Confessions of a desensitized journalist – by Sadaf Khan


Victims emotions and personal stories are often exploited by the media to pull at the audiences heartstrings

As Pakistanis we should now all be well versed with disaster coverage. Bomb blasts, terrorist attacks, violent protests, military operations, natural disasters – you name it and we have seen it all. However, instead of making us more proficient at covering tragedies, the influx of disastrous situations seem to have worked in reverse. For media personnel these situations are double disasters. The more serious the disaster is, the worse the situation in the newsroom becomes.

As I started writing the first script for a television news package regarding the rescue operation at Margalla Hills crash sight, I was rudely reminded time and again, by more than one journalist, that technically I shouldn’t write dead bodies – they weren’t whole after all. And it would be so much more effective and convey so much more if I said ‘parts of bodies’ instead. So much more capable of sketching the intensity of disaster – so much more insensitive and so much more inhumane. However, sentiments don’t matter in the business of news anymore. It is a rat race – instead of searching for authentic information, reporters are simply searching for new ways to add more punch to stories.

A few years ago, we aired something live accidentally – it was a blast sight, a mosque in Karachi. The footage had reached us unedited, we didn’t want to waste time previewing and editing it. So we aired it and saw the footage as it went on air. We saw the ‘body parts’ hanging off fans, saw things no one should see. We aired it accidentally, and couldn’t help gagging at the sight of it. For days I felt guilty – even though it hadn’t been my decision. Today, things are different. Footages like that are the norm.

Write a sensitive script and I hear ‘maza nahi aya’

I play safe with figures and I’m told ‘dekhi jaye gi’

Hear this again and again, and after a while you’d be so used to complying with these orders that their mode of information would come naturally to you. You would turn your heart off, calculate, exploit and write things that wouldn’t really be any good for anybody, but yes, they would be striking, they would make people flinch and cry.

In the Airblue tragedy, we saw baseless reports of survivors being airlifted to the hospital.  And the crowd of people at the airport could hardly be contained.

‘There were survivors!’

‘We saw that on TV!’

‘Why aren’t we being told where the injured have been taken?’

What does one say in face of such false hope? You are speechless, but this hope gives a more tragic angle to the story so why not? Why not exploit every emotion these poor souls show, to make a better show? And that’s what I did – I used a soundbyte, showing a man sobbing his heart out – asking why couldn’t they atleast tell him where the survivors were being taken. I feel guilty – but I tell myself, well what else could I do, that is the norm, isn’t it?



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