Why the mainstream media is struggling to stay relevant in Pakistan
Something Jon Stewart said during an episode he did on the trouble with mainstream media in the US, last year, stuck with me: The narcissism of Donald Trump was matched by the narcissism of the media. The progressive and/or liberal media took his victory personally. They saw themselves — he had a wicked grin when he referenced The New York Times tagline “Democracy Dies in Darkness” — as the upholders and pillars of democracy. They saw themselves as the immune system that filters out toxins to get the audience the news.
“But they’re not,” said Stewart. “They’re adding to the noise.” He added that they’d created a model that almost cements divisions rather than views context.
Does the ego get in the way of the media going outside the status quo, instead of becoming part of it, he asked guest and media critic for the Washington Post Margaret Sullivan — whose book Newsroom Confidential I highly recommend to journalists and students interested in the news. Sullivan replied by defending journalists, saying she knows many got into the profession to do a good job, and inform, but then “you’re in the reality of it, and then you know there’s a demand for audiences…”
Trump understood audience demands and knew he was a “ratings machine”. And that’s kind of how it resulted in the incessant coverage of all things Trump, which is evident even today.
It’s not dissimilar to Imran Khan, who is an attention magnet, irrespective of the screen being TV or digital. He’s mastered the art of getting the eyeballs. Some outlets thrive on calling him out for his lies, while others thrive on amplifying his narrative.
What happens then to the stories/issues that are not Trump/Khan-centric? And even when the news is personality driven (for example focusing on corrupt leaders vs corrupt system), is the audience better informed with accurate information or have media outlets decided that narrative guised as news is the only way to survive?
What the audience wants
I’ve spent a good portion of last year consuming the news professionally — because I had to, as editor of a legacy media outlet’s online properties and then, as a self-proclaimed media critic, researcher and now as a co-producer and co-host of a podcast on the news landscape in Pakistan.
And I have been attempting to answer many, many questions, including one that Stewart asked: “Is the media the architect of its own demise?”
He knows the media would rather blame the audience for wanting the content they do because that’s what sells, but I’m more interested in learning how the metrics are being determined in Pakistan.
Stewart argues that the media doesn’t know what else sells because they haven’t tried anything else. And, is selling the only way to measure success — what about public interest?
It’s easy to want to dismiss the Pakistani news media for its partisanship or for amplifying specific personalities. While those things are true, I think the year 2022 saw journalists do some very good work on traditional and digital platforms.
Newspapers, known to be a dying breed, continue the hard work of reporting across the country, ensuring coverage of as many communities as possible. The work has become harder because companies’ “financial struggles” have resulted in staff layoffs or salary cuts as well as other budgetary constraints that prevent the audiences’ informational needs from getting served. For example, the coverage is often more urban-centric simply because media houses can’t afford stringers outside larger towns.
Perhaps the most stark example of this was the coverage of the floods, which received attention from the mainstream media, only when events turned catastrophic. And while many media outlets sent prime time anchors such as Asma Sherazi and Meher Bokhari out into the field to cover the floods, most of them moved on to other issues (primarily politics) within a fortnight. To his credit, Geo’s Hamid Mir stayed on the field longer than others and to their credit, the team at Zara Hat Kay featured many reporters from impacted areas on their show, long after flood images had left TV screens and others had moved on.
The trouble with much of the coverage across the mediums was the lack of contextualising, and this isn’t just about the floods. This is sort of what Jon Stewart was talking about in the aforementioned episode — why is the media not going outside the status quo and contextualising events for audiences to become better informed?
While the media reported on the floods, for example, the partisanship in their reporting was evident. Where one major channel came at its coverage in Sindh and Punjab with a ‘look how terrible it is for the people there due to a corrupt government’, it approached the situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa differently. The same is true for another media group, whose anti-PTI stance has become obvious by now to the average viewer.
Another major issue in newsrooms is the lack of trained resources, who have even studied the country’s map, let alone other issues faced by the country. During a training for journalists in Quetta in 2018, the participants complained that their colleagues would call them from head offices (often in Karachi) and ask them to cover an event that took place in Gwadar. One journalist told me that he told his colleague in Karachi that it would take them less time to get to Gwadar than it would take him from Quetta. This disconnect between desk and well … basic geography is depressing.
A lot of this ties into a lack of resources — many staff on the desk are simply not equipped to do the work required for proper contextualising. So you get sloppy writing from digital, in both English and Urdu.
As an aside, I used quotes earlier in this section around financial struggles because I’ve yet to authenticate this claim, which I’ve heard repeated over and over from people in the media industry who tell me how hard a time it is for the media, economically.
I want to believe it because I can see my friends aren’t being paid on time at some legacy outlets — sometimes they’re two months behind in pay. However, I also know that staff employed in the same media house’s sister property gets paid on the dot each month. I’m also researching into the equally oft repeated mantra of the media’s dependency on government ads for its revenue and how the slash in that has impacted the industry.
Journalists deserve accolades for working against the backdrop of financial insecurity. I’ve spoken with at least two dozen journalists in different newsrooms, who said they felt trapped because they were unable to find better paying jobs. I also spoke to six people in hiring positions who complained they could not fit suitable staff. I feel for the underpaid, but also for the under-qualified staff on the desks and have zero sympathy for the owners whose lives have not been impacted by the so-called financial hardship they’re claiming.
A polarised landscape
Okay, back to the highly polarised media landscape, wherein you can pick the narrative of your liking for your informational needs. (I’m not referring to social-media only accounts that create “cute” easy to share posts that suit one’s already cemented position and gain a lot of traction, especially on Whatsapp. This is not news, this is propaganda.)
Within the mainstream media, one could still find a semblance of reality in a handful of outlets, especially legacy newspapers whose digital properties amplified the stories. Of course, you think, I would say this given that I’m writing for one of them, but this isn’t my first [media outlet] rodeo. I’ve seen how theirs are the stories that often get traction on social media — their reports, their editorials and their features. And it makes sense because they have the funds to spend, even if they don’t have the money for salaries. They still practice some of the elements of journalism and remain fiercely pro-democracy. They are able to contextualise events for you. They’re not just shilling for someone. Naziha Syed Ali’s investigative reporting is one example from Dawn. Ansar Abbasi’s reporting in The News is arguably another.
But these are just small islands of excellence amid a vast sea of mediocrity. To understand just how hard it is to report in Pakistan without fear of censure or consequences, imagine this: Ahmad Noorani’s report about Gen (retd) Bajwa’s family’s wealth was a big story to come out of an independent digital outlet. However, it only really got picked up in the mainstream when finance minister Ishaq Dar said he wanted to know how the former COAS’ information was leaked. These are the conditions journalists work under.
Nevertheless, 2022 was a year of big events in Pakistan — reporting on the lead up to, and then after, the vote of no-confidence, the floods and the change of command in the military come immediately to mind.
On that front, legacy media outlets did well in their reporting, especially given the restraints on them, be it from Pemra or well … you know where — the dreaded sword that needs no legal cover to strike to take you off air or muzzle owners into silencing editors. Editors took bold stances in their editorials, reporters went the extra mile in verifying stories before printing, journalists asked tough questions from people in power. Journalists like Sadaf Naeem put their lives on the line to get the job done. At least 53 journalists have been murdered in the last decade. There is no accountability.
The manner in which Arshad Sharif’s murder was covered is another example of partisanship and outlets pushing particular narratives — either for someone else or for their own interests. Amid all this, Twitter often plays the role of ombudsman — calling out media outlets for errors, from typos to misidentified people, places etc.
It’s a reminder of the pressure in digital newsrooms competing against social media to get the story out and errors will happen.
Of course, there are innumerable faults in the way the news is pushed out, but my point here is to shine a light on the miserable working conditions for so many people on the desk and in the field trying to get information across to audiences. The pressure in digital media is especially daunting, given that one is competing with social media where there are no checks and balances.
The errors, typos and editorial judgments that prove foolish in hindsight have been, and are, de rigueur in the newsroom, but the role of the journalist has evolved over the years and needs an urgent revisit.
For that, newsroom leadership needs to do better. And for that, everyone involved in the making of the news needs to revisit the purpose of journalism itself.
“The purpose of journalism is not defined by technology, nor by journalists or the techniques they employ,” write Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism. “Rather, the principles and purpose of journalism are defined by something more basic: the function news plays in the lives of people.”
Are media owners hiring the right leaders to run newsrooms tasked with ensuring best practices in reporting, editing and disseminating information? Are newsroom leaders working towards ending income inequality at the workplace and creating an environment that makes staff’s lives better? What is the role of the HR department really, because right now, it is embarrassing; they enable abusers and serve to please masters. Moreover, job insecurity cuts across departments in news organisastions.
It is simply impossible to assess the highs and lows in media coverage without highlighting working conditions in newsrooms because that impacts how you receive the news. Those who make the news you want to hear during prime time receive the highest ratings on TV, thus the highest salary. Even though the demographics of who watches TV is on the decline.
Most media owners’ understanding of the digital landscape — for example, who consumes what and where, and how that impacts advertisers — is flawed because they are reliant on newsroom leaders to give them that information, but those men (almost always men) are holding onto power and some distorted reality of audience needs.
I’m struck by what Professor Victor Pickard of the University of Pennsylvania wrote in Nieman Lab, where he said people point fingers in several directions when trying to understand the “wild fluctuations of the news industry” but don’t discuss the main culprit: capitalism.
“It is capitalism that incentivises the degradation of our news media — disinvesting in local journalism, weaponising social media to capture our attention and data, and devaluing media workers’ labour conditions. All the while, commercial media outlets treat news as a commodity, not a public service, and audiences as consumers, not engaged citizens,” he writes.
Since Gen Musharraf liberalised the media, more and more businessmen have entered the industry with a singular goal of maximising their profits. They are not concerned with the press’ role in ensuring a functioning democracy.
The billionaires buying up the media to turn into, as Professor Pickard writes, “their personal plaything” has dangerous consequences — as we can see all over the world (looking at you Elon Musk). Even in Pakistan, a small number of people control a few media outlets, allowing them to shape public opinion to tailor their business needs if they wanted to.
It’s overwhelming to imagine a media system not dependent on the market, but perhaps there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. I know at least one editor who is venturing out on his own to create a 360 website — text, video, audio — focused solely on investigative journalism.
Perhaps a non-profit model is in the works in Pakistan somewhere? Perhaps systems will be in place in the near future to allow audiences to make micropayments for incisive fair reporting on important issues that don’t make it to mainstream media. Perhaps we can hope for activism in press unions that address the systemic inequalities in salaries and working conditions among journalists.
In April last year, I wrote about the need for public media and how it can help “fill the gap and provide fair news and diverse programming which reflects Pakistan’s plural society.” I know it cannot happen overnight, not even the next few years, but imagining a “post commercial system that privileges democracy over profit” as Professor Pickard writes, is worth fighting for.
New Rules Limit Media’s Ability to Cover Ukraine War
Regulations from Ukraine covering media access to the front lines of the war have drawn criticism from reporters and media advocates who say the rules are not proportionate with the dangers for war correspondents.
Two of Ukraine’s operational commands, in the country’s east and south, released new rules in March governing how media can operate in areas under their control.
The rules bar journalists from working in “red zones” deemed the most dangerous and require a military press officer’s escort to work in less dangerous “yellow zones.”
Journalists can work freely in “green zones.” And commanders will have discretion to allow reporters access to red zones in certain circumstances, according to local media.
But media watchdogs have said that the new regulations mean journalists are now denied access to over 50 municipalities in Ukraine.
“It’s worrying that such a decision can be made to restrict the access of journalists,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the Eastern Europe expert for media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, or RSF. “It’s in [Ukraine’s] interest” to facilitate reporting on the war.
At least one command later removed the order from its website, Cavelier told VOA.
Officials are advising journalists to connect with press officers directly when planning an assignment “to know in which color it is, if they’re allowed [access] or not,” said Cavelier.
The order is part of amendments to regulations under martial law governing how journalists can work.
All military commanders are now required to classify the territories under their control into separate zones.
Ukraine’s Washington embassy did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.
VOA emailed the Ukraine Ministry of Defense on Friday to ask whether the rules are now being enforced, and for its response to media concerns. At publishing time for this article, VOA had not received a response.
A Ministry of Defense statement provided to the advocacy group the Committee to Protect Journalists said, however, that the rules are meant “to improve interaction with representatives of the mass media while working in combat areas.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made the country one of the deadliest for journalists. More than a dozen local and foreign correspondents have been killed there in the past year while on assignment.
The war also attracted large numbers of freelance journalists, many of whom were unfamiliar with working in conflict zones.
“The thing about war is the situation can change day to day and even hour to hour,” said Clothilde Redfern, director of the Rory Peck Trust, an organization that supports freelance journalists.
“The situation in Ukraine is changing all the time, and up-to-date, accurate in-country information is crucial for journalists’ safety,” she said.
Other media experts told VOA they thought the restrictions were excessive and not commensurate with the risks for journalists.
Sergiy Tomilenko, president of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine, told VOA that “the new rules of military accreditation should not completely stop coverage of this war.” He added that areas should be considered red zones only if reporting is impossible there because of the conflict.
Skepticism on safety
Oksana Romaniuk, the head of the Institute of Mass Information, a local press freedom group, said the restrictions appeared to be about safety, but she said she thought they were more about control.
“We do not think that it is connected with the desire to make the work of journalists safer. It is, rather, connected with the desire to make everything work like the army,” she told VOA from Kyiv.
Romaniuk said she thought Ukraine’s north and west operational commands had developed similar rules but had not yet published them because of the criticism of the other commands’ policies.
“They’re too rigid,” Karol Luczka said of the rules. Luczka, who focuses on Ukraine for the International Press Institute, a media rights organization, said, “There shouldn’t be a pre-established list of places which are excluded to journalists.”
“Access should really only be based on the situation on the ground,” on an ad hoc basis, Luczka said.
Cavelier, of RSF, said it’s important that the Ukrainian government balance journalist safety with the freedom to report. “We understand that some parts of the front line — very hot areas — are forbidden for journalists,” she said, but that doesn’t mean journalists should be barred entirely.
Details on the new regulations have also been unclear, analysts said, with zone lists on some fronts incomplete. This has added to the confusion and frustration, Cavelier said.
Military escorts — which Ukraine’s Institute of Mass Information said are in short supply — are also supposed to escort reporters in yellow zones, but some journalists already live and work in yellow zones full time. That has led to questions about how a journalist based in one of those areas is supposed to operate.
Alongside the war on the ground in Ukraine is a battleground on the internet, with disinformation pushed out in an effort to influence opinion.
“Journalists in Ukraine are crucial to countering Russian disinformation,” said IPI’s Luczka. “In order to ensure that the world continues to trust Ukraine in terms of what is going on on the front lines, journalists need to be present.”
The ultimate consequence, said Romaniuk, is that some stories may never be told.
Reporting that, for the past year, has documented crimes and informed people about the plight of Ukraine’s people will now be harder to achieve.
“For us, it is extremely important to tell the world, because people are dying every day,” Romaniuk said. “It is the only thing that gives us hope and gives us strength and resilience.”
Facebook users consume more fake news than users of Twitter, other social media sites: Study
When it comes to election misinformation on social media, Facebook takes the cake, according to a new study which found heavy Facebook users were far more likely to consume fake news than Twitter or other social media sites.
The study, published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed journal Government Information Quarterly, found Facebook users read the most fake news about the 2020 U.S. presidential election and reported the most concern about votes not being counted properly.
They also found the biggest factor in whether a person reported being suspicious about the election results was their level of fake news consumption, not their method of casting their vote.
According to the study, a big part of the problem with relying on social media for news is that these sites have algorithms designed to keep you scrolling and engaged, meaning that they’re likely to keep serving you the same content you’re engaging with and make it harder to climb out of a disinformation hole once you are in it.
“What we saw in this study is that if you aren’t careful, the bias that you bring into your news consumption can be absolutely confirmed and supported if you are in a place like Facebook where the algorithms feed into that,” Robert Crossler, study co-author and an associate professor in the WSU Carson College of Business, said in a press release.
Those who got their news about the 2020 election primarily by navigating directly on a news website were less likely to consume fake news, the study found, and were more likely to believe that the election had unfolded the way it did.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s win in 2020 was accompanied with unproven allegations pushed by former U.S. President Donald Trump that the election had been stolen from him and that many votes for him had gone uncounted. Allegations of voter fraud with mail-in ballots and with Dominion voting machines were spread after the election, but none of these claims stood up in court, and few legal experts supported this position.
However, the lack of factual support didn’t stop the story from spreading widely on social media.
It’s not new that Facebook and other social media sites can be drivers of disinformation and fake news, but it’s trickier to measure how consuming fake news affects a person’s perception of reality.
In order to get a better understanding of this, the Washington State University-led study designed three surveys relating to how political alignment, fake news consumption and voting method each individually impacted a person’s perception of the election.
In the study, “fake news” was defined as articles and sites spreading disinformation that was provably incorrect, not articles or sites with information perceived to be false from a partisan standpoint.
The first two surveys were given to different groups of voters prior to the election, both containing hypothetical scenarios for participants to react to.
The first posited a scenario where the participant would either be voting in-person, through the mail or online. Once the participant had read the scenario of their voting method, they were asked questions about how concerned they were about votes being counted properly, and how much news they got from various news organizations.
The second survey gave the scenario of all voters needing to use mail-in ballots that would be counted either by a government official, a neutral party or by a voting machine. They were then asked again about their concerns regarding votes being counted and their news sources.
The third survey was presented to a group of actual voters after the election. Participants filled out what their voting method had been, and then answered the same questions presented in the previous two surveys. They then reported what percentage of their news they got from direct navigation, Twitter, Facebook, or other social media sites.
Researchers were surprised to find the voting method — whether people voted by mail or in-person — had no measurable impact on how likely participants were to be worried about votes not being counted properly.
Instead, the more a person reported receiving their news from social media, particularly Facebook, the more likely they were to be heavily concerned about votes not being counted.
This suggested to researchers that Facebook, more so than other social media sites, was elevating sources spreading these fears.
“I don’t think that Facebook is deliberately directing people towards fake news but something about how their algorithm is designed compared to other algorithms is actually moving people towards that type of content,” Stachofsky said. “It was surprising how hard it was to find the websites Facebook was directing people to when we looked for them in a web browser. The research shows that not all social media platforms are created equal when it comes to propagating intentionally misleading information.”
The study also found there was no age group more likely to read fake news, which is different from other studies, suggesting that there could be a higher proportion of younger adults consuming fake news than had been previously thought.
Authors noted that more research needs to be done to understand how disinformation spreads and how it can be combatted, particularly in a political climate where the partisan divide in the U.S. is increasing the distrust in mainstream media. They’re hoping that this study could spur social media sites to think more about how their algorithms impact their users.
“This supports the argument that people need to be encouraged to be information or news literate,” Crossler said. “Right now, we are talking about the elections, but there are a lot of other issues, such as the war in Ukraine, that directing people to misinformation is not only misleading but also potentially dangerous.”
2023 Media Layoff Tracker: Rough Year For Journalism Marked By Increasing Layoffs
Board members of the Texas Democracy Foundation reportedly voted to put the progressive Texas Observer on hiatus and lay off its 17-person staff following prolonged economic woes and shrinking readership, marking the latest in a brutal series of closures and layoffs rocking the media industry in 2023.
reportedly heard about the impending layoffs from a Texas Tribune article, writes a letter to the Foundation’s board asking them to reconsider the decision to close the paper and sets up an emergency GoFundMe page in a last ditch effort to find funding.The Texas Observer’s staff, who
cancels four podcasts—Invisibilia, Louder Than a Riot, Rough Translation and Everyone and Their Mom—and begins laying off 100 employees as part of a push to reduce a reported budget deficit of $30 million.NPR
tells Boston public radio.NPR affiliate New England Public Media announces it will lay off 17 employees—20% of its staff—by March 31 after facing “serious financial headwinds during the last three years,” New England Public Media management
lay off 34 people and close a printing press in Portsmouth, New Hampshire as part of Gannet’s efforts to reduce the number of operating presses and prioritize digital platforms.Sea Coast Media and Gannett, a media conglomerate with hundreds of papers and Sea Coast Media’s parent company,
told NPR.Three Alabama newspapers—The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times and the Press-Register—become fully digital publications and reportedly lay off 100 people following a prolonged decrease in print paper circulation, Alabama Media Group President Tom Bates
reportedly became too expensive to produce amid a declining audience—an unspecified number of people are laid off.New York public radio station WNYC cancels radio show The Takeaway after 15 years on air after the show
reportedly told investors following compounding declines in profit.News Corp, which owns the Wall Street Journal and HarperCollins publishers, among others, expects to lay off 1,250 people across all businesses by the end of 2023, Chief Executive Robert Thomson
stops publishing its video game and kids sections, leaving 20 people unemployed a little over a month after publisher Fred Ryan foreshadowed layoffs in 2023—executive editor Sally Buzbee reportedly tells employees the layoffs were geared toward staying competitive and no more are scheduled.The Washington Post
reportedly tells staff.Vox Media, which owns The Verge, SB Nation and New York Magazine, lays off 133 people—7% of the media conglomerate’s staff— in anticipation of a declining economy, chief executive Jim Bankoff
reports, mere months after Fandom acquired the four outlets, among others, for $55 million.Entertainment company and fan platform Fandom lays off less than 50 people at affiliated GameSpot, Giant Bomb, Metacritic and TV Guide, Variety
according to publisher and chief executive Steven Saslow—an undisclosed number of people are laid off and severance packages depend on signing a non-disclosure agreement, the Oregonian reports.The Medford, Oregon-based Mail Tribune shuts down their digital publication after hiring difficulties and declining advertising sales,
lay off 75 employees as part of a broader corporate reorganization.NBC News and MSNBC
closes a printing press in Greece, New York, as part of an increased focus on online journalism, resulting in the layoffs of 108 people.Gannett
lays off 50 employees at an Indiana printing press to “adapt to industry conditions,” a spokesperson told the Indiana Star—the press remains open and the layoffs aren’t expected to affect newspaper employees.Gannett
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