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Government Gazette

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 Congo.

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 actually happen.

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 story.

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 victim.

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 dominant classes.

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 deviant.

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 cut out.

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 relationships.

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.”

The ‘truth’

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 institutional voice.

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 speaker.

“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 stories.

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.

Dawn, Pakistan


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Ceylinco Banyan Villas

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