Doing journalism where public life is synonymous with violence

Originally published as a collection of case studies on ethics.mediaasia.info in 2018.

The concept of blocking-a-story doesn’t exist at Dawn, unless of course the story is completely off-tangent and doesn’t fit the standards set by us. But one tries to be careful; this is not a revolutionary newspaper, it’s a decent, objective newspaper where we support democracy and you don’t want to destroy anyone’s business. These rules are made by them (management). They can change the rules but at the moment this is how they function.”  – Zaffar Abbas, editor Dawn.

Dawn, Pakistan

In Pakistan, the politics of confrontation not only have material consequences but also manifest themselves in the symbolic realm. In this environment, Dawn, the most widely circulated and respected English daily, maintains a zero tolerance policy against “attack ads”.

“We only accept ads from political parties that are in praise of their activities, not if they are attacking a rival party,” says Zaffar Abbas.

Dawn’s attempt to foster a constructive national debate in a violently polarized political culture is no accident and is reflected in its commitment to professional practice. Ever since the paper’s foundation in 1941, managements have allowed the editors a level of autonomy unparalleled in the local media industry.

Indeed, Abbas, a career journalist with over 30 years of experience, is the most revered person at the newspaper’s headquarters; the custom is that even “the sahib (CEO) must walk down to the editorial floor for a meeting”. Something all staffers take enormous pride in.

The separation of editorial control from the publisher is a common practice among free and independent news organizations globally. However, it has special significance in Pakistan’s emerging media landscape where muckraking media barons, like other local business owners, often circumvent corporate and informal rules.

Such editorial autonomy comes with a price. The paper is suffering from heavy advertising losses, after it reported details of a special meeting between the powerful military and the civilian government in October 2016. This is in a country where 90 percent of newspaper revenue comes from advertisers, of whom at least 30 percent are government or government-related.

A respected brand

At the same time, the flagship daily enjoys the prestige of catering to elite educated Pakistanis and claims the highest share of English print readership, giving it a status similar to a newspaper of record. The parent company, Dawn Media Group, understands this well and has managed to inextricably link the professional ethos of the daily with the Dawn brand.

The daily maintains a strict code of ethics for advertisers, in addition to charging a premium tariff. Standard restrictions are applicable on editorial space allocated for ads; for instance, no full front-page ad is ever allowed. Advertisers may also be turned away because of what the paper considers sensitive content. In addition to “attack ads”, these may include sensitive or controversial categories such as marriage, investment, and religious matters.

Pakistani advertisers in turn, understand that the Dawn brand has the potential to leverage their products and are willing to accept such terms.

While the group charges one of the highest tariffs in the country for its flagship product, it maintains a more flexible policy, in keeping with the market, for its other media businesses, which include magazines, a 24-hour news television station, a radio entertainment station and a fast growing news website. For instance, the Dawn TV news channel, managed and run independently of the newspaper, may offer considerable discounts to advertisers, most of whom buy in-bulk. While Dawn.com, the papers’ online extension, follows the general editorial and advertising ambit of the print edition, it can offer a 10 percent discount. No value addition is ever given for the print edition.

The group also organizes exhibitions and trade fairs, which are otherwise rare public events in Pakistan. One such event is the DawnSpelling Bee. A regular fixture in schools, the competition is another example of how the group has based its unique selling proposition on best practice. Previously housed inside the advertiser-focused marketing department, it was shifted to the more reader-centric, circulation department. “We realize that through this programme we are investing in the future. Good readers today, will become the readers of print tomorrow,” explains Ali Hasan Naqvi, the head of marketing.

Management to the rescue

Despite enviable brand equity, the editors forecast that profits for the daily will likely sink below break-even in five to ten years’ time. This is due to commercial factors beyond the battles with disgruntled advertisers and the powerful state apparatus. Recently, much advertising revenue has been encroached upon by the mushrooming of private television channels.

The staffers derive their confidence from the management and with good reason. Hailing from a wealthy business family in Pakistan, the current CEO, Hameed Haroon, is the president of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, a patron of the arts and heritage for the local government and hosts a radio programme on South Asian music. “We don’t have a financial goal per se of survival,” he says, speaking about Dawn at his alma mater, the London School of Economics. By this he meant that if the paper is not viable with the existing commitment to editorial independence, it would not be worth continuing with it.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was arguably the paper’s first CEO, was a lawyer by profession and the president of the All-India Muslim League – the political party in British India which fought the constitutional battle for a separate Muslim majority nation-state, later called Pakistan. He became independent Pakistan’s first Governor General. Jinnah’s portrait is part of the paper’s masthead and reminds staffers to see their work as a professional public service, supported by their management.

Journalism education in Pakistan must break out of the liberal mould that shaped it

Media liberalisation in Pakistan was ushered during the presidency of Gen. (rt) Pervez Musharraf in early 2000s. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Recently scholars at the opening meeting of the premier International Communication Association conference, cautioned against the role of ‘fake news’ in elections around the world.

The menace can be observed in democracies from the most to the least mature. It highlights the changing paradigm in journalism dominated by liberal principals to one where context specific factors form the basis for journalism practice and development.

However, journalists in Pakistan continue to benchmark dated Western ideals about the profession.

The overt reliance on liberal ideals

They lash out against any curbs on press freedom by seeking refuge in the liberal market place of ideas. The argument goes that truth reigns supreme in an environment of unrestrained and free flow of information. Their opponents are quick to point out how the press in even the most liberal media markets, such as the United States, ‘tow-the-line’ during national crisis.

In the Asian context we have seen that a rampant growth of the media industry in the absence of civic norms flooded the market place with partisan voices and junk. The liberalized media in the Philippines after the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1986 is a notable case in point. Rather than enlightenment that facilitates a much needed national consensus a rambunctious media further disoriented the public.

Closer to home commercialization is also strongly associated with the erosion of editorial integrity by marketing departments or owner’s private agendas, as is documented on the Indian press.

The overt reliance on liberal ideals ultimately polarizes the debate in the limited public space there is for fact based informed opinion in Pakistan. Worse still, it allows societal elites that are contemptuous of public scrutiny to justify curbs on truth on grounds of a press perceived ill equipped to report it.

We must break out of the liberal-authoritarian binary in our public discourse where anything that goes against the state perspective is labelled ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ by the media. Just as any critique of religious extremism is seen as a past time of a ‘civil society crowd’

The problem with an unwavering faith in liberalism was starkly visible in the polarization of the American press during the election of President Trump. A large segment of the supposedly liberal media that had historically supported and preached impartiality and fairness in news reporting, more so than the conservative press, deemed it in the public interest to do away with an important journalism ideal.

Else where: why is liberalism failing to ignite imagination?

Implications for journalism education in Pakistan

Reality is a complex interplay of myriad factors. Not a zero-sum game. Consequently, journalism students must be taught to appreciate nuances of reporting in relation to factors such as institutional configuration, commercial and political imperatives.

To be sure, journalism is a profession, practiced and learned through participation in the routine activities of a news room. Journalism schools therefore re-create that environment in their training studios and production labs.

However this technical training is based on a strong theoretical foundation. Top journalism schools around the world are also very active in academic research. Professors offer special topics designed to arm students with a capacity to adapt context specific differences in practice with the democratic ideals upon which the discipline stands.

Comparative media research, for instance, shows that sustainable professional journalism can exist in pockets even in the harshest political environments. Just as democracies can exist in sustainable hybrid forms rather than an ideal (read Western) type on a continuum from low to high quality.

I’m involved in one such study, at the Hong Kong Baptist University, that investigates ethical best practices among media organisations in five Asian territories; China, India, Indonesia, Philippines and Taiwan. We found that reputable organisations here are usually run by journalist-publishers with a strong ethos. Management policies facilitate a democratic culture in the newsroom itself. They understand branding but set their professional ethos as the value proposition.

The project is at a nascent stage but shows the significance for Pakistani media to observe journalism in contexts beyond the American and British benchmarks. Media practices in regions with whom we share commonalities in socio-cultural and economic development are more useful to understand and improve our own.

Why does this matter?

This won’t be easy. It requires updating curricula in our media schools and the particularly difficult task of designing pedagogy that can operationalize such knowledge to the unique requirement of the news industry in Pakistan.

This doesn’t mean that liberalism is inherently bad. On the contrary, liberal education is desperately needed for young Pakistanis to understand their role in society and learn to co-exist in harmony. Only that a liberal press is not necessarily professional and certainly not the most effective.

Else where: what is a liberal press?

If we do not arm our journalists with the state of play in the field they will struggle to stay relevant in building a democratic Pakistan. A key function of the press. Media students will face a disconnect between classroom learning and the work place upon graduation. Non-democratic forces will continue to encroach upon the vacuum left by our media institutions.