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Dangers of a shared reality

December 29, 2011


IN Pakistan, journalism has become the riskiest profession. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), out of 66 journalists killed worldwide in 2011, 10 died in Pakistan.

For the second consecutive year, Pakistan has been declared the most dangerous place for journalists — more dangerous than even Afghanistan and Iraq.

In an atmosphere of unabated violence against journalists, where the perpetrators and the reasons for their ire are many, news decisions become more risky; journalists then take news decisions following a different set of values than what most newsmen do worldwide.

German scholar Wolfgang Donsbach says that news decisions are a highly complex phenomenon. In the case of journalists mainly in the western world, two general needs or ‘functions’ involving specific psychological processes can explain news decisions.

Journalists look for social validation of their perceptions when they decide what needs to be — or does not need to be —reported. They also want to preserve their existing predispositions in the process. These two factors work as a checklist for journalists as they take news decisions.

“Journalists have to decide what is true, what is relevant and what is, in a moral sense, good or bad. They must constantly make factual and evaluative decisions,” Donsbach says.

There are three conditions under which people in general and journalists in particular are most dependent on others. First, when the external reality is ambiguous and difficult to assess. Second, when there is a dualism between the physical and social reality, and lastly, when physical reality takes precedence over social reality.

Therefore journalists and information-seeking people communicate with others to create a shared reality from the competing information. Thus people communicate with each other to get out of undetermined, unpredictable situations and create a shared image of the environment they live in.

However, for Pakistani journalists it is not only a shared reality that is produced in communication. They don’t look for just social validation; they also seek to determine the level of threat, which they think is reduced by diffusing risky information.

In such a situation, journalists don’t strive for scoops or exclusive news stories; instead, they share their information with their colleagues in other news organisations to avoid being singled out by threatening forces.

This need for ‘preservation’ at the expense of a plurality of opinion eats into the vitals of objective journalism. A single opinion and a single narrative prevails across the mass media landscape where people are exposed to only one ‘reality,’ which is created in an environment of fear.

Debate gives way to conformity, while difference of opinion is looked upon as deviant behaviour. Journalists either resort to self-censorship or get carried away by the fervour of patriotism, which is the outcome of a mob mentality.

Nothing is more dangerous than a conforming mass media, which blocks out saner voices just for being different from the mainstream opinion and critical of the status quo.

When a majority of journalists toe the line of the powers that be, it exposes the few who are sceptical of the dominant version of the truth, as they ought to be.

In the US, the agenda for local newspapers is set by big corporations that own newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post. Journalists working for other, smaller newspapers work in undetermined and uncertain situations. They go through a cognitive process where to report an event the way nobody else has reported it or to not report what everybody else reports can be embarrassing and jeopardise their professional standing.

Journalists in Pakistan go through the same process, but for them avoiding a threat to their lives is more important than embarrassment or professional standing. For them, alarm bells ring out if their news stories stand out as different from those of others. They take care to report what everybody else does not only to ward off mere embarrassment or their professional worth, but also to protect their own lives.

That is the reason why stories on the same issue in different newspapers contain the same version of the truth, while for readers browsing through different newspapers become an exercise in repetition and a waste of time. Alternative opinion and competing versions of the truth become scarce. Thus the end losers are the readers and the democratic polity that thrives on a plurality of opinion rooted in debate.

That is the reason why journalists in Pakistan try to stay with the pack and look towards each other for decision-making. Social networks of journalists comprise people of their own profession who work within a ‘frame of reference’ built before an event occurs.

Thus, the decision about reality represents group dynamics and group norms rather than the reality itself. As journalists have similar values and attitudes, it is rather easy for them to develop a shared reality. This shared reality does not constitute the reality itself.

For their survival, journalists need to stick together but at the same time help readers build a healthy opinion; new angles of the truth should guide the structure and contents of news. So how can journalists be different in presenting the reality, which after all is a social construction, and also escape the wrath of those who hate dissent?

For this to happen, journalists need to strengthen their ranks and enhance their professional capabilities by learning how to work in conflict and hostile environments.

Before he was killed, Saleem Shahzad set a good precedent for other journalists by informing them about the threats to his life. Most recently, journalist Hamid Mir, averted — at least for the time being — threats to his life by disclosing immediately the obnoxious messages he had received.

The writer is pursuing a PhD in communication at the American University, Washington, D.C.