Quality journalism is essential for democracy

This is a challenging, disturbing and exciting time to be a journalist

Lawrence Pintak December 11, 2016
The writer is on the board of advisors at the Centre for Excellence in Journalism at IBA. He was the founding dean of The Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and has advised journalism schools in FATA, K-P and Balochistan

This is a challenging, disturbing and exciting time to be a journalist. Never, in recent history, has media around the world simultaneously been so powerful, in such turmoil and so under siege as it is today.

The media has the power to shape opinion, to unseat governments, and to save lives. A recent study I conducted here in Pakistan found that two-thirds of Pakistani policymakers surveyed said they take media reaction into account before making a decision.

Precisely because of that influence, journalism is today on the defensive. From Cairo to Bangkok, Turkey to Zimbabwe, reporters and editors are being harassed, jailed and killed. Tragically, Pakistan has seen more than its fair share of all three.

In the mid-2000s, I had the privilege to head what was then the only graduate journalism programme and the largest professional training centre in the Arab world. We prepared a generation of reporters and editors who were at the forefront of the Arab journalism revolution, and who covered – and inspired the Arab Spring. Today, journalism in Egypt is far less free than even in the darkest years of Mubarak. Journalists in Syria are dying in frightening numbers. Iraq’s media has descended into partisan parochialism. Yet in those countries and many others, journalists daily risk their lives in the cause of truth and justice.

The US is not immune from this assault on press freedom. CNN anchor Christine Amanpour recently told a gathering of journalists, "I never in a million years thought I would be up here on stage appealing for the freedom and safety of American journalists at home." But that is the situation. President-elect Donald Trump’s unrelenting criticism of the media, including name-calling and personal attacks on individual journalists – is unprecedented. The clash between Mr Trump, who is a master of social media, and the so-called “mainstream media” is emblematic of the revolution we are witnessing in the global flow of information. We are today living in a post-fact world, in which we no longer agree what is truth. Random online posts of made-up information from individuals with a political agenda, profit motive or a conspiracy-oriented mindset can spread like wildfire and be accepted by millions around the world as fact.

A study by Buzzfeed News found that in the US the “top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.” One example was a recent story that the Pakistani embassy in Washington, DC had been raided by the FBI. The story was a lie. It first appeared on the Rediff website, where anyone can post anything, and was quickly picked up by many fringe websites, prompting outrage on Twitter from people here in Pakistan and elsewhere. Such rumours can spark violence and cost lives. All of this makes quality journalism more important than ever.

So what does all this mean for journalists and journalism educators here in Pakistan? It is a clarion call for two things: Firstly, more and better professional journalism education to produce a new generation of reporters and editors dedicated to fair, balanced and fact-based journalism. Secondly, teaching every student – no matter their major, the skills needed to assess the credibility of the many sources of information online and the critical thinking needed to question the truth of sensational claims.

Here in Pakistan and around the world we need journalists who are dedicated to the truth; who do not sensationalise or skew their reporting for political motives or profit. We also need citizens able to tell the difference between politically-motivated websites, or the blogs of a 12-year-old and those of credible news organisations, and who understand that everything we read online is not truth.
The revolution in Arab journalism in the first decade of this century sparked an ongoing revolution in journalism education in the Arab world, shifting from a very theoretical mass communications studies approach to a skills-based, hands-on journalism education that prepares future journalists for newsroom. Last week’s conference on journalism education at Karachi University, and reform efforts underway at various other Pakistani universities, is evidence that this critical shift is now underway in Pakistan as well. A free, professional, responsible journalism industry is critical to the success of a free, democratic society.

Pakistan’s journalists have a huge obligation to the nation. Journalism educators have an even greater obligation: To prepare the journalists and media-savvy citizens, who will safeguard Pakistan’s democracy for generations to come.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 12th, 2016.

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