Age of tabloid television

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

HOW do people feel about the electronic media’s approach to the traumatic events that have shaken the country since October 8 when a massive earthquake struck northern Pakistan and Azad Kashmir? With nearly a dozen local news channels telecasting round the clock, there has been a surfeit of coverage of the happenings in the country in the last fortnight or so.

For the foreign television channels — mainly the CNN, BBC, Sky and Fox — the earthquake was big news just as the tsunami, hurricanes Rita and Katrina were. The earthquake was the main story for a few days and then these channels moved on to other happenings since the world doesn’t stand still for any one.

The aspects to be analyzed are the impact of our media coverage and its quality. Three major developments can directly be attributed to the electronic media’s handling of this natural calamity that took the country by storm. One, it has stirred a strong public response which caught many unawares. Although our people have generally reacted emotionally to national tragedies — be it a war, floods or the death of a popular personality — the reaction was more overwhelming this time. The poignant images on television screens that captured the pain and grief of the survivors, the agony of the injured, the trauma of young children and the shock of men and women who had been made homeless and were separated from their families moved the people enormously.

Unsurprisingly, within a week the government had collected Rs 4 billion in the president’s earthquake relief fund. That was the donation to only one collecting point. There were hundreds of others, especially NGOs such as the Edhi Foundation, which collected billions. Thousands of people volunteered their time and services to aid the earthquake victims.

Teams of doctors rushed to the scene to help out. Others, who could, went to the affected areas with whatever relief goods they could put together. Yet others went to the relief camps in their own cities to assist in sorting out things, packing them and loading them on trucks and aircraft. It is doubtful if this groundswell of public empathy would have emerged without the television coverage the earthquake received.

Secondly, with nothing hidden from public view, as has traditionally been the case in times of such disasters, the government could not afford to be caught napping. Although there were weaknesses in the government’s handling of the crisis and one can always find faults, generally the government’s response after the initial shock was better than what would have been expected.

True, the initial delay in starting the rescue operation, the chaotic manner in which it was undertaken and its failure to organize itself promptly on the health front which led to unnecessary loss of lives and limbs disturbed people. But some channels appeared to be indulging in the blame game with a vengeance. They went all out to criticize the administration because they felt that was the only way they could keep the state machinery on its toes.

As a result, the government was under pressure to do much more than what it was already doing. This also forced the military and civil leaders to reach out to the victims as much as they could and the relief effort was certainly more intense than it has been ever undertaken in the country in a natural calamity — be it a flood or a cyclone as hit East Pakistan in 1970.

Thirdly, the role of the independent media in identifying the areas of disaster and highlighting the needs of the people was a positive one since it helped the administration streamline the relief effort and channel it to the areas that were in most urgent need of it. As a result of this a semblance of order emerged from the chaos that had characterized the earthquake scene in the early days.

With practically all the channels sending their teams to the affected areas, there were first hand reports of what was happening and where the action was. Interviews with the people from the affected areas not only captured the agony and the spirit of the people but also identified their needs through their own participation. Besides the call-in programmes which caught on like wild fire also enabled people to convey news and views about the disaster. In the absence of the governments own fact collecting and monitoring machinery, television certainly served a useful purpose.

While the electronic media should be lauded for this role, it also had a negative dimension that cannot be glossed over. With the various channels vying for viewers’ attention the phenomenon dubbed tabloid television emerged in Pakistan. In the cut throat competition that drove many channels to go overboard in adopting innovative and creative methods, many of them resorted to unprofessional techniques. These left the viewers horrified and flabbergasted.

For instance, giving close-up shots of the dead, showing the injured in terrible agony and capturing the death throes of a woman breathing her last was not something a professional television journalist should have done. It is unethical to violate the dignity of a person who has no control over his/her surroundings. Throwing untrained people into the field who did not even know how to address a person who has just gone through a traumatic experience was the most heartless thing to do. Not strangely this resort to sensationalism was not at all appreciated by the viewers.

Many TV channels were also guilty of distorting the truth — even though it was done inadvertently out of sheer incompetence and the compulsion to generate enough footage and programmes related to the earthquake to provide round-the-clock coverage. Obviously, none of the channels had the resources to create new earthquake-related stories and films to keep the audience glued to their TV sets. Hence repeat programmes and replays were quite common but the time and date when the film was shot were never indicated and new viewers were deceived into believing that it was a new shot. This was misinformation of the worst kind.

Thus a shot taken on the second day of the earthquake showed survivors complaining that no relief good had reached them was telecast ad nauseam until several days later giving the impression that aid had still not reached the people in the accessible areas.

But worse was the free rein given to religious scholars, clerics and others laying claim to religious knowledge. Since it was the holy month of Ramazan, religious programmes would in any case have received precedence. But these were directed at the earthquake tragedy. The ‘wrath of God’ was a common theme reminding the survivors that their sins were responsible for bringing this disaster on themselves thus giving a fillip to religiosity that is already on the rise in our society.

This tended to make people even more fatalistic and superstitious than ever before. Sadly missing were programmes of an educative, inspirational and instructive variety that could show the way forward. No one tried to explain in a scientific, historical and sociological perspective the incidence of natural calamities — why they happen, how other societies have coped with them, their impact on people and what can be done to make the people safe in the event of future disasters.

Any channel with some imagination and professionalism would have tried to procure films and the participation of experts (seismologists, geologists, geographers, historians and civil engineers/architects) rather than religious leaders to drive the fear of God in people’s hearts when there is already so much panic and anxiety around.

It is said that calamities can help institutions come of age overnight. This could have been the case with the electronic media in Pakistan too had the various channels focused less on keeping up with the Joneses or rather outdoing them and had sought to be more professional, ethical and less sensational in their approach.