Journalistic Ethics and Media Doctors

The digital age is in full swing in Pakistan and the greatest testament to that is the militarisation of digital spaces. This is not alluding to any claims of censorship or surveillance, rather to how the employed spin doctors are operating as battlefield medics, rushing to the aid of damaged narratives and wounded sentiments, patching them up and reviving them amidst a hail of counter-narratives and leaks. But is this the hill that Pakistan’s journalists want to die on?

Being a spin doctor has always been a messy affair, where defending corrupt or autocratic regimes requires constant alertness, and the ability to bend principles and morals to your will. As the information era has progressed, this job has only gotten messier. The fast-paced 24-hour news cycle has now been successfully replaced by the more rapid, unforgiving news cycle, unmeasurable in time due to its fast-changing nature and flow of information – that is, social media. And this requires a constantly active media team, ready to pounce on the first signs of a growing unfavourable narrative. While this job title is not something new to the media landscape, its mushrooming within Pakistani media has reached a worrying extent.

Allegiance pledged to political parties is not inherently wrong; it is the right of citizens in a democracy to choose whoever best represents their political interests. However, in the emotionally charged landscape that is Pakistani politics, the lines between allegiance and unquestioning devotion have been blurred. News channels have been hijacked by the political elite, adjusting and maneuvering editorials to present flawed policies in the best possible light. Social media rumours fuel nightly news stories, and nightly news stories fuel social media rumours. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, where sources for news stories are nothing more than “he said, she said” gossip. The question arises, though: who is to blame?

With the advent of social media, journalism has been dying a slow death as the scheduled and curated format of broadcast and print journalism has not been able to keep up with the fast-flowing nature of information. The fight between news channels has always been over who gets to break a news story first. Floating watermarks over first-hand video clips, bright red tickers flashing as the miniscule bits of information are repeated over and over, creating a hyper-sensationalised atmosphere over even the most mundane of stories – all for the chance to attract higher viewers and better ratings. This phenomenon has seeped into editorial boards, who now scour social media for the next big story. Unsubstantiated rumours, stemming from one’s own political bias, make their way into national discussions and become “gotcha” moments for political rivals to fling at each other. This perception is not helped in any way when journalists act as partisan mouthpieces for political parties, basing their journalism in unabashed bias and adulation of the elite they find themselves politically aligning with.

Clearly, any biases present amongst presenters and anchors must be noticed by editorial boards, and thus, they can be assumed to endorse them too. Or do the financial benefits outweigh journalistic integrity? There is always the temptation of government ads, and running afoul of those in power can potentially jeopardise any chances of that. But does seeking financial stability for your organisation and its employees make you unethical? News channels and publications run on advertisements, government or corporate, and just one of those taps being turned off can send the organisation into a financial tailspin and make it insolvent. Is it worth risking the livelihood of dozens, if not hundreds of employees, for some editorial non-partisanship which will be lost to the annals of yesterday’s news cycle?

This is still not counting the allure of political progress for some – the idea that they, too, might one day serve a key position in the government of the day. Spokesperson, advisor, whatever is on offer – the idea of wielding power is one that most covet. Is it to be looked down upon, for someone to pursue the ambits of their career? But where must the moral boundary be drawn between chasing your ambitions and denouncing careening autocratic tendencies in feudals and dynasts? Those who reject are easily replaced by the scores of others willing to take their place, so is it worth it to give up one’s own ambitions for ethics and morals that others do not deem worthy?

This rabbit hole only goes deeper, the deeper we dive into the complexities of navigating the corridors of powers as an independent citizen, the more one would find themselves as a disposable cog in an unrelenting, ruthless state machinery. In a country where the class divide is only widening, and when your daily survival relies on your personal connection with the who’s who of the powers that be, it only makes sense to want to align yourself with the juggernaut and not the underdog. The recent inexplicable murder of a journalist in the most brazen of circumstances, on a different continent, no less, only goes on to highlight this point. Is it worth it to run afoul of those in power, when your struggle will quickly be trivialised and dissected as nothing more than political fodder for the powerful to sling back and forth? Does the risk seem worth it?

<strong>Journalistic Ethics and Media Doctors</strong>

About Hadeed Ashfaque 1 Article
The author is a graduate in Television Studies and a freelance videographer, with an interest in propaganda and censorship.

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