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Bad news = good ratings — The Pakistani media's formulaic demise

Updated May 25, 2016

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Why confirm a story when you can just run it as having come from ‘zarai’? —Illustration by Khuda Bux Abro
Why confirm a story when you can just run it as having come from ‘zarai’? —Illustration by Khuda Bux Abro

A wise old journalist once said: bad news will find you, but you have to find good news.

When it comes to TV media in Pakistan, this couldn’t be truer. After all, when a bomb explodes, it explodes on every channel, the coverage of which is always the same on each.

The race begins: you start with a bright BREAKING NEWS, from which you move onto first visuals (with a giant EXCLUSIVE scrolling across the screen, of course).

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

But while you’re waiting for the reporter and satellite van to get to the site of the attack for the initial visuals, you have to naturally take beepers from analysts to discuss what is always discussed:

Who is responsible?
Is this a security failure?
Has NAP failed?
Has Zarb-i-Azb been pointless?
Who should resign?

Depending on how long it takes the reporter to reach the site, you can always repeat this process with any analyst and politician who answers the phone.

In the meantime, you have some very difficult editorial decisions to make, for instance, which scenes of sorrow you want to include in the inevitable montage, and more importantly, what sad music to play over this montage.

Once the reporter arrives at the scene and asks survivors the all-important question: ‘Aap ko kaisa mehsoos ho raha hai’, you’ve got your sound byte. Ready to use again and again ... and again.

There isn't a single TV channel in the country that doesn't follow the above formula.

Beyond the BREAKING NEWS

What we rarely see, however, is the humanity among the horror:

The rickshaw driver who rushed to the scene of the blast to save the wounded; the doctor who operated for hours on end with insufficient supplies to save lives and mend broken bodies; the policeman who gave his life so others may live.

But you will never hear of these stories.

And, that’s because they have to be found, they have to be sought out. All of which takes work, hard work.

Also read: 4 stories that shed light on Pakistani media's failings in 2015

Why would you want to make an effort when you can apply the simple formula of doing what everyone else is doing?

Why bother to verify facts when you can just copy another channels’ ticker? Why confirm a story when you can just run it as having come from ‘zarai’?

The same formula largely applies to talk shows as well.

A blind following

Let’s say there is a political crisis, as there is every other week in Pakistan.

Now, you could try and understand its roots, its causes and its effects and try to analyse the crisis without making it sound like the Day of Judgement is at hand, while also not boring your audience to death.

You could do that, but this also requires work.

Instead, why not apply the formula of choice: simply call in representatives from opposing political parties, give an intro and then have them fight with each other on air (they are usually quite polite once the cameras are not recording) and finally, wrap up with a:

Agar humaray leaders aisay hi hain to is mulk ka kya ho ga? Yeh to aanay waala kal hi batayay ga”.

If there is no political crisis at hand, then you can always go with evergreen topics like: ‘Kya honay waala hai?’, ‘Civil-military relations kahan jaa rahay hain?’, etc.

And if all else fails, you can always invite Sheikh Rasheed.

Also read: Sometimes, news is just what the media creates

If you do this often enough, it becomes the norm. It becomes the expected standard and any deviation from that is found to be shocking.

Add to this the ‘bher chaal’ of the Pakistani media and you’ll understand why this successful format is copy-pasted on every channel.

But, what if you were to try something new?

Something different?

Something that doesn’t rely on shouting matches or sensationalism to get the point across? Can you do that and still not be boring in this industry?

As a talk show host myself, I definitely think it is possible, ‘Lekin yeh to aanay waalay kal ki ratings hi batayain gi’.


Read the Urdu version of this blog here.