ANN/DAWN – Something Jon Stewart said during an episode he did on the trouble with mainstream media in the United States (US), last year, stuck with me: The narcissism of Donald Trump was matched by the narcissism of the media.
The progressive and/or liberal media took his victory personally. They saw themselves – he had a wicked grin when he referenced The New York Times tagline “Democracy Dies in Darkness” – as the upholders and pillars of democracy. They saw themselves as the immune system that filters out toxins to get the audience the news.
“But they’re not,” said Stewart. “They’re adding to the noise.” He added that they’d created a model that almost cements divisions rather than views context.
Does the ego get in the way of the media going outside the status quo, instead of becoming part of it, he asked guest and media critic for the Washington Post Margaret Sullivan – whose book Newsroom Confidential I highly recommend to journalists and students interested in the news. Sullivan replied by defending journalists, saying she knows many got into the profession to do a good job, and inform, but then “you’re in the reality of it, and then you know there’s a demand for audiences…”
It’s not dissimilar to Imran Khan, who is an attention magnet, irrespective of the screen being TV or digital. He’s mastered the art of getting the eyeballs. Some outlets thrive on calling him out for his lies, while others thrive on amplifying his narrative.
What happens then to the stories/issues that are not Trump/Khan-centric? And even when the news is personality driven (for example focussing on corrupt leaders vs corrupt system), is the audience better informed with accurate information or have media outlets decided that narrative guised as news is the only way to survive?
WHAT THE AUDIENCE WANTS
I’ve spent a good portion of last year consuming the news professionally – because I had to, as editor of a legacy media outlet’s online properties and then, as a self-proclaimed media critic, researcher and now as a co-producer and co-host of a podcast on the news landscape in Pakistan.
And I have been attempting to answer many, many questions, including one that Stewart asked: “Is the media the architect of its own demise?”
He knows the media would rather blame the audience for wanting the content they do because that’s what sells, but I’m more interested in learning how the metrics are being determined in Pakistan.
Stewart argues that the media doesn’t know what else sells because they haven’t tried anything else. And, is selling the only way to measure success – what about public interest?
It’s easy to want to dismiss the Pakistani news media for its partisanship or for amplifying specific personalities. While those things are true, I think the year 2022 saw journalists do some very good work on traditional and digital platforms.
Newspapers, known to be a dying breed, continue the hard work of reporting across the country, ensuring coverage of as many communities as possible.
The work has become harder because companies’ “financial struggles” have resulted in staff layoffs or salary cuts as well as other budgetary constraints that prevent the audiences’ informational needs from getting served.
For example, the coverage is often more urban-centric simply because media houses can’t afford stringers outside larger towns.
Perhaps the most stark example of this was the coverage of the floods, which received attention from the mainstream media, only when events turned catastrophic. And while many media outlets sent prime time anchors such as Asma Sherazi and Meher Bokhari out into the field to cover the floods, most of them moved on to other issues (primarily politics) within a fortnight.
To his credit, Geo’s Hamid Mir stayed on the field longer than others and to their credit, the team at Zara Hat Kay featured many reporters from impacted areas on their show, long after flood images had left TV screens and others had moved on.
The trouble with much of the coverage across the mediums was the lack of contextualising, and this isn’t just about the floods. This is sort of what Jon Stewart was talking about in the aforementioned episode – why is the media not going outside the status quo and contextualising events for audiences to become better informed?
While the media reported on the floods, for example, the partisanship in their reporting was evident. Where one major channel came at its coverage in Sindh and Punjab with a ‘look how terrible it is for the people there due to a corrupt government’, it approached the situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa differently.
The same is true for another media group, whose anti-PTI stance has become obvious by now to the average viewer.
Another major issue in newsrooms is the lack of trained resources, who have even studied the country’s map, let alone other issues faced by the country. During a training for journalists in Quetta in 2018, the participants complained that their colleagues would call them from head offices (often in Karachi) and ask them to cover an event that took place in Gwadar.
One journalist told me that he told his colleague in Karachi that it would take them less time to get to Gwadar than it would take him from Quetta. This disconnect between desk and well … basic geography is depressing.
A lot of this ties into a lack of resources – many staff on the desk are simply not equipped to do the work required for proper contextualising. So you get sloppy writing from digital, in both English and Urdu.
As an aside, I used quotes earlier in this section around financial struggles because I’ve yet to authenticate this claim, which I’ve heard repeated over and over from people in the media industry who tell me how hard a time it is for the media, economically.
I want to believe it because I can see my friends aren’t being paid on time at some legacy outlets – sometimes they’re two months behind in pay.
However, I also know that staff employed in the same media house’s sister property gets paid on the dot each month. I’m also researching into the equally oft repeated mantra of the media’s dependency on government ads for its revenue and how the slash in that has impacted the industry.
Journalists deserve accolades for working against the backdrop of financial insecurity. I’ve spoken with at least two dozen journalists in different newsrooms, who said they felt trapped because they were unable to find better paying jobs.
I also spoke to six people in hiring positions who complained they could not fit suitable staff. I feel for the underpaid, but also for the under-qualified staff on the desks and have zero sympathy for the owners whose lives have not been impacted by the so-called financial hardship they’re claiming.
Of course, there are innumerable faults in the way the news is pushed out, but my point here is to shine a light on the miserable working conditions for so many people on the desk and in the field trying to get information across to audiences.
The pressure in digital media is especially daunting, given that one is competing with social media where there are no checks and balances.
The errors, typos and editorial judgements that prove foolish in hindsight have been, and are, de rigueur in the newsroom, but the role of the journalist has evolved over the years and needs an urgent revisit.
“The purpose of journalism is not defined by technology, nor by journalists or the techniques they employ,” wrote Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism.
“Rather, the principles and purpose of journalism are defined by something more basic: the function news plays in the lives of people.”
Are media owners hiring the right leaders to run newsrooms tasked with ensuring best practices in reporting, editing and disseminating information? Are newsroom leaders working towards ending income inequality at the workplace and creating an environment that makes staff’s lives better? What is the role of the HR department really, because right now, it is embarrassing; they enable abusers and serve to please masters. Moreover, job insecurity cuts across departments in news organisations.
It is simply impossible to assess the highs and lows in media coverage without highlighting working conditions in newsrooms because that impacts how you receive the news. Those who make the news you want to hear during prime time receive the highest ratings on TV, thus the highest salary. Even though the demographics of who watches TV is on the decline.
Most media owners’ understanding of the digital landscape – for example, who consumes what and where, and how that impacts advertisers – is flawed because they are reliant on newsroom leaders to give them that information, but those men (almost always men) are holding onto power and some distorted reality of audience needs.
I’m struck by what Professor Victor Pickard of the University of Pennsylvania wrote in Nieman Lab, where he said people point fingers in several directions when trying to understand the “wild fluctuations of the news industry” but don’t discuss the main culprit: capitalism.
“It is capitalism that incentivises the degradation of our news media – disinvesting in local journalism, weaponising social media to capture our attention and data, and devaluing media workers’ labour conditions.
“All the while, commercial media outlets treat news as a commodity, not a public service, and audiences as consumers, not engaged citizens,” he wrote.