S. M. Hali
Media bias has been defined as the perceived spin provided by journalists and news producers in their selection of events and stories that are reported and how they are covered. The term “media bias” implies a pervasive bias contravening journalistic ethics, rather than the perspective of an individual journalist or article.
It must be emphasized that political bias has been a feature of the mass media since its birth with the invention of the printing press. The expense of early printing equipment restricted media production to a limited number of people. Historians have found that publishers often served the interests of powerful social groups. With the advent of the electronic media, the corporate interests of the media moguls tend to cloud judgment. With the increase in media reach and its exponential growth in capacity, the tendency to use it for vested interests has become more pronounced in a country like Pakistan, whose media operates sans a formal code of ethics.
Some tools used to exercise media bias comprise the following:
Opinion as a Fact—by presenting one’s personal opinion disguised as a fact can easily mislead readers.
Half Truths—Quoting out of context or presenting only one aspect of information is a favourite ploy of propagandists.
Misleading Headlines—the headline writer can propagandize effectively since many see a headline but seldom read the story.
Biased Photographs—presenting best perspective of favourites and worst of undesirables.
Censorship—selective control of information so as to favour a particular viewpoint or editorial position and deliberate doctoring of information or totally disbarring certain undesirable information are certain forms of censorship to create a desired effect.
Wrongful Attribution or Testimonial Technique—in which a journalist may attribute a statement to a veiled or vague authority to gain credence for an incorrect statement.
Yellow Journalism—the term denotes scare headlines, superficial writing, faked pictures and interviews and encompasses all of the above. Originated from William Randolph Hearst – 1887 ‘Examiner’, ‘New York journal’- to gain circulation, he urged in 1900 war with Spain and succeeded in making this uncalled for conflagration with its resultant most unfortunate consequences.
Some recent examples of media biases are presented to illustrate the malaise. A certain private TV channel has been appreciative of court verdicts in different cases, suggesting to the public that Judiciary must be respected under all circumstances. In the same breath, its analysts as well as anchor persons have been carrying out a suggestive propaganda with respect to suo moto action by the judiciary in allegedly selective cases only. Reportedly, the judiciary expressed misgivings at the media bias of the said TV channel.
A section of the Media has surreptitiously suggested links between CJP Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry’s recent visit to Quetta coinciding with the registration of FIR against the Islamabad and Quetta Bureau Chiefs of the same TV channel mentioned earlier for airing video clips of terrorists attack on Quaid’s residency at Ziarat. The action by the judiciary brought a strong reaction hpw by the entire media community, which not only protested against the charges but also demanded that the Government of Balochistan withdraw the FIR. Supreme Court had also taken notice of videos showing terrorists attack on Quaid’s residency at Ziarat and ordered PEMRA to investigate the matter and submit details to the court.
It is noted with concern that the reaction of the media to the registration of FIR against the TV channel appears to be harsher than normal since a majority of the media analysts expressed disdain implying that the entire case of registration of FIR had been on the behest of the CJP. Such bias against the judiciary is uncalled for.
Media had borne the brunt of crackdowns by the Musharraf government when the movement to restore the CJP was in full swing but the same media has now taken a U-turn in the instance of the registration of FIRs and considers it “an attack on the independence of media!”
The portrayal of alleged insensitivity of the government in taking action against the perpetrators of the assault on the Ziarat residency and broadcasting the horrifying video clips of the torched symbol of Pakistan’s sovereignty on Independence Day programs depicts callousness and bias by the said TV channel.
Similarly, some other instances of media bias are the now infamous case of the son of the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Arsalan Iftikhar and his links with the real estate tycoon Malik Riaz, ignorance of rigging in the recent elections and the refusal to cooperate with the Public Account Committee for audit of official funds.
Another most recent example is the seven hours long non-stop airing by a majority of private TV channels of the episode in which the lone gunman Sikandar held the capital hostage. Post-incident analysis indicates the irresponsible attitude of the media not only delayed police action against the gunman but also depicted that in its overzealous bid to provide live coverage and also have live communication with the gunman, the media compromised the element of surprise, which the law enforcing agencies were hoping to achieve in overpowering the gunman.
There is a dire need for the formulation of a code of conduct for the media especially in handling crises situation and terrorism related emergencies. Definitely the media has its responsibilities and its primary one is to keep its readers/viewers/ audience apprised of the latest situation. At the same time the law enforcing agencies’ primary responsibility is to resolve crisis situations while ensuring the safety and security of the citizens including the media. Whereas, the media owners love to present “breaking and exclusive news”, at the same time they are loath to compensate the media person in case of a casualty. Simultaneously, the security agencies should themselves update the media on the latest developments and if needed, impose an embargo on the release of certain developments if it is likely to compromise the success of an operation. Sometimes lack of information also leads to the release of speculative news. A happy balance can avoid media biases.