As appeared on theDAWN blog
The most heart-warming news I have heard in a while came amidst one of the most devastating incidents – the earthquake in Haiti, which has cost an estimated 200,000 lives. Given the scale of death and destruction in Port-au-Prince, it is not surprising that the media has flooded the Haitian capital, documenting each detail as the catastrophe unfolds. Indeed, it is the most news-worthy incident in recent times. For that reason, I was overwhelmed when I came across a certain rescue incident involving Australian media crews.
On Monday, an Australian News crew rescued an 18-month-old baby from underneath the rubble, signifying that at times life comes before the job of a journalist.
Richard Moran, a cameraman with the commercial Nine Network, put down his camera and lifted pieces of concrete out of the way while Nine’s interpreter and fixer Deiby Celestino climbed into the tangled mess to retrieve the child.
“And then, out of the ruins came this little girl, and I will never forget it. She did not cry. She looked astonished, almost as if she was seeing the world for the first time,” Nine reporter Robert Penfold told The Australian.
In other words, the media crew had the sense to put down their camera to help, and thus managed to file a story and, most importantly, save a life.
The incident reminded me of Pakistani news coverage of the Kashmir earthquake in 2005. For most of our media channels, the suffering was more about television ratings than broadcasting sympathetic appeals for help. No doubt, the mainstream media played a significant role in highlighting the people’s plight and conveying calls for help. But at the same time, I wouldn’t deny that looking back today I see the coverage of that quake as the beginning of the media’s fetish for gory images and commercialising the suffering of victims.
Since that point, certain media outlets have been cashing in on sensational news items without a flicker of self-doubt. From riots to bomb blasts, it’s all about breaking news in the most nerve-wracking way possible.
Regardless of the gruesome nature of the event, we can be certain that a private channel will not only broadcast the incident live, but repeat the footage half a dozen times in a minute. If you somehow manage to miss the ‘breaking news’ bulletin, you need not worry as it will continue to be repeated exclusively for new viewers for hours on end. And at prime time, the event will be reviewed – along with running commentary – by an ‘investigative’ journalist, nearly choking with excitement.
Too often it seems as if the media’s newfound liberty has been interpreted as a license to put carnage in the limelight. The race for high rankings and exclusive coverage has etched insensitivity into our social fabric; it has desensitised people to the extent that human lives have become worthless.
Lately, the mainstream media’s insensitivity has been echoed by citizen journalists. Immediately after a violent incident, media outlets run appeals – not for blood donations – but for pictures or videos from the crime scene. For example, it was horrifying to see people gathering around and snapping away with their cellphones in the aftermath of the Moon Market blast in Lahore.
These citizen journalists, in tandem with media outlets, invade others’ privacy, create business out of misery, and, more significantly, present obstacles to rescue operations. People crowding a site in the aftermath of a bombing are a common sight, but most of them merely obstruct the movement of ambulances and rescue teams. Innumerable times, one has witnessed media vans and camera crews hovering over the victims of a bombing, rather than lending a helping hand. Rescue work may not be part of their respective job descriptions, but it most certainly is their duty as human beings.
Unfortunately, in Pakistan there is no accountability for such unethical behaviour. While the media vows to be the source of awareness, it lacks regulation (though there have now been some attempts within the industry to make media coverage of terrorist attacks more responsible).
A while ago, when the media frenzy was at its peak, a senior duty editor and former news anchor, Osama bin Javaid, expressed his concerns about the insensitivity of the media:
The reality is that the public has begun to block television screens for children and demonise news channels. If the media does not let its audience feel a sense of self-accountability and participate in decision-making processes, it risks losing credibility – an irreplaceable asset. If the youth, the majority of Pakistanis, are disgusted, disgruntled, and daunted by what they see on air, rather than made aware of the wrongs they need to collectively address, all the good work being done by the media to get the facts out may amount to naught.
Osama managed to hit the nail on the head while commenting on the media’s violation of basic ethics. But the landscape has shifted since that blog was posted. Today, the problem with news coverage is not the hype, but the problems it creates for rescue teams and paramedic staff.
Speaking out on this issue is not about hating the media but setting our priorities straight. Media teams and the people at large must learn to work in harmony with rescue teams. While it may be important for the media to report horrific incidents without unduly sanitising or censoring its impact on victims, there are times when coverage intrudes on what should have been private moments. Insensitive questions from reporters undoubtedly make the victims’ misery even more painful. Its times like these that demand sensitive measures, when the call of duty is more about saving lives than making headlines.