I read a column recently published in a prominent English daily, titled Terrified of Television. I first, could not help but smile at the headline and later, was overwhelmed by the sentiments I share with those of the author. For me being a Broadcast Journalist trained on lines of journalistic principles and more importantly ethics decades ago, viewing today’s television news evokes at least in me, harsher feelings of shock, desolation, nausea and even repulse.
Rafia Zakaria, the author of the piece, used phrases like “avalanche of unpleasant visual phenomena” and “visual assault on the viewers’ eyes and brains and peace of mind” to describe the impact of television and particularly, electronic news in Pakistan. This is exactly the experience I have and as an antidote, I have relieved myself from watching news on television. It may come as a surprising move from someone who spent nearly a decade actively participating in newsrooms of prominent television setups. But then, that was a time when television news in Pakistan underwent a genuine revolution, which was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stagnant atmosphere of one sided, obsolete television journalism. Today, that atmosphere is saturated with a string of revolutions, many of them quite unnecessary.
‘Virtual Reality’ and ‘Augmented Reality’ are technological concepts which, although indeed eye catching and engaging, have become too much of a necessity on Pakistani television screens to the point of ad nauseam. To explain, these are the techniques through which artificially created backgrounds are embedded in physical sets or animations are incorporated alongside human elements. With the help of these, images or graphs can be easily inserted, animated and changed in a background instead of using actual hard sets which once made, can not be much adjusted during live transmission. And the advanced version of the same technology helps a news anchor appear on screen standing in the middle of a cricket ground, along side iconic players and action, when in reality, the person is standing in a large, empty room covered with blue or green walls and floor. Relatively less detailed use of these technologies appear in the form of ‘pop ups’, when news on a bomb blast may be accompanied by a car bursting into flames at the corner of the screen. This is the technology which was amply used by most TV news channels during the last election transmissions, where election candidates would appear to be strutting around, sharing the screen with TV hosts. Ideally, this is where this technology belongs – in special transmissions or in segments where these animations and graphics may be useful, like sports or weather. Sadly, it is being extensively used everywhere.
So what we see and hear on screen is a bombardment of colours and movements and shrilly noises. A regular news bulletin is accompanied by slides swishing in and out like a roller coaster with horrid sound effects, tickers moving too fast as if they are about to miss a train, ‘headers’ gliding in above the heads of the news anchors. And in oft repeated segment of ‘Breaking News’, which often breaks the concept of journalism and has become a subject of ridicule owing to absurd content, the animations take a 3D, 4D and even 5D turn (if there is such a dimension, you would see it only in Pakistani news channel), the colours become eye bursting bright and the news anchor’s already much audible voice pitch becomes painfully piercing. To gain attention of the viewers, TV news in Pakistan is losing sense of both aesthetics and ethics.
There are nearly 50 news channels in the country, with more to be launched in the future. Naturally, only the best make it to the top, although whoever wishes to and can afford to, easily gloats about making to the ‘top ten’ or even ‘No. 1’. Most of the channels have their own rating mechanisms and rubrics, so these calculations are hardly reliable. The most top notch news anchors and hosts appear on larger setups and are able to reach the slot after proven practice of effectively handling live transmissions and content of mostly political nature, along with journalistic background. Some news channels choose seasoned journalists, who have both experience and knowledge of foreign and political affairs and pull their already established contacts to ensure a steady supply of credible panelists. Where both are not an option available, young entrants, roughly groomed on speaking skills and more polished on physical appearance moderate shows. Here, the trend is rather disturbing.
It appears after watching any news channel in Pakistan that gender parity is not an issue, where women are increasingly taking center stage. In segments where traditionally women hosts are required, like in morning shows which are targeted to a female audience and whose content is another fiery debate, the choices are mostly apt. But with due respect to all concerned, mostly what the female and for that matter, male newscasters possess is an agreeable personality, exuding energy, an ability to glib incessantly, but not much command over content. The latter can hardly be expected, when these newscasters are fresh graduates, with no formal training except a few weeks or months drill on pronunciation, repeated gestures and how to speak for lengthy hours. Most of them have never written a news item, have never reported in the field and have no knowledge whatsoever of technical aspects of production. They seem to believe that newscasters and TV hosts are a separate category apart from the regular stream of journalists, while in essential in the West, where journalistic practices are much sounder, a news anchor or host appears on screen only after proving his or her mettle as a journalist in the newsroom or in the field.
And here, the seemingly improved status of gender parity ends. Because while females are hired in increasing numbers to ‘brighten’ up the screen, they may still be parallel in numbers in middle or lower levels of newsroom, but are largely absent in the top tier, where the actual decision making takes place. In technical positions, they are almost invisible.
How I long to see news anchors wearing softer tones rather than bright hues, both in wardrobes and makeup. How delighted I would be to see minimal graphics on the screen except for a ticker softly gliding noiselessly. How uplifted I would feel when training and refreshers of journalists is introduced in running setups, a concept which the industry as a whole is shunning and which is highly frustrating for experienced journalists who can only clench their fists and seal their lips at the fast paced news process of today, sometimes lacking even in basics of journalism.
But I am told that these are the gimmicks which sell, which ensure the success of a channel. Without an overboard of colours, movements and sounds, the efforts would not be known. What I would like to say in response is that no channel is different from the other. The content is the same, the daily schedule and nature of bulletins and programs is the same, the practices are the same. What can make a difference and stand out is an urge to focus on real news and real issues. That is when TV news can be less tormenting and more enlightening.