The Pakistani media follows a certain template. Pick any newspaper in the morning or tune in to any news channel in the evening, stories related to politics always make it to the front pages and primetime news bulletins. Read articles in any newspaper or watch any talk show on TV, only one issue dominates — politics.
It is true that there is never a dull moment in Pakistani politics. The fragile democratic system often disrupted by military coups has always kept us on our toes. In the last three decades, so much has happened on the political front that it is difficult to keep track of every event. Although people have short memories, few would have forgotten the major political developments of the recent past. In the last five years, we saw two sitting prime ministers being ousted from power by the Supreme Court.
The other issue that keeps us on the tenterhooks is security. After the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan has been in the eye of a storm. Frequent terrorist attacks, military’s counter-terrorism campaign and the ever-evolving, delicate geo-political scenario, are naturally issues that can’t be ignored. It is understandable that in this environment, the media in Pakistan has to give prominent coverage to issues related to politics and security. However, in a country with a population of around 208 million, it has much more to offer than just issues of politics and security.
It is not that our media never gives coverage to health, education and social issues, etc. The real problem is that such issues have never been given due importance that they should have otherwise. Two recent examples can illustrate what are the priorities of our media outlets, both print and electronic. A recent international study revealed that up to 60 million people living in Pakistan’s Indus Plain are at risk of being affected by high levels of arsenic in the region’s groundwater supply. The revelation was so startling that international media outlets, including the CNN and BBC, gave prominent space to the story. The Pakistani media picked the story but sadly, the coverage did not do justice to the seriousness of the findings. Similarly, another recent report suggesting around 173 people died in Pakistan in monsoon-related incidents was dumped, and one can’t even recall if any news channel bothered to have a serious discussion on it.
Those stories were not discussed or debated in primetime talk shows or bulletins. The reason is that our media, especially the 24/7 news channels, now rely on ‘readymade’ stuff. For example, it is easier to do a show on a statement given by the army chief or the prime minister or an issue that may invoke more fiery debates than subjects such as water or deaths related to monsoon incidents, because far more research and homework is required to cover nonconventional topics. Our media has developed the bad habit of following issues that give them good ratings and clicks. This approach means that the media has clearly abdicated its prime responsibility that is to highlight issues of public importance.
The media in developed democracies has long moved on from the conventional approach. Even if they do cover political issues, their coverage is not merely confined to statements but gives you an in-depth perspective. The media in the developed countries also ensures balance between political issues and issues of public importance. Rarely would you find their front pages and primetime news bulletins full of political coverage. It can be argued that this is because the political system in the West is stable and less prone to tragedies. However, this can never be an excuse for overlooking the real issues that matter to the masses in Pakistan.
But all is not lost. Introspection always helps in course correction. In these fast changing times, our media industry needs to challenge the conventional wisdom. Instead of getting indulged in the madness of ratings, our media needs to look at the bigger picture and prepare themselves for the situation when they will not be able to get the ‘readymade’ stuff.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 25th, 2017.