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Bad news is bad news

June 15, 2011


We are incessant news consumers. Offices and government buildings stream news content in their reception areas. Free newspapers are thrust into hands at underground stations. The BBC emails us “breaking news” and in a few taps we can watch Al Jazeera English on our smart phones in bed, on the train, or at the back of the room during a boring conference. If we want so-called “real” eyewitness news, live-and-direct from credible sources, we can tune into the many amateur commentators on Twitter.   However, although addicted to news myself, I am aware that the news I am consuming offers me a negative view of the world that bears little resemblance to reality - whatever “reality” might be.   With more news available, there is more competition between the channels. Media organisations want to sell more papers, achieve higher hit counts, and ultimately sell more advertising. And with an audience apparently hooked on disaster and destruction, it is not surprising that news agencies err on the side of terror and death as it appears that we have a taste for the ghastly. We are seduced by dreadful headlines.   The truth about truth   Much of the news content we consume is single-sourced – that is, unverified by a second witness. However, I would argue that even with a hundred witnesses to any single event, it is impossible to present a single truth about a given situation. Every newsworthy event will have a multitude of truths, layers of facts, along with those wishing to manipulate the narrative for financial or political gain, and those emotionally involved.   French philosopher Jean Baudrillard claimed that humans are naturally drawn towards a simulated version of reality, and I would argue that our attraction to devastation demonstrates this well. Hearing about how “other” people are suffering makes us feel strong, yet keeps us in line, frightened enough of “other people” not to stray or question too deeply. “Thank God that is not happening here,” we whisper as we see mutilated bodies of children, tear-stained widows raising their hands to the sky and tsunami waves swallowing up whole communities. What is this world coming to?   Yet perhaps it is time to challenge our negative news agenda. I believe we can present an alternative version of reality for humans to be more healthily drawn to; a dramatic and engaging agenda that serves a different purpose. I do not buy the old adage that “bad news is good news”. It’s a tough act, and journalists are not trained for it, but I believe it is possible to turn this around and benefit from it.  There are only so many ills in this world we can be exposed to before it irreversibly damages our global self-esteem.   The case of Pakistan   Nowhere is our grisly pre-occupation with badness more apparent than in the case of Pakistan. Bombs and Bin Laden sell Pakistan in the foreign press, and we are particularly drawn to stories involving children – it’s no longer enough to watch a pair of big brown eyes appealing for aid: we want stories of children being forced into marriage, becoming murderers or suicide bombers. Our narrative on Pakistan is about poverty, extremism and corruption: it’s dangerous there; they are bad people.   Despite being tired of this media narrative, Pakistanis at home face a barrage of grim stories in their own media, stripping the country of the sense of national hope, that should be in abundance given the young population (nearly 50 per cent of which is under 25).   I visited Karachi recently and was warned before I left London that I would be kidnapped, raped, or beheaded.  I didn’t meet every one of the 18 million inhabitants of Karachi, and no doubt there are some bad ones, but every single person I did meet was filled with charm and generosity.  I saw giggling students at the University of Karachi; an awesome sunset on a beach filled with families playing in the waves; eloquent business people; assertive young women; and I was plied with more food than I have ever been given in my life. This may not be “the truth” about Karachi, but it is one truth. In my work as an artist and film-maker I set out to demonstrate that apparently different cities in other parts of the world could find commonality and mutual ambition. However, although I had a fair share of enlightened British people saying things like, “I never knew Pakistan even had a coastline”, what moved me most was the number of Pakistanis who were suddenly seeing their homeland through another’s eyes and revisiting their decision to write off Pakistan as a lost cause.   Dramatic news is good news   I am not suggesting that in providing an alternative agenda we show a saccharin-sweet version of reality.  That would be boring. But there is a market for well researched dramatic stories that end well. Think of the rescue of the Chilean miners, the Japanese survivor found floating on the wreckage of his home, the Israeli and the Palestinian who together risk their lives to rescue civilians wounded in attacks, the brave and the resilient.  There are heaps of them in Pakistan. Whilst we might be attracted to disaster, we are ever more enthralled by the hope that we might overcome it all. Journalists need training in spotting such stories and presenting them in an engaging way. And I include bloggers and tweeters, who can be worse than a deranged gossip, spreading unverified rumours and poison. It’s about taking responsibility. So in my mind bad news is bad news, but it is also lazy news.   It’s not just about Pakistan.  My attraction to defending those broad-brushed as baddies goes back a long way. In the 1980s I stood up to my parents and neighbours by insisting that our West Indian neighbourhood was not full of muggers and pimps. In the 1990s I defended the many peace-loving Israelis I had met and marched with during my time in their country. And in the 2000s I fell in love with Iraq, including its poets and date palms that you will hear little about in the mainstream media. Perhaps pause to think how you formulate your own perceptions of a nation.   I’ve said my bit. It’s a familiar rant to those who know me, but I am glad to get it out in this, my first blog entry for Dawn. So here I am with an opportunity to write for a major Pakistani news agency, and I appeal to everyone out there to unearth a few dramatic tales and tell me about them. Leave a comment or a link on this blog and I will look into preparing something. There is a need, for sure, to feed our insatiable appetite for news, so keep it topical, but not horrible.

Caroline Jaine is a UK based writer, artist and film-maker with a background in media strategy, training and diplomacy.  She writes regularly for Muslim Voices and the World Bank blog, and a book about her time in Iraq is being launched in October 2011.  More about Caroline's work and her contact details can be found on


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.