Breaking the news cycle

Published December 31, 2012

When your editor sends you a message at six am to ask if you are still awake after Fajr, you know it is not your sehri menu he wants to discuss. On August 16, when I crawled out of bed to switch on the news after my editor’s heads-up, I knew we would be in for another long day in the newsroom.

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Base at Kamra had been attacked. No other piece of credible information could be gathered and hence published. What then could we report to the thousands of readers logging on to our website in search of answers to the early morning onslaught? Calls to newspaper reporters ended in frustration and in vain as they work on daily deadlines and are in no rush to report from the site in order to cater to a website’s needs. Television reporters, meanwhile, are always ready with tickers of information despite often not being sure about the authenticity, hence, rendering them unusable for a medium where an article, once published, cannot be made to disappear without consequences.

And it is not just about the news. For a website, the multimedia content that completes the package is equally important. As soon as images start pouring in from the scene of a terror attack, an accident or a natural disaster, editors and producers start sifting through to pick out a batch that’s suitable for publication. And by that we don’t mean clarity or sharpness – the nature of such photos is often so graphic, that despite this being our profession, it’s hard not to cringe at such brutality and carnage.

While short-listing, a number of factors come into play. Consider, for example, the recent attack on polio workers in Karachi. Some of the images showed the corpses of the victims and others focused on the grieving relatives. Using the images of the relatives would seem to be the wiser option, since we try to avoid the use of graphic images.

However, our previous experiences with using images of wailing loved ones resulted in hesitation. Will we be found guilty of invading the privacy of a grieving family by putting their emotions on display? How many readers will make posts on social media condemning our “lack of sensitivity” for the choice of images? And then, how many “likes” or re-tweets will those outbursts or anger get? There is no shame in admitting that we consider these repercussions or a ‘social media backlash’ and often, it helps us correct mistakes. Going back to editorial calls on the use of images, one factor that I personally keep in mind is the impression it will leave on the readers.

Most of our audience is reading the news from outside Pakistan, or on mobile devices. So if we are to report on another day of ruthless Karachi violence, we must come up with a way to make sure it makes an impact on the readers. Would a policeman standing guard on Sharah-e-Faisal make you think twice about the road this country is going down or will shocked, aggrieved citizens make you wonder more about the cost of life of the common man? I say this not because we’re out trying to sell the news but to showcase our own attitudes towards this everyday affair. Karachi killings, as we call them in the newsroom, is our go-to story on a slow news day. When a content producer asks the editor which story should be used as the lede once the Supreme Court story of the day becomes too old to maintain the top spot, we have a sneaky feeling that by the evening, the ‘ethno-political-sectarian-land-mafia-terror’ mix will consume few more precious lives. Sounds cold-hearted, doesn’t it? That’s exactly why we want to make sure our readers’ hearts and minds don’t fall victim to the same callous trend.

Working in a media circus where the homecoming of the One Pound Fish man carries the same level of alert as terror attacks, it is easy to get carried away in the wave of “breaking news” madness. We are taught and reminded (often) that being right is more important than being first. But how do you keep yourself from flashing red alerts when all other leading news portals have already gone far ahead in the numbers game?

Case in point, the fateful air crash of the Bhoja Air flight 213 on the evening of April 20. When initial reports began streaming in, we had 50 different versions. “Military chopper crashes at Chaklala.” Five minutes later, “Passenger plane catches fire.” Another quarter of an hour and each television channel had its own version of the accident. We, on the other hand, waited until it was confirmed that it was a passenger plane that had crashed close to Islamabad airport before publishing the story. Once more, we took our time before naming the airline. Why? Because there could be 15 different private airlines on the arrival boards at Islamabad airport and instead of causing panic among those linked to the thousands of passengers aboard these airplanes, we wanted to be sure we wouldn’t have to eat our words. Then came the harder part: collecting the passenger list from the Civil Aviation Authority (getting in touch with the airline would have been impossible), typing out the names in the exact same spellings (we had learned from the Air Blue crash experience that this would be vital for readers logging in from far and away) and hoping against hope that they survive. My parents had taken the same flight a few days earlier and just the thought that it could have been them shook me. As our editor was making his way back to the office, he called to warn us against giving casualty figures until a government or rescue or CAA official confirmed them. Meanwhile, others had gone from “scores” to “dozens” to “over a hundred” in a matter of minutes.

So as things at the Kamra base started getting under control, our focus shifted to Mansehra, where “unknown assailants” had opened fire on Shia pilgrims. We waited long before confirming it as a sectarian attack. Not because we had a “slant”, but because we wanted be sure.

Another long evening awaited us at Dawn.com…

Hafsa Adil is the Features Editor at Dawn.com

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