VIEW: The electronic media’s demons Syed Kamran Hashmi - Saturday, April 16, 2011

Certain talk show guests have become infamous for their characteristic rude behaviour, and every mainstream political party has trained some roosters for this purpose 

The popularity of the electronic media was gained with wide approval after its milestone coverage of the 2005 earthquake, which wrecked the northern areas of Pakistan. Private television channels were able to convey effectively, locally and internationally the gravity of the massive disaster and the suffering of their fellow citizens who were being forced to live in desolate conditions. With their live transmissions, massive donations started flowing — reaching some billions of rupees — in a very short period of time. Furthermore, with poor reporting, misinformation and an unnecessarily defiant attitude, Pakistan Television (PTV) lost its questionable credibility completely. The judicial crisis of 2007 re-strengthened the importance of the role of the electronic media in the power circles of Pakistan. This time, the political talk show hosts were the real winners; they were glorified as national heroes and projected as selfless, brave, honest, educated and incorruptible people.

Even though the electronic media has been flooded with various news channels, the quality of their programming remains dismal. Almost all the news channels air two or three political talk shows every evening. Generally, these programmes are of very poor quality content-wise and have consistently lacked professional conduct on behalf of the host. They have exhibited an absence of research-based discussion and have encouraged the rooster-fight culture in their presentations.

Professional conduct is the most fundamental and important aspect of any production. It appears that any individual, who has ever had even some distant role in journalism, can be an anchorperson, at least on a trial basis, without undergoing any significant preliminary training. The basic principle of even following a formal dress code, which would be imperative internationally, is overlooked in our programmes. Command on language in the form of proper pronunciation, absence of grammatical errors, minimum use of slang and an exceptional vocabulary, is disregarded in our political talk shows. Repeated and consistent mispronunciation of the name of the current US president is a terrific example. We also always try to mention his full middle name, neglecting the rule of using it sparingly for official purposes only.

Lack of research on the topic of discussion is also a profound aspect of our talk shows. Typically, the host decides about the latest political development of the day — in just a few hours — to set the tone for his/her show. The host then introduces the new episode with minimum or no preparation and thus remains unfocused throughout the programme. Their oblivion and gullibility oozes throughout their presentation. Except for the few who have a sound grip on their topics of discussion, lack of research keeps most of these programmes concentrated on mostly generic issues. These subjects switch rapidly from one to another and can vary from constitutional reforms to the energy crisis or from the economy to terrorism in a couple of sentences. Oscillating back and forth on multiple issues makes these talk shows appear theatrical, if not completely comical. The anchorperson, at the same time, is either unwilling or has very minimal training to be able to differentiate between a constructive debate, appropriate criticism and instigating an accusation. They remain oblivious to the basic rules of engagement with the guests on these talk shows, which include equal time distribution, avoiding personal accusations and abstinence from interruption by other guests.

The rooster fight culture, which allegedly improves ratings and thus revenues for the programmes, has also contributed towards the decline of the quality of productions. Certain guests have become infamous for their characteristic rude behaviour, and every mainstream political party has trained some roosters for this purpose. A classic example is when the anchorperson incites an inflammatory question that is picked up quickly by the party representatives. They both smile and the next few minutes are filled with R-rated discussions. The anchorperson, throughout this instigation, enjoys the spike in the ratings, the temperature of the discussion and the chaos of the show. There used to be a few highly respected anchors but lately they also have gotten carried away with this tenuous popularity and have joined the larger group of rooster fight presenters.

The electronic media is the newfound hope for our prosperous future. It still is the most effective medium for mass education and it has served Pakistan well in its initial few years. We still are in the very early stages but we are at a crossroads between serious journalism and political entertainment; whichever path we choose, it will determine our future efficacy. Through more research and education, we can improve the quality of political talk shows and continue to serve the nation and build a stronger, more learned Pakistan.

The writer is a freelance columnist residing in the US

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