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.


Nadir El-Edroos said...

It doesnt help that Imran Khan on Twitter, squarely put the blame on corruption and nepotism which was taken as a given by all his supporters. Umar Cheema is desperately looking to link the case with Zardari. All of this insures that the crash itself will never be properly investigated from an aviation perspective, because the expectation has been built up so much to blame someone politically, that any report that is not sensationalised will be rejected as a cover up. The Airblue crash should have produced a "lessons learnt", instead that has gone towards a cover up as well.

Anonymous said...

cafe pyala . so rightly said especially the geo's part . it was teh only channel till late who used the wor.. jahaz may 127 loag sawar hein , while others were screaming "THAY". geo avoided the wild airplane anime , while others ..

Anonymous said...

Thank you pyala for saying what I couldn't possibly have said so well. The TV coverage may have been patchy, occasionally in bad taste and dumb but a) Geo was the least worst of all b) the twitterati and facebook crowd were equally, if not more, incredibly and sweepingly sanctimonious.
I am glad they do not run any channels.
With their rigorous politically correct strictures in place, we would only have Pravda (or old-PTV) style 'correct' coverage deemed acceptable by this powerful elite or that.
The media needs to get a lot of things right for sure. But it also needs to feed a mass audience hungry for the tiniest scraps of news. Finding the right balance and avoiding the excesses of extreme populism and sensationalism is the answer. Not wholesale, snobbish condemnation from those who, for all we know, rarely tune in to local channels.

Anonymous said...

I believe the aerial firing theory actually came from Rauf Klasra on Dunya TV. I heard it twice myself

Anonymous said...

Most social media commentators were from the Express group - how could they not be aghast at Geo's coverage!

It might as well be that they tune in to Geo coverage more frequently knowing quite well the standard of Express.

Helicopter crashing - any apology from the Express Media Group for THAT?

Anonymous said...

Any possibility of you posting the video clip of the geo reference you are quoting please.