Four days after what is considered to be the second deadliest air disaster in Pakistan’s aviation history, 17 news channels got show-cause notices for airing “live, unedited footage” from the crash site of Bhoja Air flight 213 on April 20, 2012.
All 127 people on board the flight died in the crash and some of the live telecasts, according to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) contained gory images including shots of dead bodies.
It was not the first time the Pakistani media had been reprimanded, either by an official regulatory agency or through public criticism, for setting up a media circus around a man-made disaster. The 2010 Airblue Flight-202 crash in the Margalla Hills was perhaps the worst case, with overzealous news organisations trying to beat each other in breaking the news.
Some communications instructors and media practitioners also claim that for a country that is devastated regularly by natural disasters — Pakistan has suffered from floods of varying intensity each year since 2010 and two major earthquakes since 2005 — local media organisations have failed to generate a debate on disaster risk reduction.
“The media is not fundamentally related to providing rescue services but through informed reporting, it can push the narrative for disaster management and risk reduction,” said Dr Ashraf Khan, who heads the Mass Communications Department at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan.
The media’s response to natural and man-made disasters seems to have created an advocacy push from the academia for revisiting journalism ethics, and building capacity for specialised disaster coverage, in Pakistani newsrooms.
At the same time, the idea to train journalism students in disaster reporting is also gaining momentum, most noticeably with a move to introduce a uniform, national curriculum on disaster reporting at Pakistani universities.
Khan, who is the secretary of the Higher Education Commission’s National Curriculum Revision Committee for Mass Communications, has been closely associated with this move, which is spearheaded by the Society for Alternative Media and Research (SAMAR), a non-governmental organisation.
“The idea behind this curriculum is to teach journalism students how to report on both natural and man-made disasters,” he said. “At the same time, we want the curriculum to help students learn to identify disaster hazards while focusing on disaster management.”
A draft of the curriculum was finalised at an academic conference in August, Khan said. It now awaits approval from the commission.
While the committee has recommended the curriculum to be introduced as an “elective” subject at some universities as a start, disaster reporting is already being taught at some Pakistani universities.
Media ethics in the “during disaster phase” have been made a part of the draft curriculum, Khan said. The draft also includes definitions of disaster-related terminology, field-reporting checklists, pre- and post-disaster coverage tips and case studies of disasters that had occurred in Pakistan in the past.
At the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad, a course on “conflict and disaster reporting” is mandatory for mass communication students, said Dr Najma Sadiq, an assistant professor at the NUST’s mass communication department.
She said that disaster coverage was tricky because it “takes an opposite approach” from the traditional concepts of objectivity and detachment taught at Pakistani journalism schools.
“Unless you identify the victim, you won’t be able to communicate the issue and address the policy and preparedness concerns,” she said.
“Journalists covering disasters need to set their priorities and preferably think as humans first rather than as journalists.”
Empathy and ethics, journalism instructors who spoke to The Express Tribune, said were essential in disaster coverage.
“When reporters treat aggrieved parties, such as flood victims as a subject, then the ethics are thrown out of the window,” Khan said. “The affected must be treated with empathy.”
Pakistani journalists, he said, forget the “intended and unintended consequences of their stories” when reporting on disasters.
Sadiq prescribed sensitisation trainings on disaster coverage not just for reporters but also for editors.
“Because unless the gatekeepers support an ethical culture in newsrooms, a trained reporter would not be able to make a difference,” she said.
“Whenever we talk about such courses, we should focus on creating indigenous models and developing our own guidelines based on our media scenario and requirements,” Sadiq said. “Localisation is important.”
Published in The Express Tribune, October 20th, 2013.