News coverage: why must it be positive?

Published: February 13, 2012
The writer is the recipient of the James A Wechsler Award for International Reporting and a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He currently teaches journalism at SZABIST in Karachi

The writer is the recipient of the James A Wechsler Award for International Reporting and a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He currently teaches journalism at SZABIST in Karachi

Imagine, for a moment, the absurdity of life in a country where medical professionals are accused of being too ‘negative’, for not giving their patients enough ‘good’ news about their health.

Imagine, for a moment, the absurdity of life in a country where heart patients criticise their doctors for focusing on their cholesterol and blood pressure, instead of talking about other vitals and organs in their body that are fully-functioning and healthy.

Now imagine yourself working as a journalist in Pakistan, constantly being hounded by friends and readers to show the ‘other’ side of Pakistan. The side that isn’t sick or dying; but fully functioning in all its mundane glory.

To argue that journalists report too many negative stories about Pakistan is analogous to arguing that doctors are too ‘negative’ when diagnosing their patients. And yet, in a country where truth is often stranger than fiction, journalists are routinely criticised for not reporting enough ‘good news’ from Pakistan.

Is this a classic case of the messenger being blamed for the contents of their message? Or is there a case to be made that the messenger is disproportionately focused on the negative?

Fortunately, it’s a little bit of both.

The news media, which holds up a mirror to society, can only show us a reflection of what we are, and not what we aspire to be. In a country that simmers with many beautiful and not-so-beautiful contradictions, some pictures are too jarring, even for our own consumption.

As a Professor of journalism to undergraduate students in Karachi, I had the unique opportunity to engage in a small-scale reporting experiment recently. As part of their final assignment last semester, I encouraged my students to report and write only positive news stories.

As a result, my students reported on a startling array of solid, under-covered good news stories that painted an inspiring picture of Pakistan. And yet, the picture they painted was also incomplete as it left out the ‘other’ not-so-picture-perfect part of Pakistan.

At the end of this experiment, there was a growing recognition in our class that the current conversation surrounding journalism in Pakistan is part of the problem. Consumers of news argue that journalists disproportionately focus on bad news for higher ratings and more hits. Journalists respond by saying that it’s their job to report the news of the day; whether it’s good, bad or ugly isn’t necessarily in their control.

The time has come for a paradigm shift in this discourse. News stories from Pakistan must be evaluated on the ‘quality’ of their journalism, not on whether the content of a story is positive or negative.

To the extent that viewers and readers are frustrated by the constant barrage of mostly bad news reported in a sensational manner in the Pakistani media, they have a point. Journalists can and must raise the quality of their reporting in the country. An equally important corollary is that readers need to be more nuanced in their feedback to journalists; its fair game to criticise the quality of reporting in Pakistan but you can’t criticise the fact that bad news stories outweigh the good ones.

Journalists can’t bend the truth anymore than a doctor or a scientist. However, journalists can do a better job at telling the truth about Pakistan. The following are critical enablers for this to happen: 1) We need to invest more in the academic and practical training of young journalists in Pakistan, raising the bar on the quality and ethics of their reporting; 2) We must incentivise quality reporting over sensationalism, through a variety of tools including the establishment of industry awards for quality journalism (are we ready for a Pakistani version of the Pulitzer Prize?); 3) Mentoring programmes should be instituted in all media organisations, where young journalists are paired up with senior reporters inside and outside Pakistan.

Pakistani journalists must be empowered with the tools and opportunities that they need to cover a country that is incredibly diverse. Ultimately, there are as many sides to Pakistan as there are Pakistanis. And all our stories deserve to be told, not just the ones that are making it to the news today.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 14th, 2012.


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Reader Comments (17)

  • Parvez
    Feb 14, 2012 - 12:29AM

    Liked what you said. With so much happening and happening so fast the reporter must at some time face a situation of ‘ news fatigue ‘ and this surely could impair his reporting, after all he or she is just human.


  • Feb 14, 2012 - 12:52AM

    Agreed with the contents. Journalist only ponder some of the catchwords and apart from those who report the anchorpersons of the talk shows are stick to following few words;

    Zardari, NRO, Memogate, SC, Chief Justice, PML(,N,F,Q), corruption.
    No body talks on the issues that are related with the common man. However they also relate with the man of land of pure but to their primary influence things are different.

    None has aired a talk show on things like scientific development and the role that electronic media is playing. Recent example suitable for the day of 14 feb is that most of the entertainment channels of Pakistan will show romantic films usually from Bollywood. What message are they sending to the youth and society?

    They should do some program on the history of Valentine’s day but I bet none will do.


  • Sajid
    Feb 14, 2012 - 1:00AM

    Well said. They are annoying who always demand “good news” when in fact they should be thankful that some journalists are actually figuring out what is wrong with this country.


  • Ammara
    Feb 14, 2012 - 1:06AM

    My sentiments exactly !! excellent article


  • John B
    Feb 14, 2012 - 2:44AM

    As long as the journalist has a freedom to report without being killed or kidnapped.

    The cardinal rule of journalism “when a dog bites a man it is no news but when man bites a dog it is news.” should be the key.

    An honest person who finds a wallet on the road returns it to the owner-the press writes a story. Why is this a story. Should honesty be not the virtue of every person. It becomes a story because the readership knows the society is devoid of honesty and any news of honesty will be appreciated.

    Now is this a positive reporting or is the positive coverage a reflection of dishonesty in the society? Similarly is the report of rape a positive coverage for women’s rights or bad coverage on men or inadequacies of police?

    All request for “positive” coverage has an underlying theme-the society yearns for positive coverage as it cannot find any in her own eyes to see for itself or hear none from others.

    That is why the story of honesty, self sacrifice, philanthropy, becomes a news worthy.

    The press has no nation, nationality, patriotism, or allegiance. Its only allegiance is to report what it sees. What is good and what is bad is up to the readership to decide.

    Both Conviction and acquittal of a theif are news. What is positive and what is negative depends upon who reads the story and the press has obligation to report both.


  • Ali Akbar
    Feb 14, 2012 - 4:10AM

    Disagree with you, Lakhani. ‘Consumers’ (an ugly word) will always decide what they want to ‘consume’ in a demand driven free market enterprise. While the quality of reporting is important, the content is also critical and must be portrayed in a context to give the audience a fair (and not necessarily balanced) picture. The feel-good stories and those highlighting the country’s potential must be mixed with reports on our failures as a state and society. Also, media would do well to set its priorities in line. Indeed what is being televised, printed and published caters to consumer demand – its a free enterprise (with poor regulation) after all, and in a sense holds a mirror to the society. Tribune and Dawn will publish garbage about Veena Malik’s personal life and the Memogate scandal endlessly while paying very little attention to our shockingly demoralizing socio-economic indicators (read the education report on which there was one decent op-ed piece each from Dawn and Tribune)

    p.s: You would have done well to highlight the importance of training in the field of journalism separately.


  • numbersnumbers
    Feb 14, 2012 - 5:16AM

    Those that want only “positive” news about their country to be available should consider moving to North Korea!


  • Falcon
    Feb 14, 2012 - 8:58AM

    One of the things that need to be understood is the subtle yet very potent affect of media reporting on the collective psyche and identity of the society as well as outsiders. Continuous negative information about surroundings increases the trust deficit in the society and makes it seem like they are living as part of the jungle and therefore, the only way to survive is to pull it off on their own. This as a whole damages a nation’s self-esteem as well as leads to gradual decline in collective effort and accelerates moral decay. Secondly, it can make statistically less common events seem like the dominant trend. That is why many people I have met outside Pakistan seem to believe that the country is a war zone and as if there is a bomb going off on every nook and corner every other day, which though true to some extent has an element of exaggeration. Lastly, it also has an effect on economy, since at the end of the day, economy is a coordination game between suppliers and consumers that is affected to a reasonable extent by expectations about the macro-environment.


  • Tariq
    Feb 14, 2012 - 10:32AM

    Good article. Time for our electronic media to grow up and beyond the juvenile streak of sensationalist reporting. USA has one FOX news, Pakistan has 50!


  • Hafeez
    Feb 14, 2012 - 11:33AM

    Well said. How about telling the truth even if life is at stake? The problem is not about showing the bad side of Pakistan, the problem is more about beating around the wrong side of bushes. If the negative side of Pakistan is reported in an honest and true way that would be considered a constructive journalism, because there is a need to tell our nation what is actually wrong. For instance, take the case of Saleem Shahzad. He was reporting the negative side of Pakistan but in a true way. He made most of Pakistanis think that real problem is actually within and not some outside force. How about reporting more on the Balochistan’s agony where Baloch youth are being picked and turn up dead after years of captivity. How about showing some visuals of baloch parents and kids protesting outside every press club asking and crying for the lives of their beloved disappeared sons and fathers.


  • Abhi
    Feb 14, 2012 - 2:58PM

    very nice article.
    Generally in societies the task of spreading ideals and happiness is done through cultural activities (Stories, Drama, Movies, Novels, Music etc) becuase most of these activities are considered un-islamic, people are looking towards journalist to give them hope.


  • Don Bradman
    Feb 14, 2012 - 6:12PM

    Nice article, but your opinion is very idealistic and hence unrealistic. Har ball pe chaka nahi lag sakta.


  • antanu g
    Feb 14, 2012 - 7:22PM

    @John B:
    At least Pak journalists have guts to report the negative sides. What about US journalism…once Bush says Iraq had WMDs..and it was taken by them as divine words and created Iraq’s WMDs in people’s mind.Mr.John if you point one finger at others, remaining four will be pointing towards you. US and its intelligentsia have loss all the moral ground to preach others.Wake up pleasen if you want to be listened. As of now others are OBEYING US for fear and due to respect.


  • roma
    Feb 14, 2012 - 10:02PM

    Bilal-ji has written a really superb article that applies to any country – no doubt a graduate of Columbia and well deserved recipient of the Award .


  • Altaf Suleman
    Feb 15, 2012 - 12:01AM

    Its good to see young blood in Pakistani media with such a positive approach.
    To tell the truth is always difficult but it always pays back. In this journalism world it pays by giving the general people the real picture and not the modified version.
    Keep it up.


  • Nadeem Akhter
    Feb 15, 2012 - 10:08AM

    Nothing but reality written by Mr. Bilal. We desperately need positive news keep rolling in our media. Their should be a balance between the news quantity being aired in the media. However, in our case their is increasing need to have more of positives then the negatives as the later are already bombarded by the media just to get the ratings and keep the monetary stream coming in.


  • Mar 18, 2012 - 2:32PM

    Loved reading your piece Bilal. Another unique aspect of a good journalist that this article reflects in itself is “conclusiveness”. Most Op-Eds only highlight an issue, people’s observations and the writer’s opinion over it. Your piece aptly gives a solution to the issue at hand which shows that you aren’t a journalist for the heck of being one, but a journalist who believes he can make a change and knows how to practically make it happen. Kudos to that. May the Maker bless your purpose & succeed you in it. – TBH


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