Journalists: Are we driven by facts or egos?

 ICFJ Alumni  Group Photo at Media Summit  held  in Islamabad on Feb 1,2,2013. Photo taken by Alumni fell

My inner critic is always haunting me with this burning question: am I objective and unbiased as a journalist?

I found the answer in the first week of February, at a media summit organized by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in Islamabad. More than 80 journalists from all over Pakistan, who are alumni of ICFJ attended this summit. Speakers shared their views on important subjects, like the state of media in Pakistan, and how the USA and Pakistan see each other through media. It also gave us a chance to get to know each other.For me, the most interesting part was a session where journalists quizzed the speakers. That’s where my burning question was answered.

From (L-R)Muhammad Ziauddin, executive editor express tribune, Muhammad Malik, senior anchor Dunya TV, Rana Jawad Islamabad bureau chief Geo TV. Photo taken by ICFJ Alumni fellow
A journalist issued a challenge to Rana Jawed, bureau chief of Islamabad Private Television. Why had the station “fanned” the controversy over a provocative YouTube film about Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by repeating the clip dozens of times, and calling upon government to ban YouTube? And why did the station later boast – via breaking news – that it was responsible for the YouTube ban? Rana Jawad replied, but the journalist wasn’t satisfied. Neither was I.

Zia-u-ddin, executive editor of Express Tribune, joined the discussion. He explained that television is part of mass media, so its priority is set by people’s emotions and expectations. If you ignore this reality they will switch to another channel. This made sense, but the journalist was still not satisfied.

Enter Muhammad Malick, editor of The News. His view was that no one is perfect in the media business, so we should learn from each other and develop professionalism throughout the industry.

But the journalist was still unwilling to let the issue drop. Later, I learned that he works for a rival television station. The episode made me realize how difficult it is for journalists to move from fixed angles. We stick to our position at any cost.

When another journalist – this time from Quetta – raised his hand to ask a question I gave him all my attention. I was keen to learn about the situation in Quetta, and the ongoing violence which is related to ethnicity and Baloch separatists.
But it was not to be.

“I am impressed by you, Mr Zia-u-ddin,” the journalist began. “You challenged the dictators. You did an excellent job during the Zia regime (and so on), and my question is: should I continue in print or switch over to television?”
I wasn’t expecting such a personal question. Neither was Zia-u-uddin. As soon as he sensed that the issue was superficial he leaned back in his chair and smilingly accepted the admiration. I am a hundred percent sure he wasn’t interested to hear flattery in such a public place. It’s well-known that he is a serious journalist.
This made me realize how important it is for us to ask questions on behalf of the people we serve, instead of just following our own needs. And, as the session also showed, journalists need to understand the difference between making comments and asking well-designed questions. Good questions generate news. The ability to ask good questions is the essence of journalism.

A journalist from FATA fell into the trap of confusing comment with question. “We are thankful to Pakistan for military operations, we are thankful to USA for drone attacks and we are thankful to the Taliban for destroying schools because you all taught us the importance of education,” he began. Personally, I didn’t like this attitude. 

But then the journalist redeemed himself with a strong question to Hamid Mir. Why, he asked, couldn’t he come to cover tribal issues? Hamid Mir explained that he is not allowed to enter tribal areas. He described how his DVR was snatched and smashed by Law Enforcement Agencies (LEA) while he was covering a drone attack.
At this, another journalist from Khyber PakhtunKhwa (KPK) pointed out that Hamid Mir had interviewed Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora, Afghanistan. Why, then, couldn’t he cover issues in tribal areas?
I liked the question but not the challenging tone. Later, the KPK journalist told me that he had been “infuriated” by the “disrespectful” way in which Hamid Mir had responded to his colleague from FATA. Emotion had spurred him to join the debate. See? Egos are driving our journalism.
An ICFJ Alumni, Gharieda Farooq is asking a question. Photo taken by Alumni Fellow

I thought seminars were for listening and analyzing. But this one turned into a television talk show. It seemed some people were desperate to pull others down, just so they could enhance their own reputations.

Another interesting observation: those who were keen to ask many questions were not equally keen to report the answers. Yes, they were free to ask but they didn’t feel the need to write. Surely then, they had lost sight of journalism’s aim: to pass on information to the people, through traditional and social media.
So what did I learn from this summit?
Most importantly, that journalists should be clear about what they want to ask, and should have the skill to design their questions coherently and simply. Our questions must be challenging, but we should ask them in a polite way that shows we’re interested in information – not defamation.

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