Published in Nov-Dec 2022
But how do you actually know if that is true?”
I find myself asking this question sometimes in the middle of a conversation among friends, which appears misplaced when you are catching up over coffee and are not in a newsroom.
In my defence, it is a habit after more than 10 years in journalism. “What is your source?” is my instinctive go-to reply in most scenarios. You develop a certain level of inquisitiveness and scepticism, and your hunch is always to question, crosscheck and ask for proof – so much so that I have occasionally thought this profession would be a good starting point for becoming a lawyer or an investigator.
In the age of digital media, however, the very core principle of asking who, why and how is becoming obsolete, and before you label this hyperbole, consider how anything ‘leaked’ online is considered kosher by the media in Pakistan.
Pakistan faced two types of inundations in 2022. One literally in the form of the unprecedented floods, the other metaphorically through the unaccountable audio leaks. The latter popped up on social media from ‘nowhere’ and ran as breaking news in their original form on mainstream media’s official social media accounts, and played relentlessly on TV channels. And while questions were raised as to who leaked them, they did not factor into how much airtime or space these juicy audio bits should get.
And therein lies a glaring problem: when you don’t know the source of these audios or their veracity, how can they be considered as carrying any weight? This may be a hard question to ask in the age of WikiLeaks and the Panama Papers – but there were mechanisms still in place for those, as well as follow-up investigations and corroborations. One example is the UK’s The Guardian, which was one of the first publications to write about WikiLeaks, or use any of the documents, carrying a breakdown of how they handled the data, shortcomings and all.
How many of these audio leaks have been taken to any kind of conclusion in Pakistan by a media house or officially by the state? For the former, the argument is that we lack resources, but if media houses are willing to put money into YouTube teams, they should first use the funds to set up proper fact-checking desks. As for the latter, unfortunately, the state itself has played a big part in encouraging ‘anonymous’ sources. A typical answer one expects from reporters is “aap ko pata hai woh record pey jawab nahe dain gaye” (you know they won’t answer on record). And I use the word encouraging because more often than not, the key players themselves will ‘leak’ a document or snippet of information to one or select individuals of their choice.
It often happens that a reporter will share a page from an official document and when pressed on how he got the document, he’ll name an office holder. When pushed to get a quote verifying the document from the same person, the story falls apart. “Aap kay paas document hai, quote kee kya zaroorat hai?” (You have the document so why do you need a quote?). To this, my reply is: “Official document hai, leak honay kee kya zaroorat hai?” (if it is an official document, why does it need to be leaked?)
To be fair, reporters face double the pressure; from the person sharing the information as well as the digital news desk, with a common goal to have the story up as fast as possible. With that in mind, let me say as a disclaimer that this article is not an idealist pitch to follow the theories of journalism to a tee and by no means does it assume we operate in a country where everything official would automatically be on record. But to what extent should the liberty to use an anonymous source be exercised?
For readers who are not part of the media fraternity, these are some of the basic questions that need to be asked. How did the source come to know of the information; is the source reliable; have we verified or tried to verify the information with another individual; is the information available only on sources; and – most crucial – is the information vital to carry?
In the subcontinent as well as many other parts of the world, anonymous sources can sometimes be the only way to carry a big and meaningful story, which is why choosing when to run a story on unnamed individuals or documents/audio/ visuals, otherwise unavailable to the public, is key.
The ethics of the profession and responsibility to the audience aside, unnamed sources threaten the media’s credibility in the eyes of an already wary public; case in point, The Wire debacle in India.
Let me attempt to summarise the unusually complex chain of events. The Wire – in the now-retracted articles – had claimed, citing unnamed sources, that Amit Malviya, the head of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Information Technology cell, used his influence to have some Instagram posts removed. Meta, the parent company, denied the report, accusing the outlet of spreading false information through “fabricated evidence.” The Wire then doubled down to back its source and Meta said it was manufacturing evidence. After a chain of fake screenshots, fabricated URLs, fake emails and the editor saying “our stories came from multiple Meta sources – whom we know, have met and verified.” The Wire suspended its stories and said it would conduct an external review.
Much has been written about how the matter was handled irresponsibly by the publication and its implications – the most noteworthy concern being what this means for media that dares challenge the state. Pressure in the form of unconcealed as well as subtle intimidation is already high in India and such mistakes only give more ammunition to the naysayers and raise doubt among those who are sceptical of the media as a whole.
Editors in Pakistan can well relate to these kinds of pressures, making it just as imperative for them to do their homework. The time-sensitive and highly competitive digital nature of the job, however, makes it harder to do so. As one senior editor pointed out, “how do you operate when the guidelines have been redefined by a majority of the media houses, and you have to exist among them?” The topic at hand was not related to state security or religion but the marriage of power couple Sania Mirza and Shoaib Malik.
Pakistani, Indian and even Emirati publications were in overdrive mode trying to run something on the alleged separation of the two individuals. The problem? Nothing was on record, neither confirmation nor denial. The irony? All the news reports seemed to be curating from each other, recycling the same rumours, with no one having a clue as to who the original unnamed source was – or more importantly, how reliable it was. Granted the public’s interest in these two individuals makes the reports hard to ignore, but how far should newsrooms go in perpetuating unfounded reports? When the leading news channel in Pakistan reiterates over and over again, as the first item in their news bulletin, that “Sania, let alone reply to her husband’s tweet, did not even ‘like’ it,” you know they are grasping at straws but raking in numbers.
Coming back to hard news, the tight grip of the state on what can and cannot be reported and when, has led many journalists to turn to social media, particularly YouTube. And a key challenge for media houses is how to compete with the analysis and juicy information that is being run on such platforms where accountability is almost nil. I don’t have a solution, but yet another idealistic approach. Trust that your readers will come to you for the most reliable piece of information, never mind what they hear or read on social media. However, given the rapid speed at which the media landscape is evolving, every newsroom and editor, myself included, will have to tackle the issue with something more concrete. As we do, the one thing to keep in mind is that if the information proves inaccurate or dubious, it is the reporter, the editor and the news organisation that will have to answer for it, not the source. So as we grapple with this conundrum, let us hope that we are guided more by the weight of that responsibility than the “zaraye” (sources) who wield much more influence today than they ever should have.
Zahrah Mazhar is Managing Editor,