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Cloud in the sky fake news by Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi

We are increasingly behaving as a sadistic and chaotic nation when we look at our collective behavior. Every incidence whether big or small converts into a national hysteria without fundamentally changing our behavior for the better. The most troubling part for me personally is that a substantial number of educated people are engaged in promoting chaos and seems to be getting a sadistic pleasure from it. Dr. Shahid Masood as a top-rated celebrity anchor made a sensational claim recently that criminal involved in the rape and murder of a little girl is part of an international child porn gang. To substantiate this claim he told his audience that there is a record of 37 foreign bank accounts owned by the criminal that some influential people are trying to hide. This eventually turned out to be fake news. I have written in the past that fake news is a national security threat and Dr. Shahid Masood incident has once again brought this point to the fore.

Free media does not mean it is free for all to become journalists. It is like free healthcare would mean to allow nurses to practice as doctors. Free media has to be credible media to serve its important purpose of informing and educating people as well as ensure government runs with accountability and transparency. We have a plethora of electronic media but is it credible or really free. We can classify our television channels into two broad categories. Those that are owned by professional news and media businesses and those that are owned by oligarchs with no past experience of professional journalism. The standards of reporting in these two categories are markedly different. Channels owned by professional media businesses have better standards of reporting and significant editorial control on their content. Oligarch owned channels lack these standards and are at the forefront of promoting fake news. I am not at all suggesting that oligarch owned channels can’t improve their professionalism but it may be costly and create further pressure on their already squeezed profits. Express News is a good example which is owned by an oligarch but has improved its reporting standards over the years.

Anchors can also be divided into two broad categories. Those that had many years of reporting experience before they became anchors and those that had no such experience. The quality of content of professional journalists is much better in terms of editorial control and is usually based on credible information as compared to celebrity anchors. Most celebrity anchors act as shock jocks and rely on shock and awe to fascinate their audiences and raise their adrenaline levels. Dr. Shahid Masood is one of those celebrity anchors and it was only a matter of time before he would blow the top and go overboard. Dr. Aamir Liaquat Hussain is another such example of a shock jock. Both of them can be broadly classified as entertainers rather than journalists. Here I am talking in general terms and we cannot rule out exceptions but these exceptions are rare and cannot be used as a benchmark.

We as a nation are also exhibiting an attitude of acting on high emotions for a short time and then completely forget what has happened. Politicians in government deal with these high emotion periods by presenting ad-hoc solutions to the crisis at hand. This ad hoc approach to solving issues is also adding to the chaos because these solutions are not deep enough to deal with the next crisis. Today many colleagues of Dr. Shahid Masood are criticizing him even those that have engaged in similar practices like him. But have we taken any concrete steps or explored solutions that can help us improve quality of our electronic news media.

Media plays an important role in strengthening democracy by holding the government accountable as well as working as foot soldiers in the fight for rights of the people. In a country where literacy rates are low and penetration of print media is very small, the burden on informing the nation falls on the shoulders of electronic media. By and large, I hold the view that electronic media has helped the society rather than hurt it. But it is important that PEMRA takes some necessary steps to review its licensing policy for news channels so that quality of contents is improved. The content side of these channels should be in the hand of professional journalists that have certain level and years of experience. The owners and marketing should have no influence on the news content and editors should have complete control of all content. Only professional journalists should be hired as anchors. The hosts of primetime programs from 7 pm to mid-night should have certain years of experience before they can be allowed to go on air.

PEMRA should introduce a benchmark in terms of presenting factual news that has to be maintained and licenses of those that breach it should be put under review for improvement and cancel their licenses if they fail to comply with review findings. Electronic Media Journalist associations should adopt and strictly implement a code of conduct. It is heartening to see that many professional journalists have come forward to criticize fake news and demand a holistic solution to cure the problem.

Advertisers also have a social responsibility and should not support news programs that do not employ professional editorial control and presented by professional journalists. The media buyers on news channels should seek profiles of the editor and anchor before placing their orders. Similarly, viewers also have a responsibility to tune out of programs that do not practice professionalism and adhere to high journalistic ethics. Personally, I tune out of programs that promote conspiracy theories based on fake news and only watch talk shows that are anchored by professional journalists. I have always suggested that a journalist can report a glass half full or empty in his report but cannot adopt a cloud in the sky approach that can assume any shape or form depending on the flight of their imagination. In an email to Dr. Shahid Masood on June 20th, 2016 I did mention to him that he is using the cloud in the sky approach and hence losing credibility. He did not pay any heed to my advice.

The point I am trying to convey is that it is our collective failure that fake news has become more prevalent in our society and causing the chaos. The solutions I am presenting are not something unique as many others are suggesting a similar approach. It is very important that this situation is improved as fake news is a serious national security threat and one of the key factors in the continued weakness of our democracy.

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