We have witnessed in recent months anchors like Imran Riaz Khan and Sami Abraham conducting talk shows with skewed panels belligerently towing the PTI line or unthinkingly supporting Imran Khan’s stance, without inviting anyone from the other side of the aisle for a counter narrative, or to balance the show.
"YouTubers have posed more challenges for independent journalists. They get away with gossip, sensationalism, misleading captions and partisan biases in the name of journalism, and continue to get millions of views"
Many people belonging to the broadcast media fraternity claim that such anchors have allied themselves to particular parties, and it seems that they act not as journalists, but as members of that particular party. This has had a host of implications for the the impartiality and objectivity of broadcast media, which have been one of its key traits thus far. The Friday Times (TFT) spoke to a number of leading people from the broadcast media fraternity about the rise of virulent polarization in broadcast media.
How is polarization affecting broadcast media?
Speaking to The Friday Times, senior journalist and analyst Adil Shahzeb, who hosts a prime time talk show says it's not only journalists and analysts who can’t tolerate differences of opinion, but this has become common in our society overall.
“Especially in the last four years, and 9-10 months in particular, our politics have pushed everything including the media into further polarization. The majority have taken a clear cut stance on politics, and not many are open to difference of opinion. In other words, you are either right or wrong,” he notes.
Adil believes that it’s mainly political polarization which has pushed TV channels, the media, the journalists to take intractable positions.
“Furthermore, YouTubers have posed more challenges for independent journalists. They get away with gossip, sensationalism, misleading captions and partisan biases in the name of journalism, and continue to get millions of views,” he points out.
Agreeing with him, Zarrar Khuhro, a journalist at Dawn News who hosts the famous prime time show ‘Zara Hat Kay’ says that it is important to acknowledge that we are a deeply polarized country; whether it is political, ethnic, religious or sectarian fault lines, we stand divided by them all. Seen in that context, polarization of the media is, in one way, simply a reflection of the polarization of society at large.
“There is also the inescapable fact that polarization sells, that you can gain a greater audience and thus greater outreach, and ratings and revenue by allying with a certain stance - often at the expense of the fundamentals of journalism - simply in order to accrue financial and political gains,” he maintains.
Zarrar recalls that many anchors, and indeed entire media groups, have done so. Some are true believers, of course, but he claims that for others, it's simply a cynical choice in order to reap rewards.
“Instead of having the courage to listen to the other side of the story, we label things without seeing them, put people in categories without really knowing them and speak without really listening to anyone but ourselves.”
For Fereeha M Idrees, one of the leading prime time hosts from GNN, dissent is the beauty of democracy and diversity is key for the prosperity of any nation. However, in Pakistan, the divisive nature of the country’s politics has resulted in extreme intolerance. Fereeha explains how instead of helping to transform Pakistan into a more tolerant society, the media is fast fading into the depth of despair where no one has the courage to see the dark corners within their environs, nor the moral clarity to call a spade a spade.
“Instead of having the courage to listen to the other side of the story, we label things without seeing them, put people in categories without really knowing them and speak without really listening to anyone but ourselves,” she notes.
Fereeeha believes that the first casualty of war is truth and the first casualty of truth is free and fair media.
“Perhaps, in today’s world, asking for an absolutely impartial media is living in a fool’s paradise, yet it is not unreasonable to aspire for a harmonious and amicable environment,” she points. “Sadly, the absolute negation of reality has resulted in our inability to even have healthy debates on issues of national significance like education and health.”
Agreeing with them, senior analyst and host of a prime time show at Bol News, Ameer Abbas says polarization has always been present in the media industry.
“It was there when I started my career in journalism fifteen years ago, and it was also there thirty or forty years ago, according to our senior journalists,” he states.
However, Ameer maintains that the level we have sunk to now is absolutely despicable, and that it should not be possible to sink even lower. Ameer suggests that the only line the media has not crossed yet is to actually kill journalists or politicians with an opposing point of view.
“In fact, I think we have reached that stage to some extent already, considering the torture that journalists are being subjected to, like what happened to Mohsin Baig during Imran Khan’s tenure,” he opines.
He recalls that during this time, journalists who were defending PTI were also defending these acts of abuse. In fact, there were only a few that openly stood behind Mohsin Baig and criticized Murad Saeed as well as the FIA.
“Today, we are seeing this, and what happened to Arshad Sharif, Imran Riaz Khan and Shahid Aslam are just a few examples of such incidents, and we see that journalists who opposed Imran Khan are secretly celebrating these acts, if people actually are raising a voice for them, most of their comments are shrouded in hypocrisy,” he notes while claiming that more than 95% of Pakistani journalists are part of this polarization, and are not objective in their reporting and analysis.
For him, polarization has greatly affected broadcast media. Since there is a lack of objectivity, and biases are present in both analysis as well as news reporting, the angle at which each news report is presented is affected as well.
“Certain channels like ARY and Bol portray Imran Khan as a hero, and someone they feel will always be around, whereas channels like Geo who are against him cannot tolerate him for a minute, judging by their reporting,” Ameer states.
“This angling affects both reporting as well as analysis, and thus broadcast media as a whole,” he concludes.
Agreeing with them, veteran journalist and Director of News at Aaj, Kamal Siddiqi recalls that during the Imran Khan government and after his ouster, it became clear that many high profile media figures were openly advocating against one political party or another.
“They are now taking sides. They see nothing wrong in associating with a political party. In the past this would have been a matter of shame,” he maintains.
Kamal is of the opinion that while traditional journalists take pains to remain impartial and display an air of neutrality, the new wave of media persons take pride in being seen with one political leader or another. This trend is likely to have very serious implications on the role of the media.
Talking about the polarization of media, Kamal says if the media in Pakistan is seen as partial, the audience will source its news from non-traditional sources like social media platforms. If this happens, and we can see that it is, mainstream media will lose its relevance.
“This is a very dangerous trend. We are already seeing that many non-journalists are able to now set the news agenda. The bottom line seems to be that the news profession is gradually being taken away from journalists. It is a time for collective rethink,” he concludes.
"Media houses have squeezed, or almost completely abolished, air time for opposing or antagonistic points of view. Their fundamental purpose of informing and educating the masses has actually been buried under their agenda driven coverage."
Awais Hameed, Executive Producer at Express News says that difference of opinion is pivotal for a democratic society. He suggests that being accepting of differences does not only mean being able to hold and express your own opinion, and expecting others to tolerate it, but also to occasionally consider the validity of the opposing viewpoint. This intolerance towards difference of opinion has crept into the broadcast media and it has polarized the entirely of the media landscape, which remains an important medium of communication.
“Polarization has affected broadcast media in every possible negative way. Television channels are seen propagating, through news and programs, perspectives that are allied with or opposed to a certain political party,” he points out.
Awais believes that media houses have squeezed, or almost completely abolished, air time for opposing or antagonistic points of view. Their fundamental purpose of informing and educating the masses has actually been buried under their agenda driven coverage.
“Polarization is damaging broadcast media in three major aspects: quality of journalism, capacity of the journalists, and viewership. Reporters and editors have lost the liberty to dig deeper into all kinds of stories,” he says.
Awais says that they have to remain within the specified parameters of their editorial policy that supports only one point of view. Consequently, many good investigative stories are not investigated or these stories never find a space on screen.
“Broadcast media seem to have confined themselves to echo chambers at the heavy cost of reliability and viewers' trust. On the other hand, TV viewership has declined during recent years due to the popularity of social media news sources, especially among the youth,” he shares.
“Young viewers are informed enough to differentiate between fair news delivery and mere propaganda. Polarized content on broadcast media is pushing them further away from TV screens,” he concludes.