“Fake it till you make it” is an English aphorism which suggests that by imitating confidence, competence, and an optimistic mindset, a person can realise those qualities in their real life. I wish this were true of the Pakistani media and its over-reliance on fake news to garner ratings. Here, it seems nothing is rubbing off on the media.
The recent storm caused by claims by Dr Shahid Masood, one of the country’s popular TV anchors, suggests that our media continues to rely on half-truths in a bid to sell their news. This is a very dangerous trend given that most of our population is illiterate and it relies on the broadcast media for its daily diet of information. They are usually misinformed, based on which they make ill-informed decisions.
Why do we rely on fake news to create waves? Can we not stick to the three main functions of the media: to educate, inform and to mould public opinion. Where have we gone wrong?
Despite its good intentions to build a strong local news industry to counter the Indian news channels, the last-minute compromises made by the Musharraf government are well catalogued. Senator Javed Jabbar and information secretary Anwar Mehmood were able to help draft a good law for our broadcast media, but it took the likes of Shaikh Rasheed to change all that in order to please certain quarters. The changes have resulted in the mess we see today. To address the issue, we have to start with understanding the problem.
Today, we have cross-media ownership and cross-subsidy in the media with the result that loss-making broadcast entities are able to survive in this competitive market despite the odds. And competitive the market is -- nearly 80 channels, with a little over 30 news channels fighting for the attention of the media consumer and also for the limited advertising pie. It is a somewhat-unusual situation if compared to other countries in the world.
With the ratings system the way it is, the workings of the cable operators network and social media fast at its heels, the TV industry continues to face a tough time. Media anchors are forced to bring something new to the table every day, to garner “eyeballs,” the much sought-after audience that eludes them at best times. The fortunes of channels plunge and rise and with them so does revenue. Big names are hired in the hope of better ratings. But there is no guarantee that they will deliver. That depends on the mood of the viewers and the TRPs. And it also depends on sheer good or bad luck at times. Our media should not be held hostage to such unpredictable conditions.
In some ways, one can argue that it isn’t Dr Shahid Masood who is at fault. It is the broadcast industry that faces a number of contradictions and makes unfair demands on its players. How can any industry survive on the number of channels that we see in Pakistan? If we don’t fake news, we become more susceptible to it. Stories are highlighted to attract audiences. The temptation is too great. The punishment, if one gets it wrong, is too small.
Fake news has become a major issue the world over. Much of the fake news has found its way to social media, particularly popular platforms like Whatsapp, but at the end of the day, the broadcast media is not an exception. Owing to cut-throat competition and the need to outdo the competitor in terms of timings, we are seeing questionable stories going through. There is no system in place for fact-checking. Journalists at TV channels are not given the right tools or training in many instances to be able to spot such stories. They rely on their instinct.
All this needs to change. To begin with, technology and a proactive attitude of the regulators has to be brought into play to ensure a more level playing field. More training has to be given to the relevant decision makers to check the infiltration of fake news. We cannot keep on blaming anchors for their stories or scoops. We need to look at the demands that the market imposes on them to better understand the problem.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2018.
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