Published in Nov-Dec 2022
Is it true that Pakistan was hit by an unprecedented disaster just a few months ago? A disaster that UN SecretaryGeneral António Guterres said was caused by a “monsoon on steroids?” Is it over? No. Have we recovered from it? No. Do we still need to talk about it? Yes. Are we talking about it? A big, fat resounding NO!
Just as advertising is said to be a barometer of the economic conditions of a country, the media is the mirror of events that take place in its geographic location. True to its calling to ‘inform, educate, entertain and act as a watchdog’, the media is supposed to have a handle on what is happening, where it has happened, why it has happened, who is responsible, and what is being done about it.
Now, place these parameters and judge the media’s coverage of one of the worst natural disasters Pakistan has ever experienced, barring the Bhola Cyclone in then East Pakistan. In terms of the latter, although there were many other factors at play, many people hold that the Pakistani media was blindsided by that event and the ensuing human tragedy accelerated the beginning of the end. #JustSaying.
Back to today. Look at the mainstream media; even the regional media from provinces other than Sindh. Does one get the sense this disaster has resonated right up to the international stage? Does the coverage reflect the plight of the districts that are still inundated and the people living there? Of the rolling disaster of vector and water-borne diseases? Of the plight of pregnant women, the homeless left on the roadside and the children without schools? Of the unsafe environment for young women and of the millions of people pushed further down the poverty line?
What we do get is a surfeit of the usual political wrangling, accusations and counteraccusations, he says she says statements, sports performances and entertainment industry glitz. All these have a right to airtime and column space. But how about measuring the volume of content against another metric? That of where Pakistan is placed on the vulnerability index in the context of climate change impact.
For the last decade and a half, Pakistan has not been able to slide down from the top 10 on this index. Yet, measure the perception of this threat in the media and judge its coverage. The eyeballs the floods captured clearly showed that the media was once again reporting on an ‘event’, and not an issue. And that is the real issue.
The state media is driven by other compulsions, so its priorities are shaped by those of the government of the time. For the rest of the media, especially the legacy media, money is what makes the mare go around. So where does the money that makes the mare go round come from? Advertising. But aren’t advertisers also functioning in the same space? Aren’t brands, manufacturers and services impacted by the disaster this country is still in the middle of trying to deal with? So how has it been allowed to recede from memory? Has there been any analysis of the supply chain disruptions? What about the shrinking purchasing power of consumers because of the uptick in prices?
There needs to be a realisation that there is a common thread running through the upheaval in terms of post-disaster market dynamics and its negative impacts – and that common thread is climate change, which is no longer something scientists discuss behind closed doors. Climate change is a reality, and natural disasters such as the recent unprecedented rains are only one manifestation.
Climate change is a major disruptor and no one has yet been able to get a handle on it, and in Pakistan, the consensus is that we lack the ability to stop the chain of events it triggers. However, we have to deal with the consequences by preparing for them as best as we can. And this means a total rethink of how we do business, how we live, where we live, what we consume and how we produce it. If that isn’t a 360-degree coverage of life as we know it, then what is?
The media’s role in understanding and then disseminating the reality of climate change is critical. The media has covered the floods through the lens of a disaster event. Yes, terrifying visuals have been beamed into our homes of buildings collapsing, people being swept away, a mass of humanity sitting out on roadsides and heart-wrenching personal stories of loss.
However, the fact that the coverage has receded instead of gaining depth regarding the causes, actions, apportionment of responsibility and tracking of resource allocation, reinforces the impression of these floods as an event and not an issue – one that threatens to recur and with the possibility of even more damaging impact.
Nature, rolling the dice of unpredictability, can upend all businesses that support and bolster the business of the media. So even from a selfish angle of sustainability, it makes sense for the media to be more cognisant of the dangers that lie ahead for the economy, upon which advertising relies.
Media houses that invest in covering the environment and climate change can be counted on the fingers of one hand, with many left to spare. Many are happy to let freelance journalists do the hard work and simply carry their material; they do not feel the need to beef up their in-house resources – one way to transition from covering an event to discussing the issues underlying climate change.
‘Business as usual’ is a term often used in climate change conversations as a warning against complacency – because ‘business as usual’ will ultimately mean business failing due to complacency.
The unmindful powers-thatbe have been served a megadisaster. They are grappling to come to terms with it. The media needs to focus on their performance or lack thereof.
The media must see itself as a stakeholder in the conversation that is focusing on solutions. There are tech innovations, nature-based solutions, talk of a ‘drawdown’ or de-growth, and sustainability to build a better, more secure future.
The media can feed into its penchant for ‘security issues’, albeit with a new twist. The conversation needs to pivot to the fact that climate changeinduced disasters will impact national security in terms of food, water and energy insecurity. There will be climate changeinduced migration leading to social strife.
So, my friends in the media, there is a lot of strong, solid content out there ripe for the picking. Choosing to be blindsided while millions are without home, shelter, health and education because the preference is to get back to ‘normal’ is not an option. These disasters threaten to be the ‘new normal’. There is much more to work on while wearing the mantle of informing, educating, entertaining and acting as a watchdog.
Afia Salam is a journalist, climate change advocate and also a member of the National Climate Change Council.