When will our news channels learn to cover tragedy?

Published December 25, 2014
On Dec 16, tragic news was again packaged into insensitive, emotionally manipulative videos and aired as a spectacle.—Photo by Tariq Mehmood
On Dec 16, tragic news was again packaged into insensitive, emotionally manipulative videos and aired as a spectacle.—Photo by Tariq Mehmood

It has been nine days since the horror unfolded in Peshawar. We are still subject to wave after wave of equal parts fury and fear that takes over us when news on TV is on. It is time to talk about the pathetic way in which national tragedies are turned into masquerades by our electronic media.

When one tunes in for updates on unfortunate news like this, naturally, there are some things one is prepared for; the bloody floors, the bullet-riddled walls; footage of such an atrocity is bound to carry strong images.

But that in no way licenses that disgusting dramatisation which has become the hallmark of our news channels.

Yet, we keep seeing it on our TV sets; unnecessarily dramatic camera angles, supplemented with an unaffected telling of each gruesome death in gory detail with desolate music, inappropriate poetry and sonorous voice-overs; making viewers cringe at every horrendous moment, over and over again.

Often, right in the middle of a very strong image, a pop-up ad of the latest cell phone, beverage or an areca nut product, will be shoved in our face to be swallowed.

The message was: “Here is a tragedy, now get over it and buy our stuff”.

Companies vying for the maximum eyes on their products do it through essentially achieved it their gains through the horror-value of the worst day in the country's recent history.

Also read: ‘We reported it blowing up first!’

One has to wonder, what kind of people run these TV businesses? As the nation descended into chaotic rage, these guys couldn't let go of their profit-maximising plans. As much as businesses like to think of themselves as machines, they are still run by humans. It makes you think, someone made the conscious choice to prioritise money over empathy at a time like this.

A journalist’s job is to bring news of a tragedy to the public. They are supposed to present this news as objectively as possible, leaving the subsequent outrage/apathy up to the viewer. But since the advent of privatisation of news, they have been dictating the audience’s emotions, and sacrificing objectivity at the altar of cash, slowly dissolving the line between journalism and sensationalism.

This brings us to the transmissions that followed December 16 2014. People wanted to know more about what happened, but the typical presentation style plummeted to new depths. Starting off in poor taste, it subsequently went from sad to sadistic.

How heart-wrenching this must have been for the victims’ families; to see their personal hell being put on loop for the whole world to see on TV. Repeatedly. Not content with one approach, they went beyond the call of duty to change music and voice-over every few hours to maintain shock value.

Read through: Of wet shalwars and televised 'revolutions'

There were people complaining about how anchors were playing up the tragedy without a modicum of respect or emotion. The thing is, these anchors are either reading copy off a teleprompter, or following their producer through their earpieces. These producers are the ones who come up with bright ideas like speculating overly gruesome takes on the events of December 16.

That's not to say the news anchors are completely absolved of guilt either — at moments when their tone should be sombre, it's shockingly indifferent. “Jee haan, yeh afsos naak waaqeya paish aaya...” — one doesn't shout out 'afsos' like that.

Additionally, while airing footage after the heinous attack, the news slapped on a PG-18 logo on the corner and took viewers through an unfiltered look at the aftermath of the tragedy.

PG-18 implies that people under 18 should seek parental approval before watching. There has never been a campaign explaining these guidelines to the public. How much good can they achieve?

Explore: Anti-PTI ads – illegal, unethical, and on-air?

The entire world came together to grieve over December 16. Turkey declared it a day of mourning, India held a minute’s silence and our own politicians put their differences aside. Indeed, many had given up point-scoring in the face of the catastrophe. But as soon as the Christian community of Pakistan cancelled Christmas to show their solidarity, our newsmen pounced at the opportunity to point out that Christians, as a minority, are not offered that luxury when one of them is attacked.

Perhaps, in their minds, they were doing the minorities a great favour. But perhaps they need to prioritise their agendas right?

These might be trivial complaints to some, but it adds up to a presentation that seems to be raising a despondent viewership. News and dread have now become synonymous. One can’t just look away and pretend everything is all right, but there has to be a middle ground between that and PTSD-inducing imagery.

Journalism is all about balancing needs, understanding the significance and sensitivity of events and their timing. Where is that balance?

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