Limits of the news
A telling episode recalled by harassed journalists is of an American
reporter covering the forced withdrawal of Belgium from the then Belgian
Upon landing at Lusaka Airport, he saw a group of white women waiting
to be evacuated and rushed over to them with the classic question: “Has
anyone here been raped, and speaks English?” To a great extent, news
stories are pre-written and in fact ‘write’ the journalists since the
meanings they convey are already in circulation.
A TV news presenter
The field is bound by conventions that are overwhelmingly powerful
yet often unrecognised, because the tyranny of the deadline requires
speed and efficiency that only conventions make possible.
Furthermore, given that the news is produced by few and consumed by
millions, the conventions often end up producing news that serves the
interests of the dominant elite.
These conventions, particularly in television, attempt to control and
limit the meanings of the events they convey. The type of stories, the
form in which they will be presented and the programme structure into
which they will be slotted are determined long before any of the events
In a book titled ‘Television Culture’, John Fiske points out the
basic definition of news as factual information that citizens need in
order to meaningfully participate in society presents merely half the
In fact, news is also a commodity. Expensive to gather and
distribute, the news must create for itself an audience of the right
size and composition to be sold to advertisers.
For a rapidly increasing number of people in Pakistan, televised news
is the primary source of information about what is happening within the
country and beyond its borders. It is therefore vital for both the
producers and the viewers to understand the conventions that drive and
confine television news.
The first process of filtration is the set of conventions through
which an event is considered newsworthy. Firstly, the event should have
occurred within the last 24 hours. As a result, there is little sense of
continuous history in the news and few references to previous events.
Then, a newsworthy event always concerns elite persons, i.e. persons
who are familiar, either individually or in their symbolic social roles.
So, people such as Pervez Musharraf or Imran Khan are familiar in
their own right while in other cases, the roles are familiar even if the
individuals vary: the militant, the mullah, the disaster survivor, the
The powerful tend to be familiar as individuals while the powerless
or the voices of opposition are familiar mainly as social roles filled
by a variety of forgettable individuals. Greater power, therefore, is
conferred to familiar, already powerful individuals.
Through the news, consumers are indoctrinated to view the world in a
certain way, regardless of the ground realities.
News is what disrupts the normal and as Fiske writes, “What is absent
from the text of the news, but present as a powerful force in its
reading [ie the manner in which it is understood] are the unspoken
assumptions that life is ordinarily smooth-running, rule- and
law-abiding and harmonious.”
These norms embody a sense of what our social life ought to be rather
than what it is, and in doing this they embody the ideology of the
There is also a link between elitism and negativity: the positive or
‘normal’ actions of elite people will be reported often but those
without social power become newsworthy only when they are disruptive or
So, it is often reported that Dr Arbab Ghulam Rahim or Chaudhry
Pervaiz Elahi attended a foundation-laying ceremony and complimented the
president, but the peasant becomes news only when he’s had his kidney
Roughly, the news is divided into politics, the economy, foreign
affairs, domestic news, occasional stories and sport.
The actual categories are not hard and fast but the process of
categorisation creates a conceptual grid within which ‘raw’ events can
be instantly located and inserted into a familiar set of conceptual
On the one hand, categories work as normalising agents and on the
other, they serve as simple but effective structuring principles for
building news programmes.
Categorisation is a part of the strategy through which the news masks
its social process of representation and presents itself as objective.
For example, stories on a famine in Africa, guerrilla activity in Sri
Lanka, riots in Bangladesh or political corruption in Nicaragua, all
placed in one category, invites the viewer to understand them in terms
of their similarities rather than differences, ie as the world being a
place of chaos, and the nation, by implication, being a safe refuge.
Most importantly, however, categories also separate stories. “The
political practice of categorising social life into neat compartments -
the economy, education, crime, industry, etc - is essentially a
reactionary one,” writes Fiske, “because it implies that a ‘problem’ can
be understood and resolved within its own category; localising the
definition of problems encourages local ‘solutions’ and discourages any
critical interrogation of the larger social structure.”
In other words, the categorisation and thereby the fragmentation of
the news controls and limits the meanings of social life and constructs
the interests of the elite into ‘natural’ common sense.
The news is presented and consumed as ‘objective truth’, but there
are certain strategies through which this is achieved. For instance, the
studio newscaster does not appear to author his own discourse but is
presented as speaking the objective discourse of the ‘truth’, as an
One step down is the reporter who speaks with both an individual and
institutional voice, who mediates between ‘raw reality’ and the final
truth spoken by the newscaster.
The impersonal authority of the newscaster’s words enhances the
apparent ‘truth’ of the report. Through a process known as exnomination,
certain views/institutions are presented as natural, universal and
impossible to challenge.
For example, “Mr Ahmed told the gathering that the lawyers’ struggle
would continue,” is in the active voice and pins responsibility on the
“Chief Justice Chaudhry was served detention orders” or “Mr Hussain
was dismissed for alleged misconduct” is exnominated and in the passive
voice. It does not nominate anyone in terms of responsibility and the
action therefore becomes unchallengeable.
Furthermore, in individualising the voice of a conflict, conflicts of
interest are reduced to conflicts between individuals. As a result, the
social origins of events are lost and individual motivation is assumed
to be the origin of all action.
As any journalist knows, regardless of what an individual may say,
the meaning is ultimately defined by the placing of the interview in the
overall context of the story. In television news programming, which is
linear in nature, much can be said merely through the sequence of the
A report on the desperation of people in the Gaza strip, followed by
a White House spokesperson reiterating support for Israel has an overall
meaning different from the same report being followed by one concerning
growing militancy in Pakistan.
It therefore becomes vital for news producers and consumers to be
aware of what they produce and absorb. Total objectivity in the news is
virtually impossible because in the mere act of choosing an issue to
highlight, the reporter or editor is drawing upon his own concept of
what is newsworthy.
However, this drawback can be mitigated if the news audiences
educated themselves about the constraints of the field and became active
rather than passive consumers.