Saturday, April 21, 2012

Yes, Television Was Sometimes Awful But Was Social Media Any Better?

Almost two years ago, I wrote this piece and this piece about reporting on the Air Blue aircraft crash in Islamabad. The tragic crash of Bhoja Air flight from Karachi to Islamabad yesterday and its attendant coverage has compelled me to sit at my keyboard yet again. But whereas my initial disgust with some of the reporting on television was the initial motivation for writing a few words, the subsequent speculation and shoot-everything-in-sight diatribes on social media deserve an equal evaluation.

Bhoja Air crash (Photos via Dawn)

More on the latter later in the post, however. First, let's look at where television coverage went right and where wrong (contrary to the outrage being expressed on social media, all of it was not dire). Generally, most channels did NOT show bodies or limbs. I flipped through most of the major channels during the initial coverage, once reporters and cameramen had reached the site of the crash, and none of them were deliberately showing gore. I have heard that Samaa breached this agreed upon rule during its coverage (I did not personally see it) and, if so, viewers should definitely haul them up for it. Generally, however, good sense dictated the on-site footage, with some minor slip-ups that occurred because of the live nature of the coverage but which were corrected immediately.

Most channels did go over the top in the intrusive way they covered the grieving families and friends of those who had lost their lives in the crash, with one channel's reporter even shoving a mike in the face of a wailing relative and most running footage of distraught people in a loop. This kind of insensitive and senseless reportage (what exactly is a grieving relative going to say that will add to the sum of our knowledge?) needs to be checked and the privacy and dignity of those affected by a tragic event needs to be respected by the media. Ditto for the silly and offensive animations that we have objected to earlier as well that are based on pure speculation (one had a plane nose-diving while ARY even ran a clip from a Hollywood film!)  and only serve to mislead viewers and perhaps cause agony for those affected.

However, those on social media who were of the opinion that there should be absolutely no coverage of those affected and that no such intrusion occurs anywhere else in the world are living in some sort of make-believe world. I'm sorry but, to a certain extent, this is the nature of the medium that television is, it gravitates towards dramatic visuals and I have personally seen Western reporters be equally insensitive and intrusive as well as plenty of footage on Western channels that covers grieving relatives. Instead of talking about having channels shut down over their coverage (on what basis one is still not quite sure) or hauled up and fined, it would be far more productive to build consensus on where the ethical line actually is. A good point to start, as someone pointed out, is for channels and reporters to put themselves in the shoes of those grieving. If one of their own family members had suffered such a tragedy, would they want their and their family's grief to be broadcast in close-up and in a loop to the whole world? Would they want to be asked what they are feeling? Pressure should be built on channel heads and news editors to sit down together - as they did in the case of coverage of people killed - and work out a framework of guidelines on how grief is to be shown, also keeping in mind that overly dramatic scenes of grief are not healthy viewing particularly for children who sometimes can catch them inadvertently.

Where most channels really slipped up, however, in my opinion, was, as in the case of the Air Blue crash, in their knowledge of basic scientific principles and facts and in their propensity to conjecture for no worthwhile reason or on the basis of any real facts. Thus two channels, including Dunya, initially kept insisting that the plane was a Russian aircraft (ostensibly implying poor quality construction) even while others had already pointed that it was an American Boeing. One channel, Express, initially announced that a military helicopter had gone down with soldiers on board (before reversing their 'breaking news') and ARY ran a lengthy clip of a local on site who claimed that the crash was probably caused by aerial firing 'as he had always feared and filed a court petition about'. Other 'eye-witnesses' variously claimed the plane had split up in the air or had been struck by lightning or that its engine was on fire. In most cases, the problem with unsubstantiated stories finding their way on to television news has to do with the 'breaking news' disease, the desire to be the first with the 'news' as part of ratings wars. But news editors should also know by now that 'eye-witness' accounts in such cases are notoriously contradictory and should at least be moderated by an editorial narrative. Wild claims such as that of aerial firing by the conjecturing 'eye-witness' only add to viewers' confusion and really should not be part of the narrative in the first place. I suppose when anchors have seemingly never even heard the term 'cloudburst', they latch on to whatever is easiest for them to grasp, whether it is relevant or not.

Incidentally, as pointed out by a journalist who emailed us, every channel also got one fact completely wrong: that this was Bhoja Air's 'inaugural' flight from Karachi to Islamabad. He pointed out that a friend of his had flown Bhoja on the same route three days earlier. However this wrong bit of information was apparently traced to Bhoja Air's own website. I have no idea why Bhoja would claim this was an inaugural flight when it was not. One suggestion was that, perhaps this was the first afternoon flight on the route while the earlier flights were morning flights. Even in that case, the term 'inaugural' is a bit of an exaggeration.

Of course the default position of all channels is to try and find scapegoats. Everyone knew that the weather had suddenly taken a turn for the worst and freak acts of nature have in the past brought down planes in other places in the world - in fact, pilots who landed in Islamabad just a few minutes earlier confirmed that the weather had suddenly become very dangerous - yet most channels chose to attack the age of the aircraft, the skill of the pilot, the company's chequered history (it ceased operations in 2001 and only started up again a month and a half ago), Civil Aviation Authority's procedures and bizarrely even the government (in the case of Samaa). Geo's anchor, meanwhile, actually asked an astonished aviation expert if, 'had the pilot been more skilled, he could have brought the plane down low enough in the air for the passengers to jump out'. Really Junaid? Have you never travelled in a plane??!

The point is not that one or more of these factors could not have played a part in the tragedy. But that they were discussed ignoring the fact that even with the best and youngest of aircraft, the most skillful of pilots and the best of professional environments, accidents can and do happen with freak forces of nature. What purpose exactly is served, aside from filling up airtime space, from making conjectures whose actual answers will not be known until a proper inquiry is held? Or is creating pointless agitation among the public at large the job of news media? A debilitating lightning strike or devastating wind shear (as is now being discussed) could have solely been responsible without any of the factors being discussed coming into play.

Which brings me to the speculation that swamped Twitter and Facebook right after the crash. Truth be told, it was no better than the conjecture of the television anchors. One common refrain was the age of the aircraft that went down (more than 27 years according to this report in Dawn quoting, as if no old planes ever fly anywhere else in the world. In fact, as this answer points out, the average age of DC-9 aircraft operated by the US carrier NorthWest Airlines in 2005 was 34 years old! And that theoretically, depending on regular checks and maintenance, planes can continue to fly forever. (Here's some more info on life spans of aircraft in case you're interested.) In fact, the main reason fleets are replaced is because newer aircraft are more fuel efficient (but fleet replacement, as was blithely being suggested by certain people, obviously requires a lot of investment capital). Once again, the point is not that the age of the aircraft could definitely not have played a part in the tragedy. Only that picking on this one factor without any proof of it being a factor is as absurd as anything the channels were doing.

The other great target of social media activists seemed to be, as is always the case, Geo. I am hardly a defender of Geo's excesses, but as someone who watched most main channels' coverage of the incident, I can tell you that Geo was far more restrained than some of the others. By far the worst in terms of absolute absurdity were Express and ARY, mainly because there seemed to be no sensible editorial control and a surfeit of banal posturing from their reporters. As an example, in one segment on Express, the reporter held up a burnt out fire extinguisher because the anchor goaded him to get in amongst the debris and then spouted this gem: 'This cylinder is a fire extinguisher, used to extinguish fires, but when the plane caught fire, even this was no use.' He then went on to pick up another piece of debris, adding 'This used to be a part of the plane but after its destruction, it is no longer a part of the plane.'

So please, hold Geo's feet to the fire by all means, but let's not lose sight of the wood for the trees.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Fashion Passions

Recently, the comedian and writer Sami Shah tweeted the following image, accompanying the visuals with the line 'My gift to anyone who tries telling you that fashion in Pakistan should be taken seriously' :

I know this snub has probably enraged all the fashionistas out there, especially those who never tire of telling us how fashionpromotesourculture, how fashioninvolvesbloodsweatandtears, how fashioncanincreaseourexports and how fashionisfightingtheTaliban. But I would submit there's another reason why fashion is not taken seriously by anyone outside the fashionistas' charmed circle or at least certainly not as seriously as they hope it is taken: fashion journalism.

I personally have nothing against fashion designers per se. Some of them can be quite creative at what they do, everyone's got to make a living somehow and most people wear clothes and like nice clothes, even when they can't afford them. It's the fact that commodotized fashion seems to have subsumed every other bit of 'culture' - rather like a giant amoeba plunking its big fat cellular arse over anything of nutrient value and phagocytosisizing it - in the social / cultural / entertainment pages of our newspapers and magazines that I have a problem with. When a society begins to think of good looking people walking up and down ramps as the height of a cultural event, that society's got a problem, Taliban or no Taliban.

Take a look at the pages of our newspapers and you would think there's no higher achievement than a lawn exhibition here or a trade show there (and by God! there are a lot of them) and no greater creativity than the shaping of eyebrows and application of eye-shadow. Forget the advertising onslaught that crowds out city horizons and media space, copious editorial verbiage is dedicated to dissecting the latest twist of a paisley, the half-an-inch raising of a hemline, the ideological differences between the Pakistan Fashion Week, the Fashion Pakistan Week, the Fashion Showcase and the Pakistan Fashion Design Council Week (which of course reminds one of this). But perhaps it might even be somewhat bearable if there was actually any 'dissection' at all. No, the default characteristic of most fashion writing in Pakistan is to 'extol', as if the amoeba's life depended on it, and the position of writers on fashion more akin to phagocytosisized groupies than dispassionate journalists.

Consider what appeared in today's Instep pages in The News for example (by no means the only instance or the only space where such writing appears)...

Here's a box item that pretty much tells us all we need to know in the headline: that designers Hassan Sheheryar Yasin (of HSY) and Shehla Chatoor won awards for their designing at two separate fashion weeks. But then continues for four paragraphs of waffle that includes the following bit of purple prose:

"It’s the glamour of high fashion, the need for something new and the innovation of these designers that has won over the hearts of the voting public. The influence of fashion is breaking borders within the Pakistani public’s mindset. The imposing fa├žade of designer fashion has been lifted and the opinion of the majority has softened the hard line which divided people’s views of fashion as elitist and unattainable. It’s the display of talent and the celebration of beautiful design which the public voted for by way of Shehla Chatoor and Hassan Sheheryar Yasin."

But for real overblown hype you must turn to the main article. A report on Day 4 of the PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week, it is headlined, in faux deep analysis tone, 'Showmanship, the spirit of fashion and understanding the difference.' The article begins by gushing the following adjectives and phrases about HSY and his clothes: 'most magnificent', 'grand', 'divine', 'gorgeous', 'sexy' and concluding that 'the man is a wiz.'

And that's for a designer the writer claims was not as "exciting fashion-wise" as the others.

For the others and their shows, the following words and phrases are then deployed: 'king and queen', 'exquisitely tailored', 'gorgeous' (again), 'raging hit', 'great', 'masterstroke', 'panache', 'flawless', 'super hit', 'equally brilliant', 'wizard', 'hottest', 'new heights', 'such talent', 'brilliance' (again), 'brightest', 'most cutting edge', 'to die for', 'rollicking collection', 'fashion met art', 'one-of-a-kind', 'collector's item' and 'painstakingly perfect.' Well, at least you know that a thesaurus might be the best gift to get the author.

Seriously, if any other 'beat' carried this type of writing, it would be accused of being dangerously naive and simply promotional advertising rather than journalism. How can anyone then take fashion without a healthy heaping of salt?

The article ends with an exhortation:

“Let’s try something that hasn’t been done before.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but yes, why don't we.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Difa-e-Pakistan Video of the Day

I would have posted this yesterday but sometimes weekends should remain weekends i.e. work-free, no matter the happiness work may bring. In any case, this has to be the best thing to have happened in Pakistan yesterday or perhaps even the year. And may I add, it could not have happened to a better blowhard at a better occasion (a meeting of the leadership of the Duffer-e-Pakistan Council).

Given his past exploits rigging elections, General Hamid Gul sahib should have known by now that there's no guarantee of the kursi once you leave it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

It's Basic Decency, Stupid

I was going to post my outrage over the depths of tabloid-y sleazebaggery that The News sunk to today but blogger Tazeen has already said all that needed to be said, so you should go over and read her post. I concur completely.

Not only did the reporter, editors and owners of The News break all norms of professional journalistic ethics and the right to privacy, they have also abetted a truly despicable hospital administrator in flouting a sacred oath of patient confidentiality and exposed a woman to prosecution from odious Zia-era Hudood laws that they claim to have been in the vanguard of the fight against. They should be ashamed of themselves.

We have in the past protested strongly when sleazy personal and defamatory stories against the Jang Group CEO Mir Shakilur Rahman were publicised on the floor of the Sindh Assembly and in the media. For someone who has borne the brunt of such unethical invasion of personal privacy, it boggles the mind that he would allow his newspaper to perpetrate the same to someone else. The owner of the Jang Group and the editors of The News should also be aware that if they think any of this flouting of basic ethics and decency is justified in any way because their target is an often-mocked celebrity, in the future someone who wishes to humiliate them might decide that they or their families are fair game as well. No one is free of skeletons in their personal closets.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Siachen Tragedy: Prioritizing the News

This is a post about the heart-rending tragedy that struck on the Siachen Glacier early Saturday morning, which has buried - and in all likely probability killed - at least 135 people in one of the biggest avalanches ever to strike Pakistan. The latest estimates say all 124 soldiers stationed at the battalion headquarters in the Gayari sector and some 11-14 civilian support staff are now buried somewhere underneath the avalanche of snow, stone and dirt, said to be over-a-kilometre-wide and up to 80 feet deep.

But this post is not about the futility of maintaining armed forces in such inhospitable terrain (where more soldiers have died from the natural conditions than actual fighting), nor about the ridiculous expenditure this quarter-of-a-century-long deployment imposes on both Pakistan and India whose people still die from hunger, malnutrition, lack of access to clean water and easily treatable diseases. It could well be, but that's become almost a cliche and enough commentators will be focusing on just that. No, I want to focus on the shocking way this tragedy was covered by Pakistan's electronic media.

The following are the headlines from the 9pm bulletin on Geo News from Saturday 7th April 2012. Notice something?

As you can see, the news item about more than 100 Pakistanis having possibly perished was tucked away in fourth priority, behind the usual war of words between the PPP and the PMLN, the preps in India for President Zardari's 'private' visit to the Ajmer shrine and COAS Gen Kayani's banal statement about not letting counter-insurgency operations detract from 'normal' war planning. Sandwiched between these stories and other  news items about a motorbike stunt show, a transvestite wedding and 'Arab' dance on Karachi's food street, you could be almost forgiven for thinking the death of so many citizens of Pakistan was no big deal.

Keep in mind that the avalanche took place at 6 am on Saturday morning. I first saw the news in the 2 pm bulletin (it could have appeared earlier, I am not sure). And I remember feeling incredulous that even then the story was dealt with in such cavalier fashion. The entire day, it never received any higher priority than the third, fourth or fifth top story. It was only at 10.30 pm, when the armed forces' Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) department issued a statement detailing the specifics of the catastrophe that, suddenly, the news was turned into 'Breaking News' and finally entered the top slot of news bulletins.

Now, in any country in the world, such a natural disaster, especially one in which over 100 of its citizens had perished or even been trapped, would have or should have made the top story. Forget issues of nationalism, this would be a top story for any news media anywhere in the world. For a media that thrives on human interest stories, the idea that such a huge number of people were buried alive under a wall of snow inherently calls out for top billing. The number of lives directly touched by this tragedy - from family, relations, friends - in itself numbers in the tens of thousands. All the next day's papers, quite rightly, gave the story the main headline.

So what happened with Pakistan's television channels? (Although I have chosen to highlight Geo News here as the largest, by far, of the private media channels, I am told the other channels were similar in their handling of the story.) The only two possibilities are that either the news editors are completely incompetent in their judgement of news-worthiness, or that it was, more likely, pressure from the army that forced them to play down the story the whole day. And I will submit that in the case of the latter, the news editors and their channel's owners have displayed that they are equally incompetent in their judgement.

It is important to keep in mind a couple of things. One, that it was not that the story had not reached the news channels because of the remote location; they were aware of the parameters of the disaster at least by 2pm and were running the story, just not in the spot it deserved. Two, that it is highly, highly improbable that channels that run even the most mundane localized political and crime stories ad nauseam in their bulletins suddenly discovered the value of not 'sensationalizing' such a genuinely 'big' story. Even the argument that time was needed to inform the families of the potential victims does not hold any weight, since anyone whose loved one was deployed at Siachen would already have become aware of the disaster from the news that was running through the day. The only thing the down-playing of the news might have achieved is their resentment that their loved ones' lives were not worth more serious concern.

If channel heads and news editors cannot turn down the silly and unwarranted pressure of the army (if indeed it was this that decided the news priority and not simple incompetence) to play down what is, for any half-wit journalist, a blatantly obvious major story, if they really cannot stand up for their own news sense on such a non-controversial matter, they really should stop tooting the horn about themselves as the "independent media."