In 2007, newspapers and periodicals in Pakistan totalled at 1,280 publications. Out of these 437 were daily papers, 463 weeklies, according to the Pakistan bureau of statistics. By 2016, the total figure fell to 539, with 308 dailies and 72 weeklies across Pakistan.
This change within ten years is obviously due to the rise of digital journalism, and the mass of news channels on television. The changing market of the news industry is no surprise but what interested me is the changing way that we interact with the news now due to the decline of print media, and the way opinions and formed and stories produced.
Social media sites have made it easier for us to come across news (and fake news) even when we don't want to bother to go to the website of a newspaper. This means on the one hand a more informed and aware youth, but it also means that only the news that become viral has visibility, while important stories may be buried.
This change is of extreme importance in Pakistan where public opinion can influence the rise and fall of a story. A political party with public hordes supporting them can easily counter a news story. An example was the Dawn Leaks scandal, where the social media discussion on who was the government official who leaked the story became the focus. The content of the leak went undebated and no accountability or defence was asked from the party accused. The tangents that stories take due to public opinion ensure that news stories today are incomplete and investigative journalism has no place in the public sphere of the Internet.
Similarly, stories in the last few months that have portrayed the PTI negativity are not debunked by journalists, but by keyboard warriors. Political opinion is built on heresy on social media rather than reporting done by newsvendors. The situation of the quality of public debate has deteriorated to such an extent that often people cannot fathom that if facts exist to counter their opinions they must accept those facts, or acknowledge that reports that counter their positions exit at all. The news has devolved into opinion, and social media is in large part responsible.
This is creating a culture where the media is churning out content it feels will get traction on social media like Facebook and Twitter. This is not just content that goes typically viral, like posts about kittens and puppies but politically charged stories, like the price of Maryam Nawaz's Gucci shoes, or Imran Khan's prostration at a shrine. These stories are unimportant in the grand scheme of things, where people do not know what Imran Khan has planned for the economy, or what exactly the arrest of Maryam and Nawaz Sharif means for a major political party in Pakistan when it opposed the PTI in parliament. The death of print media means journalists will not be going after such stories that are truly in public interest.
And that is the crux of it. Journalism is about public interest and not national interest. Stories that portray a dominant party negatively, the military negatively, or the country negatively, are generally tagged as being against “national interest”- a convenient term that sounds patriotic and full of national concern, but often a mask for the more sinister word censorship. It is not the job of the news media to fix the country, but to point out flaws wherever they may. The negativity of the news is supposed to create accountability though channels of public opinion. Instead it is creating feedback and backlash against its own news stories on social media, such that it’s not in the interest of journalists to uncover stories that unmask politicians and political actors, or hurt nationally dear institutions and leaders.
The US has seen this feedback loop in action where no story about President Donald Trump has been able to cause public opinion to ask him to be held accountable. Had the former US President Obama been accused in the press of harassing a woman, or any racially charged slurs, it is likely that he would have been impeached. This is not just the power of race and money that is on Trump’s side, but sheer pig-headed public opinion that just won’t have it. Try to criticise Naya Pakistan today, and the same feedback loop is in effect. Pro-PTI opinion is so active and engaged on social media, it can block out criticism. Without a vibrant opposition, the dominant party/group cannot be made to function efficiently. Truly, an anti-government, anti-corruption movement would not have been possible without the PTI. Similarly, a progressive and peaceful “Naya” Pakistan will be impossible if they PTI is not criticised. This is politics, not cricket.
The role of the media is instrumental in making and breaking idols, but the drop in print journalism is concerning because it means that fewer and fewer people are actually interested in picking up a physical newspaper and reading it to find out what the story actually is, and more and people are stumbling on “viral” and popular news stories online and believing them to be the real picture of the state of the nation. The Pakistani news media may of course be biased, but it is also producing the bias that the populace is demanding of it... producing stories they want to hear to support their opinion, rather than the truth whatever its nature.
The writer is studying South Asian history and politics at the Oxford University and is the former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation.