Surprisingly, the main story of the day was not Mastung. Let us recap: A suicide bomber, camouflaged as a political worker, blew himself up with 15kg explosives, ripping through an election rally in Dringarh village of District Mastung, close to Quetta making Mastung’s July 13, 2018 blast the deadliest terror attack in Pakistan since the 2014’s carnage at Peshawar’s Army Public School.
And yet, while this tragedy was taking place, the local broadcast media was focused on the return of Mian Nawaz Sharif. Initially Mastung got only a mention not even a proper news report. Nawaz Sharif was not to blame. It was us, then media.
It was when the number of casualties started to rise that the media eventually moved its focus away from Nawaz Sharif. Even then, very few channels had sent their teams to cover the event in Mastung, which is close to Quetta. They preferred to use local stringers to give footage and file reports. It did not get the importance it deserved.
By the time Sharif had been locked up in his cell and probably gone to sleep, the death toll at Mastung had crossed one hundred. Given this, one can only wonder why it took the media so long to wake up.
My friend Salma Jafar, who hails from Balochistan, took to social media to lodge her protest. Her question was simple – would the media have reacted differently if the attack had taken place in any other part of the country. The answer to this question is simple. Unfortunately, yes.
It is not only about what is reported in the media that is of concern. The other worry is about how it is reported. Despite the fact that this was a major terrorist attack on our soil, media managers thought it better to focus on Nawaz Sharif. And we were given minute by minute account of the return of the former prime minister when instead we should have been given a blow by blow account of the post-attack situation.
Where did we go wrong? Possibly this was a case of bad judgment by news managers, nothing else. There was no conspiracy. No one was on the take. No one benefitted from not giving coverage to the Mastung blast. But what it did do was expose some of the major flaws of our channels who focus on a system of following one another. If one major channel had started covering, the others would have followed suit. The judgment of news editors and directors is another issue. How to decide what the most important story of the day is.
Social media also comes into play here. It is one way for news managers to see what story is getting how much traction in cyberspace. Many news managers, however, do not take social media as seriously as they should. Possibly this is also part of the weakness of the system we live in.
Many have commented that the coverage shows what priority Balochistan is given in the larger scheme of things. This is true if we look at our ratings system based on which the TV channels also work on their programming. Given how sparse Balochistan is in terms of population, advertisers do not see it as a priority area in terms of their ratings. TV channels also keep that in mind when they broadcast. But here they misjudged the importance of the event. This was not some local incident that took place. By the time TV channels sat up and noticed it was already too late.
Mastung is not an isolated incident. Terror attacks have been plaguing our country for some time now and unfortunately, whether we like it or not, we will have to be prepared for more when it comes to media coverage of the event.
While we are quick to talk about restrictions on the media, what we do know is that in this case, no one was trying to withhold media coverage of the event. It was our own failing and we have let down a number of people in the manner we covered Mastung.
In all this, what we did see was how people turned to social media for their news feed, particularly Twitter. This gives one some idea of where things are headed in times to come.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2018.