If you’ve worked in broadcast media, chances are high that you have been part of the manic decision making process which goes into determining what story or issue should run as headline news or lead in a program. The journalistic credo to cover issues in a timely, responsible manner is the driving force behind this high-tension coordination, but the marketing aim to gather the maximum number of eyeballs and maintain their interest is always at the back of every broadcast journalist’s mind.
Which story will sell? What would the audience buy? The ‘business’ of reporting the news is built into the very words used, and there is always the temptation to find nay, create the next big angle to an issue by resorting to sensationalism, of which there are many forms.
Over time, Pakistanis have become quite astute to the more blatant forms of hard news manipulation but even the best of us are still fooled by the distortion of an issue by juxtaposing unlikely elements of the story with each other to form a unique selling point.
Case in point: musician Ali Azmat was recently invited onto DawnNews’ Bolna Zaroori Hai to lay down his views on a recent report about religiosity in Pakistani society. Azmat, ever ready to take on a challenge proceeded to expound to the best of his abilities, citing media conspiracies, the need for an Islamic caliphate, slamming the West and other such viewswhich does not need to be repeated.
I can envisage the decision making process which must have led to this bizarre but very sellable show.
Producer: Well, we’ve improved our ratings by switching over to Urdu, but we need to step it up a notch. What issue is making the rounds these days?
Studious intern one: Sir! What about the latest report by the Institute of Peace Studies which cites that the people of Pakistan have turned increasingly religious over the years?
Producer: That’s genius lad! Let’s run with it at prime time with Wusatullah Khan. Now, who should be the guests?
Studious intern one: How about an expert who can speak well on the issue? How about a Professor from Quaid-e-Azam University?
Producer: Uh. Okay. But what’s going to make the show sell? We have viewers out there who simply won’t hang around to listen to an unknown professor talking sense. We went down that route for a couple of years and look where that got us.
Eager intern two: Zaid Hamid?
Producer: No no, Zaid Hamid lost his shelf life a good six months ago, but I like where you’re going with that. Let’s toy with the idea. What we need is a new Zaid Hamid. Someone catchy with the kids and sure to draw in a crowd.
Eager intern two: Ali Azmat sir!
Producer: Yes! He’s the perfect straw man! Massively popular, chock full of Zaid Hamid’s ideas yet a fresh face!
Studious intern one: But sir! Won’t people notice that we’ve juxtaposed a rock star with a professor? It’s completely absurd!
Producer: Young man you really need to catch up to your friend here. People won’t notice because half our audience will lap up what Ali Azmat dishes out, while the other half will spend so much time bashing him they won’t even notice the whole show is our marketing team’s dream come true!
Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on how you look at it), yet another local talk show has gone down that slippery slope of trading sensible content for eyeballs. This is the ground reality, and it is not just the story of one media group, but that of all media groups and persons in Pakistan. Viewers must become aware of the inner workings of our craft, and realize that we are fallible, often weak, and there is tremendous pressure to deliver the goods in terms of ‘selling’ the news. Citizen’s need to apply critical thinking not only to the issues highlighted by the media, but also to the methods behind the message.
So, if Ali Azmat is called up to talk on religion and an increasingly conservative society, be critical of the man, but know your real enemy: marketing.