By Zubeida Mustafa
THE two-member media commission’s recommendation for consultations on the review of all media laws and codes could not have been more timely. The fact is that lately a lot of concern has been expressed vocally by discerning observers about the damage the media is inflicting on our society.
Any forum, which is even distantly related to the press or television, invariably turns into an occasion to condemn their waywardness. TV receives a greater share of the flak because of its higher visibility/reach and potential to influence people’s mindsets.
The issue of ethics in journalism has been around for quite some time but has evaded all solution. Those of the older generation who have struggled for press freedom for years are naturally reluctant to hand over powers to the government to regulate the freedom of expression which a code can accomplish.
Hence the demand has been for voluntary self-regulation by journalists’ professional bodies and media proprietors. This calls for a high sense of responsibility on the part of journalists and the willingness of media houses to forego some of their stupendous profits. One hopes that the research the Pakistan Press Foundation is now doing on the needs’ assessment of ethical journalism will help in the review process.
What is disturbing is that many evils that affect the media today are not easy to rectify in isolation. One may well argue that the media is an extension of society, as was stated so succinctly by Islamabad-based Dr Salman Asif, the UN gender adviser. If society has lost all sense of fairness, compassion and integrity and is totally insensitive to the concerns of the community, can the media become a paragon of virtue?
This issue came up for discussion in a forum organised by a group of doctors (mostly women) who took strong objection to the violence being portrayed on our TV screens.
A senior journalist made the plea that the media was reflecting what is actually happening in society. But my contention is that information can be conveyed without suppressing it; however, this has to be done in a discreet manner. Does every bit of news have to be disseminated very graphically and in a tone that betrays panic and excitement?
A media that is indifferent to a society’s concerns is the most horrendous thing that can happen to a people. It manifests itself in sensationalism of the worst kind especially on television that has come to dominate the media scene.
The era of the glory of the printed word is long past. For television it is a race to earn higher profits by beating rivals in breaking news and grabbing ratings. Media managers are throwing ethics, rationality and decency to the winds. Rules of professionalism are being flouted. There are rare exceptions; some do want to be ethical and professional — but they are invariably individuals and not organisations.
One should be thankful to the commission for taking note of these unhealthy practices. At the root of the matter is commercialism that has become the bane of all sectors of our national life. If any regulation has to be instituted by the government, it should not be so much on content as on financial matters.
The government should insist on a rigorous code of conduct being drawn up to keep an eye on content — but by the media houses and journalists’ bodies themselves. They should also manage a press complaint body and an electronic media complaint commission to address the public’s complaints.
The authorities could lay down the rules requiring every media outlet to exercise its social responsibility by including programmes on health and education for a specified number of hours in a day. An education channel is the need of the hour.
It may not fetch many ads but any media house that cares should give this much time to the cause of education by including educational programmes that schools can use as teaching material. Short health documentaries done imaginatively should be informative for patients who spend endless hours in doctors’ waiting rooms.
The 24/7 television cycle means the electronic media has enough time in hand to trivialise even the most serious of issues by filling time with shallow chatter.
It is now being realised that it is time to save professionalism in journalism that has been the major casualty of the midsummer madness that grips the media in Pakistan. The commission is critical when it notes the practice of media houses of recruiting untrained reporters and anchors. If only graduates of media science departments must be hired in the media, the need to upgrade the mass communication academia should also be recognised.
In days of yore, few people who entered the profession enjoyed the advantage of training and education in mass communication. This deficiency was compensated by their sense of commitment.
More importantly, there was a lot that they learnt on the job from their seniors. There was plenty of mentoring that went on. The main advantage of mentoring was that it provided a sense of continuity in the profession even when technology-driven changes were taking place. It provided the human bonding that is so essential to create values in journalists.
It is a pity that mentoring is dead today and communication technology, while making life easier for journalists, has had a fragmenting effect. Journalists are more isolated today than ever before which has affected their professionalism.