An agenda for news

Thursday, October 01, 2009
Kamila Hyat
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor

The question of what makes news is one that is becoming increasingly relevant. Every day, we are assaulted by TV talk shows and hosts who claim to put issues before us. In many ways these shows, which have huge viewership, set the agenda for what is discussed and debated at various places.

They have as such drawn out the framework for what people see as ‘politics’. They have also, without hesitation, offered to dubious former intelligence men and others the platform from which they have made their recent series of disclosures – allowing them to serve whatever purpose motivated them to emerge en masse. In the past, similar space has been offered to pro-Taliban clerics and to others who see little evil in violence.

Through the month of Ramazan many of the major shows have projected the cause of charities of all kinds. This was obviously intended as a social service – and it has had the positive effect of drawing attention to the illiterate, the sick, the blind, the disabled and the destitute who exist on the fringes of our society. Donations have poured in to the many organizations that do such an excellent job of helping those in need.

But somewhere an important message was ignored. The state of Pakistan must assume more responsibility for the plight of its citizens and divert funds to tackle the hunger and deprivation that exists everywhere. This, in many ways, is an even bigger issue than that of political alliances or the tensions between different wings of government that we hear about daily, often from guests who hustle from one studio to the next.

The link between poor governance and the situation of people has yet to be made. In many ways the media serves the interest of an incompetent government by failing to take up these critical issues and thus allowing it to avoid making these a priority, though of course this should not be an excuse to the indifference that we see to the worsening plight of people.

In recent months we have seen multiple stories about parents forced by poverty to sell children. There were accounts ahead of Eid of fathers who, faced with an inability to buy new clothes or shoes or even food, killed themselves, and sometimes their families as well. These reports hardly ever make it beyond the single column item, placed well beyond the outer pages. Misery is not on the media agenda. As a result the volume of despair grows. So too does the gap between people and a state that has been unable to fulfil its most basic responsibilities to them.

Scattered around the Internet and buried in reports from different agencies are the figures that testify to the situation we live in. Levels of hunger are ‘alarming’, significantly higher than those in most South Asian countries and matching levels in Sub-Saharan Africa. Child malnutrition is rampant. More than 33 per cent of a population that has continued to grow with little check live below the poverty line. Millions of others hover close to this mark. Almost a half of this sea of people is illiterate.

A person somewhere in the country goes blind every minute, often because they lack the means to seek help. Many others die from preventable disease. Campaigns such as that to contain polio have suffered severe setbacks due to mismanagement. These issues rarely make news.

Neither do many others. The loss of parks in congested cities such as Karachi, the blatant chopping down of trees in Lahore to make way for plazas such as those that have crept up along M M Alam Road, the poisoning of land due to indiscriminate pesticide use, the means used to increase milk production by injecting animals with hormones or the steroids used to expand the volume of meat obtained from poultry or cattle are matters that are routinely relegated to ‘feature’ pages and magazines. Journalists are trained to treat these as ‘soft’ news, unfit to make news pages.

There is a kind of macho pride involved in insisting that the existing divide between ‘hardcore news’ and ‘social problems’ must be retained. The inches on front pages are reserved almost invariably for statements, speeches and reports that focus on the chaotic political happenings that unfold daily. The question of how meaningful these are to the lives of people has not been sufficiently explored. But losing tree cover or forcing people to consume food that is effectively poisoned directly effects the quality of life of almost everyone. It is for this reason that such issues have increasingly stolen away space from the politicians in many countries. In India, the strident efforts by some sections of the media to take up issues of the environment and of pollution have played a part in the ushering in of new legislation.

Today, around the world and at home too, the role of the print media – particularly of daily newspapers – is being questioned. In a time of ‘instant’ news from the TV channels and over the Internet, few wait for the papers to land on their doorstep to read about the latest bomb blast or the contents of political speeches. Research also shows that globally more and more readers are accessing papers over the Internet, leading to debate over whether they should be made to pay for these services. The attempt by newspapers to go in for more in-depth reporting – even though this can lead to sensationalism in some cases – indicates some awareness of a changed environment. But perhaps they need to think of more rapid evolution to survive in it and create a distinct niche for themselves. This has happened in many places around the world. One route is to set new agendas as to what constitutes news and how people’s lives are affected by events of all kinds that take place around them.

For editors and journalists, this is a challenge. Breaking away from the established norm is never easy. Media interests are increasingly tied in with political and commercial ones. But in times of recession bold tactics are necessary. The print media – freed by the 24-hour news channels from its traditional responsibility of delivering news and doing so ahead of its competitors — can chalk out a new path. It has been offered a new liberty it must take advantage of. By doing so it may find it has served the interests of people and itself, ending the uniformity we see on most channels and widening the notion of what constitutes news in a nation beset with many problems and challenges.

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