No journalism free of bias

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Story after story the comments are always the same. “Why is this paper so biased towards liberalism and secularism? Very unethical”, “Why are you always covering every small issue of minorities? Pakistan has so many problems”, “immature writing to attract youth”, and so on.

For the thousandth time, there is nothing unethical about setting an agenda for a newspaper or media organisation. Let us not be naïve or ignorant; all media groups have an agenda, it is not even an open secret, it is often written down as is the case with this newspaper. It has been stated that The Express Tribune hopes to fight “the twin menace of extremism and economic decline by spreading liberal ideas and mobilising the young people of Pakistan”.

There is nothing illegal about promoting liberal ideas or focusing more on attacks on minorities compared with other issues, or trying to get young people to read the newspaper by creating content that interests and attracts them. If you don’t like the agenda, don’t read the paper, but enough of this shock and awe over how much space say a Pervez Hoodbhoy is given over a Shireen Mazari, or why Veena Malik is covered at all. Let us end the inane criticism of how the paper needs ‘balance’ — the balance is there as long as you can read the ingredients in the mix.

No, the agenda is not what you should be upset about; we all have one, even on a personal level. Send three different reporters to cover the same event and you will receive three different reports, which — even if all three report the facts truthfully — in their very choice of words will add on a layer of subjectivity that would make all three reports different. I myself have no qualms about labelling myself a left-leaning liberal and a secularist. I wear my biases on my sleeve — it is honesty that compels me to do so, in order that the reader knows where my work is coming from. Thus, calling me out for being a liberal or a secularist has no meaning.

I would go as far as to argue that there is no journalism free of bias. This is not some radical philosophical stance requiring Baudrillardian leaps into the ‘desert of the real’ or a discussion on whether language can ever convey the true nature of reality. People consume news from a source, not because it is unbiased and presents the whole truth, but in spite of (or in preference of) its biases and certain version of the truth. All regular consumers of news innately turn to multiple sources to build a complete picture, knowing full well what agenda each source comes with.

No, the question is not — why do you have ‘X’ agenda; it is why you are not transparent about your agenda. Why is it not written out and publicly accessible so we, the citizens, know where you are ideologically operating from? This would be a more pertinent question, as it would then be possible to hold the journalist or media group accountable based on the agenda they set themselves. Here in Pakistan, there is an even more important question to be asked of journalists and media groups: why does your agenda on issues shift depending on the medium, i.e., from English to Urdu? Why do two different papers within the same media conglomerate have a different, often opposing stance on various issues? How is it that your news channel is reporting on and exposing black magic charlatans, yet your dramatised programme 45 minutes later features a ‘psychic’ investigator who describes the ‘real’ powers of these same ‘black magicians’.

Yes, every journalist and every group has an agenda. The question is not whether or why the agenda exists, but whether it is being followed, whether it is transparent and whether it is being upheld across the board.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 6th, 2012.

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