Why the mainstream media is struggling to stay relevant in Pakistan

The year 2022 saw some major events in Pakistan. Did the media fulfill its responsibility or fall short of its obligations?
Published February 6, 2023

Something Jon Stewart said during an episode he did on the trouble with mainstream media in the US, last year, stuck with me: The narcissism of Donald Trump was matched by the narcissism of the media. The progressive and/or liberal media took his victory personally. They saw themselves — he had a wicked grin when he referenced The New York Times tagline “Democracy Dies in Darkness” — as the upholders and pillars of democracy. They saw themselves as the immune system that filters out toxins to get the audience the news.

“But they’re not,” said Stewart. “They’re adding to the noise.” He added that they’d created a model that almost cements divisions rather than views context.

Does the ego get in the way of the media going outside the status quo, instead of becoming part of it, he asked guest and media critic for the Washington Post Margaret Sullivan — whose book Newsroom Confidential I highly recommend to journalists and students interested in the news. Sullivan replied by defending journalists, saying she knows many got into the profession to do a good job, and inform, but then “you’re in the reality of it, and then you know there’s a demand for audiences…”

Trump understood audience demands and knew he was a “ratings machine”. And that’s kind of how it resulted in the incessant coverage of all things Trump, which is evident even today.

It’s not dissimilar to Imran Khan, who is an attention magnet, irrespective of the screen being TV or digital. He’s mastered the art of getting the eyeballs. Some outlets thrive on calling him out for his lies, while others thrive on amplifying his narrative.

What happens then to the stories/issues that are not Trump/Khan-centric? And even when the news is personality driven (for example focusing on corrupt leaders vs corrupt system), is the audience better informed with accurate information or have media outlets decided that narrative guised as news is the only way to survive?

What the audience wants

I’ve spent a good portion of last year consuming the news professionally — because I had to, as editor of a legacy media outlet’s online properties and then, as a self-proclaimed media critic, researcher and now as a co-producer and co-host of a podcast on the news landscape in Pakistan.

And I have been attempting to answer many, many questions, including one that Stewart asked: “Is the media the architect of its own demise?”

He knows the media would rather blame the audience for wanting the content they do because that’s what sells, but I’m more interested in learning how the metrics are being determined in Pakistan.

Stewart argues that the media doesn’t know what else sells because they haven’t tried anything else. And, is selling the only way to measure success — what about public interest?

Context matters

It’s easy to want to dismiss the Pakistani news media for its partisanship or for amplifying specific personalities. While those things are true, I think the year 2022 saw journalists do some very good work on traditional and digital platforms.

Newspapers, known to be a dying breed, continue the hard work of reporting across the country, ensuring coverage of as many communities as possible. The work has become harder because companies’ “financial struggles” have resulted in staff layoffs or salary cuts as well as other budgetary constraints that prevent the audiences’ informational needs from getting served. For example, the coverage is often more urban-centric simply because media houses can’t afford stringers outside larger towns.

Perhaps the most stark example of this was the coverage of the floods, which received attention from the mainstream media, only when events turned catastrophic. And while many media outlets sent prime time anchors such as Asma Sherazi and Meher Bokhari out into the field to cover the floods, most of them moved on to other issues (primarily politics) within a fortnight. To his credit, Geo’s Hamid Mir stayed on the field longer than others and to their credit, the team at Zara Hat Kay featured many reporters from impacted areas on their show, long after flood images had left TV screens and others had moved on.

The trouble with much of the coverage across the mediums was the lack of contextualising, and this isn’t just about the floods. This is sort of what Jon Stewart was talking about in the aforementioned episode — why is the media not going outside the status quo and contextualising events for audiences to become better informed?

While the media reported on the floods, for example, the partisanship in their reporting was evident. Where one major channel came at its coverage in Sindh and Punjab with a ‘look how terrible it is for the people there due to a corrupt government’, it approached the situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa differently. The same is true for another media group, whose anti-PTI stance has become obvious by now to the average viewer.

Another major issue in newsrooms is the lack of trained resources, who have even studied the country’s map, let alone other issues faced by the country. During a training for journalists in Quetta in 2018, the participants complained that their colleagues would call them from head offices (often in Karachi) and ask them to cover an event that took place in Gwadar. One journalist told me that he told his colleague in Karachi that it would take them less time to get to Gwadar than it would take him from Quetta. This disconnect between desk and well … basic geography is depressing.

A lot of this ties into a lack of resources — many staff on the desk are simply not equipped to do the work required for proper contextualising. So you get sloppy writing from digital, in both English and Urdu.

Financial woes

As an aside, I used quotes earlier in this section around financial struggles because I’ve yet to authenticate this claim, which I’ve heard repeated over and over from people in the media industry who tell me how hard a time it is for the media, economically.

I want to believe it because I can see my friends aren’t being paid on time at some legacy outlets — sometimes they’re two months behind in pay. However, I also know that staff employed in the same media house’s sister property gets paid on the dot each month. I’m also researching into the equally oft repeated mantra of the media’s dependency on government ads for its revenue and how the slash in that has impacted the industry.

Journalists deserve accolades for working against the backdrop of financial insecurity. I’ve spoken with at least two dozen journalists in different newsrooms, who said they felt trapped because they were unable to find better paying jobs. I also spoke to six people in hiring positions who complained they could not fit suitable staff. I feel for the underpaid, but also for the under-qualified staff on the desks and have zero sympathy for the owners whose lives have not been impacted by the so-called financial hardship they’re claiming.

A polarised landscape

Okay, back to the highly polarised media landscape, wherein you can pick the narrative of your liking for your informational needs. (I’m not referring to social-media only accounts that create “cute” easy to share posts that suit one’s already cemented position and gain a lot of traction, especially on Whatsapp. This is not news, this is propaganda.)

Within the mainstream media, one could still find a semblance of reality in a handful of outlets, especially legacy newspapers whose digital properties amplified the stories. Of course, you think, I would say this given that I’m writing for one of them, but this isn’t my first [media outlet] rodeo. I’ve seen how theirs are the stories that often get traction on social media — their reports, their editorials and their features. And it makes sense because they have the funds to spend, even if they don’t have the money for salaries. They still practice some of the elements of journalism and remain fiercely pro-democracy. They are able to contextualise events for you. They’re not just shilling for someone. Naziha Syed Ali’s investigative reporting is one example from Dawn. Ansar Abbasi’s reporting in The News is arguably another.

But these are just small islands of excellence amid a vast sea of mediocrity. To understand just how hard it is to report in Pakistan without fear of censure or consequences, imagine this: Ahmad Noorani’s report about Gen (retd) Bajwa’s family’s wealth was a big story to come out of an independent digital outlet. However, it only really got picked up in the mainstream when finance minister Ishaq Dar said he wanted to know how the former COAS’ information was leaked. These are the conditions journalists work under.

Nevertheless, 2022 was a year of big events in Pakistan — reporting on the lead up to, and then after, the vote of no-confidence, the floods and the change of command in the military come immediately to mind.

On that front, legacy media outlets did well in their reporting, especially given the restraints on them, be it from Pemra or well … you know where — the dreaded sword that needs no legal cover to strike to take you off air or muzzle owners into silencing editors. Editors took bold stances in their editorials, reporters went the extra mile in verifying stories before printing, journalists asked tough questions from people in power. Journalists like Sadaf Naeem put their lives on the line to get the job done. At least 53 journalists have been murdered in the last decade. There is no accountability.

The manner in which Arshad Sharif’s murder was covered is another example of partisanship and outlets pushing particular narratives — either for someone else or for their own interests. Amid all this, Twitter often plays the role of ombudsman — calling out media outlets for errors, from typos to misidentified people, places etc.

It’s a reminder of the pressure in digital newsrooms competing against social media to get the story out and errors will happen.

Working conditions

Of course, there are innumerable faults in the way the news is pushed out, but my point here is to shine a light on the miserable working conditions for so many people on the desk and in the field trying to get information across to audiences. The pressure in digital media is especially daunting, given that one is competing with social media where there are no checks and balances.

The errors, typos and editorial judgments that prove foolish in hindsight have been, and are, de rigueur in the newsroom, but the role of the journalist has evolved over the years and needs an urgent revisit.

For that, newsroom leadership needs to do better. And for that, everyone involved in the making of the news needs to revisit the purpose of journalism itself.

“The purpose of journalism is not defined by technology, nor by journalists or the techniques they employ,” write Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism. “Rather, the principles and purpose of journalism are defined by something more basic: the function news plays in the lives of people.”

Are media owners hiring the right leaders to run newsrooms tasked with ensuring best practices in reporting, editing and disseminating information? Are newsroom leaders working towards ending income inequality at the workplace and creating an environment that makes staff’s lives better? What is the role of the HR department really, because right now, it is embarrassing; they enable abusers and serve to please masters. Moreover, job insecurity cuts across departments in news organisastions.

It is simply impossible to assess the highs and lows in media coverage without highlighting working conditions in newsrooms because that impacts how you receive the news. Those who make the news you want to hear during prime time receive the highest ratings on TV, thus the highest salary. Even though the demographics of who watches TV is on the decline.

Most media owners’ understanding of the digital landscape — for example, who consumes what and where, and how that impacts advertisers — is flawed because they are reliant on newsroom leaders to give them that information, but those men (almost always men) are holding onto power and some distorted reality of audience needs.

I’m struck by what Professor Victor Pickard of the University of Pennsylvania wrote in Nieman Lab, where he said people point fingers in several directions when trying to understand the “wild fluctuations of the news industry” but don’t discuss the main culprit: capitalism.

“It is capitalism that incentivises the degradation of our news media — disinvesting in local journalism, weaponising social media to capture our attention and data, and devaluing media workers’ labour conditions. All the while, commercial media outlets treat news as a commodity, not a public service, and audiences as consumers, not engaged citizens,” he writes.

Since Gen Musharraf liberalised the media, more and more businessmen have entered the industry with a singular goal of maximising their profits. They are not concerned with the press’ role in ensuring a functioning democracy.

The billionaires buying up the media to turn into, as Professor Pickard writes, “their personal plaything” has dangerous consequences — as we can see all over the world (looking at you Elon Musk). Even in Pakistan, a small number of people control a few media outlets, allowing them to shape public opinion to tailor their business needs if they wanted to.

It’s overwhelming to imagine a media system not dependent on the market, but perhaps there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. I know at least one editor who is venturing out on his own to create a 360 website — text, video, audio — focused solely on investigative journalism.

Perhaps a non-profit model is in the works in Pakistan somewhere? Perhaps systems will be in place in the near future to allow audiences to make micropayments for incisive fair reporting on important issues that don’t make it to mainstream media. Perhaps we can hope for activism in press unions that address the systemic inequalities in salaries and working conditions among journalists.

In April last year, I wrote about the need for public media and how it can help “fill the gap and provide fair news and diverse programming which reflects Pakistan’s plural society.” I know it cannot happen overnight, not even the next few years, but imagining a “post commercial system that privileges democracy over profit” as Professor Pickard writes, is worth fighting for.