possible for the ones left high and dry to get a taste of grassroots democracy. To get the best gift in the worst times.
Altafkhan Chairman of Journalism department at the University of Peshawar, Khan is global adjunct faculty at the center for International Studies at Ohio University. He completed his doctorate in communication and media sciences from Germany. He lives in Peshawar with his wife and three sons.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Madeeha Ansari | 13 years ago | Reply I keep wondering, too, about why the merits of community radio are so underrated. Especially since no one knew Maulana Fazlullah until he got his own radio show and recruited an army.
Rehman | 13 years ago | Reply Media! Who will watch the watchman "committing" crimes?
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