In summer 2018, I was part of an initiative called “Future News Worldwide” by the British Council Scotland. The program brings about 100 young journalists together from around the world for a three-day extensive training and dialogue I remember this one particular training on ‘ethics of journalism’. A picture of some minors with blur faces was shown to us by our trainer, it was taken after a bus accident they were involved in. “Should you as a journalist publish this picture in news or broadcast it in the bulletin?” he asked us. Their faces were a blur, what harm could possibly come out of publishing this story? I naturally thought and responded with a confident yes. The answer was no. Why exactly should we not publish this picture even though the identities of minors were hidden? “Because of ethics of it,” he responded, “even though their faces are hidden, their school uniforms are visible, you can read the name of institute embroidered on their shirts and you can publish pictures of minors, blur or not, without the consent of their parents. In the aftermath of a tragedy or an incident, victims shouldn’t serve as fodder for your consumers. You’re telling their story, don’t make them the story.”
Despite this valuable lesson that I learnt, unfortunately, I’m part of the system that’s least bothered by the empathetic coverage of a disaster or a national tragedy. My first instinct, just like my colleagues, upon hearing the news of Pakistan International Airline’s plane crash on Friday was to find angles to the story instead of being patient and empathetic with the story. I did take a moment to say prayers for departed souls and those who survived but the next moment it was all business. We need to publish this story first, we need to air this breaking first, find an exclusive, who was on that plane? Who survived? Who didn’t?
To sustain the wretched business model that thrives on Television Rating Points (TRPs) and the number of clicks, we actively and knowingly took the decision to throw ethics, empathy, and kindness out of the window and let apathy drive us through the horrifying incident.
Right after my colleagues did the absolutely disgusting job of breaching the privacy of victims and started sharing a list of passengers with EXCLUSIVE written all over it, we went on autopilot. From that moment on it was all about sharing gory pictures, terrifying unedited videos of the incidence and onlooker, reporters rushing to the scene, the instant search for the reason, and the repetition of whatever little information we could obtain rumors and murmurs.
At least 92 people have died so far and there wasn’t a moment of silence for departed souls and no one said prayers or comforting words to the families of flyers. I could almost imagine news directors in newsrooms and producers in Production Control Room (PCR) shouting at technicians to use the loudest chyron, saddest music, black and white images to maximize the impact or use the picture of that little kid being carried out by an army official. And I was baffled to notice that some of my colleagues had already tried to contact grieving families of victims to obtain a statement – three hours into the tragedy.
From trying to conclude the reasons of the crash after one hour of the incidence - adding to the plight of families of departed - by taking on-call aviation semi-experts to share semi-correct views to sharing the names of passengers with their CNIC number visible, to airing unauthorized pictures and videos, to putting up headlines like if a certain individual “has survived or not,” to well-versed thank-yous by anchors to those corralled to grieve or assist, to immediately looking to blame someone, there isn’t a single ‘Don’t do’ box that we didn’t check in the aftermath of this calamity.
And our collective insouciance behavior towards this tragedy forced a grieving father, who had just lowered his son into the grave, to do a press conference and refute claims that the incidence was the result of his son's negligence. How low we can sink?
“If you can make people cry by your reporting after a tragic incidence, you’ve won,” God knows how many times I had to listen to this one sentence during my very short-lived career in the broadcast industry three years ago. Tragic to see that not much has changed.
I hope that our practices change in the near future. I hope we realize these ‘victims’ have families and loved ones and we can add to their traumas by our reckless and views oriented coverage. I hope the apathy with which we cover an incident, changes into empathy and I hope we let ethics back in the driving seat.
Thoughts and prayers for those departed, for those survived and the grieving families.