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Terminology in journalism

Updated May 11, 2017


AN item in the press appearing some days ago under the headline ‘Ahmadi professor found murdered’, drew attention to the challenges of news coverage, especially news related to crime.

Such a report could have been given quite a few other headings. For instance, the heading could have been ‘A woman found murdered’. The common reaction in our male-dominated society might have been ‘poor thing’. But it would not be comparable to the shock if the victim had been a man.

The heading could also be, ‘A professor found murdered’. In this case, the response might have included a tinge of regret over the loss to students and the problem caused to the teaching institution.

The media must avoid labelling individuals as terrorists or traitors before they are found guilty by a court.

A shrug of the shoulders would perhaps have been the response to the news of an Ahmadi professor being murdered, because the death of an Ahmadi might be perceived as no loss. One might have even blamed the Ahmadis for disturbing a peaceful order by being targeted every now and then.

These responses may appear exaggerated to some but the fact is that the report of an Ahmadi’s murder generally does not generate the kind of sympathy for the victim that is expressed at the murder of a Muslim citizen. Obviously, headlines play a part in determining the readers’ first reaction to a news item, especially if the victim or perpetrator is barely tolerated or has been given the label of an undesirable creature.

The identification of the victim as an Ahmadi in this case can be defended because she belonged to a marginalised community. But imagine readers’/viewers’ response to an item captioned ‘An Ahmadi (or Hindu) kills a Muslim’.

Any person who is described by the media as a blasphemer will receive no sympathy from the readers or state functionaries who may deal with him — that is, if he has not already been lynched or otherwise disposed of before the case is taken up by the media. Apart from the fact that a ‘blasphemer’ cannot expect anything other than hostility from the investigating and prosecuting agencies, and perhaps from the trial court too, he is a branded man from the time the media identifies him as a blasphemer.

Likewise, anyone described as a terrorist loses not only his right to a fair trial, he is not even considered eligible to enjoy his basic right to be treated as a human being (to say nothing of his right to dignity of person) until the time he is found guilty.

Many years ago, the media realised the harm it could do to women victims of rape by publishing their photographs or even their names. It was decided that the names of these unfortunate women should not be disclosed. The electronic media also started blurring the faces of such victims although it could not resist the urge to take the camera into the home of the rape victim.

Another conclusion was that it was not only improper but also legally wrong to publish the name of a person mentioned as an accused in an FIR. Thus journalists learnt to use the word ‘alleged’ in crime stories and saying that so and so had allegedly committed this offence. Those arrested on the charge of having committed a crime were referred to as suspects and not as criminals. This was meant to maintain a distinction between an accused and a person whose guilt had been established, and thus pay due respect to the principle that a person must be treated as innocent until proved guilty.

These precautions or requirements of responsible reporting seem to have been given short shrift because of the heightened concern for national security on the one hand and the rise of religious extremists on the other. In the campaign against terrorism, those who are killed or arrested are described as terrorists and not as persons suspected of involvement in terrorism.

Similarly a person arrested for blasphemy is described as a person guilty of having committed blasphemy and not as one who is suspected of committing this grave offence.

The matter is related to the theory of influencing public opinion by the use of carefully chosen terminology. As a head of the BBC once told his staff, half the desired effect of propaganda was achieved by the use of appropriate nomenclature. Demonisation of the enemy was the standard practice during the Second World War and it continued in reports of movements for liberation from the colonial yoke and in the coverage of internal conflicts too.

A classic example was the Western news agencies’ coverage of the Algerian war of liberation. They usually described the Algerian freedom fighters as ‘Moslem terrorists’, and the minds of large populations were filled with hatred for ordinary Muslims and Algerians who were only fighting for their right to be free. The environment was poisoned to the extent that the world was not outraged when Algerian leaders, Ben Bella and his associates, were arrested after the hijacking of their plane.

In Pakistan, unfortunately, the practice of branding citizens marked for liquidation is becoming more and more common. Ordinary people are killed for bearing Shia-sounding names, Hazaras are targeted for what they look like and Ahmadis for their belief, and the militants justify massacres of people whom they brand as renegades to the sacred faith.

In this situation, the duty of reporters to avoid identifying people by their creed or labelling them as terrorists, traitors or blasphemers before they are found guilty by a court, after a fair trial, becomes doubly important.

The use of photographs, especially on the TV, of people who are accused of links to terrorists or of having annoyed the orthodoxy or the security services, like Tariq Fatemi and Rao Tehseen or others, could amount to leaving them at the tender mercy of vigilantes, who seem to have been made the most privileged operators in Pakistan by the grant of a licence to kill.

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2017