Every morning I wake up expecting Prime Minister Imran Khan gone. Because inevitably, the night before, some senior pundit(s) convinced me it was over for him, his ministers, his party. My day, thus, usually begins in disappointment – not because I want the prime minister gone but because the media got it wrong.
Or is my media choice the problem?
In my previous avatar as a journalism instructor, I spent a lot of time reflecting on how Pakistan’s media coverage was shaping political discourse, society and democracy, because as the fourth estate, the media has a vital role in informing citizens.
And of late, I’m concerned the media is more interested in outraging than it is in engaging its audiences. I suspect most folks keeping the outrage machinery going on TV, for example, know they’re not practicing journalism – yet it continues.
What do audiences expect of journalism; what do journalists.
While journalists’ expectations may not be realistic, they need more support from their institutions for those expectations to be realized.
Can journalists and media owners agree that the most pressing issues facing journalism today are economic uncertainty, the growing mistrust in the news media and how digital media has essentially unbundled journalism.
I recognize that in my role at Aaj Digital, I am manufacturing content that isn’t aiding in the public understanding of the issue or event. I think of ways to overcome this challenge every day. I admit it is a rocky road ahead for all of us navigating this space.
What is the intent of the journalist when they cover the stories the way they do?
Every editor faces this question when they plan what to highlight today. NYU professor Jay Rosen has written a lot about newsworthiness and how an editor can make a list of what makes something newsworthy but it’s just that, a list; there’s no overarching theory of why newsworthiness is newsworthy.
Here, TV channels give audiences blow by blow accounts and updates on scenarios but do they add to the public understanding of the issue? In the 24/7 coverage of Imran Khan on the container or, more recently, his perceived stand-off with the military, the focus was on the personalities involved and the strategies they were employing to win.
For a certain elite, it makes for fascinating viewing but for the general public, unaware of what’s really going on, they can’t follow the news; they don’t know how this will impact them. They also aren’t the media’s prime target audience.
This is discouraging for democracy. It’s this “insider coverage” that media critic Todd Gitlin wrote about in the early 1980s in his seminal “Inside Prime Time.” Gitlin, who passed away last week, wrote about how a small group of insiders and “social friends” went out of their way to prevent outsiders from getting a foot into their industry. For the news industry he said, “News coverage that treats politics as an insiders’ game invites the public to become cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement.”
When journalists work like political insiders, they veer off practices rooted in fairness, just or decent. Professor Rosen said it’s journalists preferring to be savvy over honest or factual.
“What’s so weird about savviness is that it tries to position [audiences] as insiders, invited to speculate along with journalists and other players on how the mass public will react to the latest maneuverings,” Rosen wrote in The Atlantic in 2011. “But the public is us. We are the public. But we are also the customers for the savviness product. Don’t you see how strange that is?”
This coverage about who will win X — election or a standoff with the opposition — takes the focus away from who should win and why. It is at best lazy, at worst disingenuous.
It continues because the insiders at the top use outdated metrics to say the audience wants this so we must continue what Rosen calls “horse race journalism.” He proposes a citizen’s agenda style wherein during an election, for example, the media focus is on “What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?”
I’m talking about elections because they are coming up — officially, next year, if not earlier as claimed by “savvy” insider journalists. We plan to cover that election from a citizen’s agenda, looking at issues that matter to people.
It will be a huge challenge because horse race journalism is easier and the savvy journalists don’t have to face consequences for getting it wrong. They still keep their followers because they will always have a strategy to sell, again and again. And until there is an audience lapping it up, numb to the idea that another reality is possible, I suspect I will keep waking up to Imran Khan in power.
The writer is head of digital properties at Aaj News.
This article was first published in Business Recorder on Feb. 24, 2022