Aurora Magazine

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Power and responsibility

Published in Jan-Feb 2011

Are news organisations failing in their role as the guardians of the public’s trust?

When Uncle Ben admonished Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) with the maxim ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, he may as well have been talking to the Pakistani news media. Since its liberalisation eight years ago, the media has been vested with a great deal of power but responsibility has not necessarily followed. This has brought the issue of media ethics to the forefront.

What are media ethics?

According to Wikipedia, media ethics is a branch of applied ethics pertaining to areas such as journalism (hard core news) and entertainment.

Journalism ethics refers to principles of ethics and good practice and are laid down in ‘codes of ethics’. These codes are either drafted by professional journalists’ associations or by individual print, electronic, broadcast or online news organisations, to help reporters, editors and journalists deal with a variety of situations which may arise in the course of reporting and analysing the news. Most codes share common elements including, truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability. Many codes also include a ‘harm limitation’ principle, which involves withholding certain information such as the names of minor children who are victims of crime, rape victims, or any other information not material to the story and which may cause harm to someone’s reputation. Other aspects that fall within the purview of journalism ethics include slander and libel considerations, sensitivity in the portrayal of women and the use of gender neutral language.

Why is media ethics an issue in Pakistan?

The Pakistani news media is in a unique position given that the bulk of its content pertains to one crisis or another. It is forced to oscillate between reporting on frequent terror attacks and their consequences, and the ongoing political and legal crises in the country. Then to make matters worse, there are the natural disasters to deal with.

Of course the media thrives on this. As Azhar Abbas, Director News, Geo TV comments: “News channels survive on a crisis and bad news is where you get the maximum eyeballs.”

However, these thorny situations have served to bring out the worst qualities in a large cross section of the media, so much so that news consumers and media watchdogs are increasingly forced to level accusations of insensitivity and sensationalism against newspapers and TV channels; accusations that are particularly concerned with the coverage of crisis and grief situations.

Beyond crisis reporting, there are problems with the way women are covered. Tasneem Ahmar, Director, Uks Research (a media monitoring group that works towards sensitising the media on women’s issues) says that the media tends to objectify women, overplays the negative in terms of the lack of women’s empowerment, and uses insensitive and politically incorrect language to describe them.

There have been other lapses including inaccurate and biased news reports, cases of slander and divulging names and information that should have been withheld, and there are at least five major causes for lapses in ethical standards in Pakistan.

The absence of a press council in essence means that there is no one to hold the media accountable for its actions. Aggrieved citizens or other entities with a genuine complaint against a newspaper or TV channel have nowhere to go except to court or to the news organisation in question. The organisation may or may not choose to hear their complaint, depending on its internal ethics policy, and since most people are unlikely to sue (considering that court cases take decades to be resolved), the media gets off scot-free.

1.) Virtually untrained media professionals

The Pakistani media has exploded over the last decade, creating plenty of job opportunities. In a country which has only one dedicated journalism degree (offered by the University of Karachi), the media’s demand for HR has largely been met by hiring people who have no background in the field. These unschooled (and often very young) reporters and journalists are expected to tackle situations which are daunting for even the most experienced professionals; situations which require a high level of tact, diplomacy, sensitivity and layering, all of which come from years of training and experience. Today’s media professionals are expected to hit the ground running and therefore it is only natural that their sense of judgment with regard to ethical matters remains underdeveloped.

As Ahmar puts it, “Not all media professionals are insensitive, most of them are just ignorant”; they don’t in fact even realise that some of their actions could be considered unethical. The fault lies with media organisations which have been so busy focusing on revenue, content generation and the competition that the question of ethics has been left on the back burner.

2.) Monetary considerations

News media has become a highly competitive field in Pakistan by virtue of the fact that there are so many news organisations, many of them believing that the best way to compete is to offer sensationalised stories as this will either sell more newspapers or help them achieve higher audience viewing ratings.

In the case of TV, the Peoplemeters rating method makes this a rather complex issue. Some background is needed to understand the issue. The advertising rates of TV channels are (ostensibly) set based upon the Peoplemeters ratings (which measures what TV audiences are watching at any given time), so that the higher the ratings, the more they may charge per advertising minute. The Peoplemeters scale has shown that the more gory and sensationalised the coverage of a news event, the higher the audience and the ensuing ratings (some media observers are of the view that the current ratings system is a flawed way of gauging audience interest – but that is a separate debate altogether) will encourage stories that are high on shock value, but figure low on the responsibility scale. Thus the news and its reportage are treated as leverage to gain more revenue rather than as a public trust. It is not hard to imagine how horribly wrong things can go in terms of ethical standards when this kind of thinking leads the way.

3.) Unethical and biased media organisations

Another reason for the lapse in ethical standards is that some sections of the news media are in fact unethical. Several TV channels and publications (found mainly among the Urdu press) are known for their unabashed reliance on sensationalised news and images to create a splash. These organisations pander to the sentiments of their audience by either publishing or airing stories that are biased, derogatory and defamatory. Many of these organisations are staffed by journalists who are out to further their own agenda and have no regard about upholding ethical standards.

4.) No standard code of ethics

According to Wikipedia, “Codes of ethics are designed as guides through numerous difficulties such as conflicts of interest, to assist journalists with ethical dilemmas. They provide journalists with a framework of self monitoring and correction.”

Unfortunately Pakistan has no industry accepted code of ethics. Some attempts have been made: In 2008, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) drafted a code of ethics but it has yet to be accepted as an industry standard. Uks Research developed ‘A Gender Sensitive Code of Ethics for the Print Media in Pakistan’ in 2005 but that too has become outdated because it does not include issues pertaining to the electronic media. In 2009, representatives from several TV channels came together in an effort do draw up a code of conduct, however this is also limited because it only deals with the coverage of acts of terrorism. The net result is that while these attempts have made a slight difference – several English language newspapers now use gender sensitive terminology and the bigger news channels are actively trying to make their coverage of terrorism less gruesome – the larger problem remains.

Many news organisations claim that they do have a ‘reporter’s handbook’ or a list of guidelines but working journalists say they have never seen anything of the sort. An executive news producer at a news channel says, “We only give our reporters guidelines on how to protect themselves in a crisis situation but I have never seen an ethical code.”

In the absence of a written and industry accepted code of ethics, journalists continue to falter; additionally, those who have an agenda to further are able to do it with greater ease as there are no rules to regulate conduct.

5.) No press council

Every country with a free and independent media needs a press council, also referred to as a press complaints commission. A press council is a voluntary body with representatives from all the media, and is responsible for maintaining high standards of ethics in journalism. A press council protects the interests of the general public by furthering any complaints made against newspapers and TV channels, carrying out detailed investigations and passing a verdict. The council also acts as self regulator for the media, thereby barring any attempt at government regulation.

In Pakistan the absence of a press council in essence means that there is no one to hold the media accountable for its actions. Aggrieved citizens or other entities with a genuine complaint against a newspaper or TV channel have nowhere to go except to court or to the news organisation in question. The organisation may or may not choose to hear their complaint, depending on its internal ethics policy, and since most people are unlikely to sue (considering that court cases take decades to be resolved), the media gets off scot-free. This lack of accountability is one of the major reasons for the lapse in ethical standards.

What is the solution?

There is a dire need to tend to the media ethics situation in Pakistan; measures are needed at both the industry and the organisational level in order to tackle the problem.

1.) A code of ethics

An industry accepted code of ethics is needed in order to level the playing field and to ensure that all media organisations are playing by the same rules. Although drafts have been made and circulated, these have not amounted to much because many editors and managers do not have the political will to see it through. However, the media as a whole must come together and agree to follow certain guidelines.

2.) A press council

According to a senior newspaper editor in Pakistan, “Just having a code of ethics cannot solve the problem. You need to have a complaint commission where people can go if they have a problem.” Thus, having a properly functioning press council to which newspapers and TV channels are accountable, is an essential part of correcting the problem.

3.) Ombudsman and internal ethics committee

It is not enough to have an external complaints commission, news organisations also need to have an ombudsman or ethics committee which constantly monitors the news and provides feedback to editors and reporters. This self-regulation will be useful for organisations that are not keen on outside regulation. Credit must be given to The Express Tribune which is the first newspaper in Pakistan to appoint an ombudsman.

4.) Regular training for journalists

Not only should all journalists be furnished with a copy of the code of conduct, they also need regular training to deal with issues pertaining to ethics. It isn’t enough just to know the rules, journalists need help in how to apply them in a variety of areas.

Many news organisations may not have the political will to commit to change but this is only because they are either unable or unwilling to see the bigger picture. A code of ethics and press council are essential not only to protect news consumers but also to prove to them that the Pakistani media is a responsible entity capable of delivering on the trust reposed in it. If matters continue as they are, the media is leaving itself open to government interference, censorship and regulation. When this happens, media persons will cry foul and rant about the freedom of the press but surely a free press has to be a responsible and regulated press and that regulation works best when it comes from within.