Television & mental health

May 10, 2011


ZAFAR Hilaly, a former ambassador who makes frequent appearances on television talk shows, made a very telling comment in a programme last week. This was the evening when Operation Geronimo that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad had sent the electronic media in a spin as it buzzed with outlandish speculation.

Mr Hilaly declared without batting an eyelid that Pakistanis have become schizophrenic and need to see a shrink. Correct, Mr Hilaly. But the real question to ask is: who is responsible for driving people to this mental state?

There are many factors that have brought the country to this pass but I hold the electronic media and the anchors who go into a frenzy competing for improved ratings equally responsible. They should share the blame with our political and military leaders as well as others who are steering this unfortunate country towards its doom.True, we have politicians — in the government and in the opposition — who have failed to display a measure of competence, integrity and statesmanship. We have an army which sucks up a huge chunk of our resources and yet has not provided us the security we can rightly expect. We have economic managers who have been unable or unwilling to shape the national economy to bring some relief to the people. All this is bad enough.

But does that mean that the media should join forces with the purveyors of the ills that the country is suffering from to become a 24/7 perpetrator of a sense of hopelessness and helplessness? It has been argued, and very convincingly too, that the media’s prime responsibility is to inform and edu-cate. By concealing information the media will only harm the country as in the past when the government of the day muzzled the press.

It would be ridiculous to argue for information to be concealed from the public because it is bad. People must be told what is happening to pre-empt speculation and rumours. But what is questionable is the manner in which this information is conveyed. If the idea is to inform the viewer and hopefully to also educate him, it can be done without packaging the news with a lot of excitement and sensationalism. These are unnecessary frills. Probably television channels feel these frills are essential to attract a large viewership — after all every channel in Pakistan is competing with over 50 others — and thus earn revenues by grabbing ads. But is it ethical to resort to such tactics for purely monetary gains?

And what are these tactics? Some depend on visual imagery to hold the viewers’ attention at a time when attention spans are falling and people are fast losing the capacity to think through issues. When the Pakistan Medical Association complained that the electronic media is screening too much violence for the good of our children, the media retorted that it would not suppress information. Not a very convincing reply because the demand was not to suppress information but to regulate the manner in which it is conveyed.

You don’t have to show violence in graphic detail — and show it at frequent intervals throughout the day. According to a senior clinical psychologist, this approach desensitises a person and the impact of the violence is cushioned. This is the mind’s natural defence mechanism but it also dehumanises a person and violence comes to be accepted as something natural. This especially holds true for children.

Similarly blowing up the news beyond all proportion and sensationalising it amounts to the media forgetting its responsibility. The phenomenon of breaking news at one time had great sanctity and only news of a momentous kind was projected as such. This has now been trivialised. For instance ‘Osama’s family not to be handed over to the US’ and ‘Osama’s will says his wives should not remarry’ hardly merit the breaking news status. A bomb attack that takes place in the morning can continue as breaking news the whole day, even when the world knows about it. After some time there is nothing new to report but the live coverage goes on and on peppered with music that strikes terror in one’s heart as reporters scream into the microphone.

This psychologist who hardly watches television now observes that TV is detrimental to the mental health of the nation. In a situation that is already so fraught with uncertainty and crises creating anxiety, what purpose does the media serve by reinforcing a sense of hopelessness? The talk shows are no better. What we have is not a healthy discourse on issues but a war of words between adversaries who show no civility towards each other and have no solution to offer to the problems that are discussed. In its coverage of some recent events, television has been instrumental in spreading despondency. Many channels eulogised the flip side of the events surrounding the blasphemy issue that led to the public acclaim received by the murderer of the Punjab governor. The Supreme Court’s judgment acquitting the accused rapists of Mukhtar Mai was hurtful to many but did the media have to use this as an occasion for venting their misogyny and chauvinism at the expense of the brave rape survivor?

Unsurprisingly, many people have stopped watching television and, like the clinical psychologist I spoke to, are critical of what a former editor of this paper calls the “stars of the idiot box”. They lack ethics and responsibility.