Introduction: News as a construct
John Hartley while expatiating on news discourse in his famous treatise Understanding News comments that ‘news comes to us as the pre-existing discourse of an impersonal social institution which is also an industry.’ (Hartley J. p.5) Hartley’s observation defines the nature of news in the present day and reiterates the fact that news is no more a piece of information that transform society and the world, but a commodity that is sold in markets just like any other consumer product. The pre-existing discourse in which it reaches us explains the politics of the news and the power behind that shapes its course. Thus, it could be observed that news is a construct in many respects. James Watson rightly comments ‘…we are seeing, then that the news is culturally positioned, and we view reality through a cultural prism. That the rendition of reality is so convincing is partly explained because the news, framed for us by the media, is usually all that we have to go on as a portrait of realities beyond our own environment; and partly because the news is constructed with such professional skill.’ (Watson J. p.122)
The constructed reality or the mediated reality has become so powerful in our lives that we have lost the power even to think and make a rational decision; the media has started thinking for us. Reporting -whether it is about an international news event or a local incident- then acquires a strategic importance. A single word carefully used in a sensitive context can transform the entire notion of person. As Hartley puts it, ‘…when we learn to speak, we learn much more than words. From the very beginning we use language not just to name things, but, more importantly, to work out how to behave towards other people and the world ‘out there”.(Hartley J. p.1)
News of course, is a social and cultural institution that co-exists with other institutions in the society; naturally, it shares the characteristics of those institutions that co-exist with it. Hartley observes that news forms a sub-system within language, with its constituents- the words and images. Thus there occurs a socialisation to the institution of news too, learning its ‘codes and conventions’ and thus we start to interpret the world, without recognising that the mediated reality is different from the real occurrences. but we still never understand this constructed nature of the news. Watson explains the phenomenon; ‘…we have grown so accustomed to the modes of news presentation that we are, unless especially cautioned, likely to accept that it is at least a close encounter with reality. Yet journalists provide us with a cue to their trade as ‘assembly-workers’ when they refer to news reports as ‘stories’, thus implying a process of invention. As Allen Bell puts it, ‘Journalists do not write articles. They write stories.’ (Watson J. p. 122)
The people who make the selection of the news or those who re-construct the reality thus wield the real power. The gate-keeping process or the selection of the news and the criteria on which the news is selected or the ‘news values’ acquires further significance. In other words, the power that controls news selection also determines its discourse.
J. Galtung and M. Ruge made a very interesting study in 1973 about news reports. They analysed the foreign news in a set of daily newspapers and found that every ‘news item,’ has to pass through a selection process to endorse the label as ‘news worthy’. In the process, it is strictly judged upon certain criteria by the editorial staff, and evaluated whether it is qualified or eligible for entry. ‘This is not to say that the staffs were consciously subjecting items to judgement, rather than they used a professional methodology to ‘nose out’ good story.’ (Jones M. & Jones E., p.90) Galtung and Ruge called these criteria ‘news values’. Yet these criteria are guided by other practical and social factors, which include the timeliness and the space available in the newspaper or newscast. These criteria include immediacy or frequency or the time taken by the event to develop; importance that relate to developments about significant countries or important people, clarity of events or the transparency of reporting; meaningfulness representing the cultural relevance and proximity of the event; expectedness and unexpectedness which means the importance and sudden developments of events; composition; reference to elite nations where the Western nations always get the attention; reference to elite people who form the heads of states of economic powers, celebrities and the royals; personalisation which interprets actions of political leaders as political action; and negativity where bad news is regarded as good news.
These news values, although they were identified decades back, still find relevance with the Western media. Many of the international events that are covered by the Western media are clear examples of these news values in action. This is particularly relevant in reporting the news stories that originates in the non-Western world. A recent example is the French President Sarkozy’s affair with his girl friend and actress xxxx ; which in fact was a celebration for the media, but the Pak crisis which has been tormenting the nation and its people for many months got serious reviews only when Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister was assassinated. Still, most of the reviews and reports were flavoured than favoured and struck a balance, which did not directly implicate Mushraff, the President of Pakistan just because he was an ally of the United States in the war against terror. But before going to analyse how the media covered the Pak crisis before and after the assassination of Benazir, it would be better to mention something about some special characteristics of the news, in the Western media, particularly the British press.
Contemporary journalism is characterised by not only the unambiguous news values it holds but also certain special methods of treating the news. One of the most prevalent tendencies observed is its going back from the serious journalism to be interpreted as investigative journalism and the reporting of hard news to ‘softer’ or ‘lighter’ stories. Bob Franklin rightly observes: ‘Journalism’s editorial priorities have changed. Entertainment has superseded the provision of information; human interest has supplanted the public interest; measured judgement has succumbed to sensationalism; the trivial has triumphed over the weighty; the intimate relationship of celebrities from soap operas, the world of sport or the royal family are judged more ‘newsworthy’ than the reporting of significant issues and events of international consequence. Traditional news values have been undermined by new values; ‘infotainment’ is rampant.'(Franklin B., p.4) Malcolm Muggeridge calls this phenomenon as ‘Newszak’. Newszak is a double refined form of news, which shows more elements of entertainment in it. This change in the perspective of news is seen in almost all dailies around the world and with the broadcast media. Franklin observes: ‘in television news bulletins, a commitment to newszak is evident in programme formats in which ‘one presenter talks to another’ that reduce ‘crucial events into a cosy chat show’ (Franklin, p.5) The news papers however has compartmentalised the news to include more sizzling pages and stories. Featurisation was print media’s immediate answer, and it shows the way that it endorses newszak. The British newspapers are no different, the tabloid press has been playing with the elements newszak and entertainment for a long time, but recently concern has been shifted to the content of the broadsheet newspapers, which imitates tabloids in a number of ways.
Since 1980s, they had changed in all respects, not only in the looks but also in the perspective. Franklin notes that ‘the ‘broadsheets’ derision of the tabloid format has increasingly become mimicry. Tabloid-style banner headlines, alliterative and punny headlines, large print, less text, shorter words, bigger pictures, colour pictures and more of them, have become standard components of the broadsheet front page.’ (Franklin B., p.7) He also notes four aspects of change that particularly reflect the change in their stance. The broadsheets had to compromise with the market and increasing financial burdens and the first thing they had to do was to do away with the investigative stories and the foreign news. Advertisers have the main say over the allocation of space and news stories are selected according to their likes and interests than of the editorial team or the readers. Hence, subjects like travel and consumer issues found place above foreign news, which never encouraged a product. As a result, ‘the world is disappearing out of sight.’ (Sampson, 1996, p.45) Today foreign news finds relevance only as a human-interest story, with pictures that attract the readers, with a definite purpose to ‘elicit sympathy – a collective ‘Oh dreadful’ – from the readership.’ (Franklin B., p.8) Equally suffered was the gallery journalism; no more substantial coverage of the proceedings of the House, and they were reduced to mere interviews when significant developments take place. Obituary has become a celebration, if the deceased personality is a celebrity; the objective is just to increase the number of copies.
The second aspect is the growth of columnists, who replaced the foreign news and the investigative reports, in other words, ‘views have increasingly replaced news.’ (Franklin B., p.8) These columnists are not concerned about an in-depth analysis, instead they present their own opinion, the academic value or the veracity of research is not at all questioned. The readers are thus endorsed with a view, neither of the newspaper nor of a researcher, but with petty observations of the incident in discussion. As Sampson puts it they would tell ‘what happened to them on the way to Sainsbury’s, what their children did at school, how they enjoyed their holidays’ (Sampson, 1996, p.45).
The third aspect is the priority given to the news, the main stream broadsheets now seems to work on the number of copies sold formula, thus stories of trivial matters and celebrities particularly the royal family, gets more relevance. The final aspect, Franklin says, is the inclusion of ‘many editorial features which previously were the exclusive preserve of the tabloids.’ (Franklin B., p.9). These characteristics tell how journalism is practised today and portend to how it would evolve in future years.
International coverage – pakistan in context
International coverage of news events has assumed significance particularly after the successive Gulf Wars, in which CNN taught the world news ways of perceiving the reality. One of these is that through favouring the immediacy of live images, contemporary television news ‘presents reality as self-revelatory, ie. it makes it appear as reality rather than as a construction’ (Gurevitch, 1996, p.214) In fact, it was the rise of the global television and concomitantly the global news. Even though the terms international news reports and global news seems alike, they differ in perspectives. It would be better to assess the global news in a truly market perspective, that it remains a commodity which is hot selling. It does not mean that the global news has become a new news value of significance. But, it underlines the criteria of Galtung and Ruge, that if an international event has to become global news of significance, it still has to be directly or indirectly related to an elite nation or it should be an event that affects the policies of an elite nation. The coverage of the recent political developments in Pakistan culminating in the assassination of Benazir, very well describes the above criteria in action. While explaining the criteria John Hartley says that war involving the elite nations will be reported whereas others go unnoticed. ‘Elections in France, Germany and Italy will receive more coverage than those in Latin America, Africa, etc. And of course there is the famous head count equation for disasters: disasters in Bangladesh for example need thousands or hundreds killed to reach the newsworthiness threshold, where as those in ‘elite’ countries will be newsworthy with progressively lower body-counts.’ .(Hartley J. p.78)
Coming to the coverage of the crisis in Pakistan, the Western media followed the same practice, waiting for the situation to deepen or looking for head counts. However, Pakistan got some privilege, just because it was an ally of the United States in the war against terror. Mushraff’s activities got some news value, just because he was the head of the state even though they got a positive tone in the Western media. See the tone of voice in this report. ‘General Pervez Musharraf was surprised. Visiting New York for a session of the UN, the last thing the Pakistani president expected was to be confronted with evidence of his country’s secret sales of nuclear bomb technology and equipment to members of the “axis of evil”. Yet here on the polished wooden table of Musharraf’s hotel suite, George Tenet, director of the CIA, was laying out a sheaf of incriminating evidence…..Britain had privately been pressing America to tell Musharraf it had to stop. In October 2003 MI6 uncovered Pakistani nuclear material on a boat heading for Libya. But the consensus in Washington was that saving Pakistan’s vulnerable (and valuable) president mattered more than prosecuting the guilty.’ (The Sunday Times, Sept 2, 2007)
Musharaff never gets a rough treatment, but a soft rebuke, the words are not harsh, but the Taliban without a second thought has become the “axis of evil”, should Mushraff enjoy so much privileges on the only fact that he is a friend of the United States. This reminds of the Western media’s reporting of the Iraqi defeat during the Gulf War. The ‘objectivity’ of journalism has in fact failed to bring out the ‘real Mushraff’ or his autocratic policies. Even the incriminating evidence found by the CIA is presented in a dramatic fiction like format, which appeal more like a Hollywood film script.
The below news story gives a glimpse of the Independent’s portrayal of the situation in Pakistan. “President Pervez Musharaff made last-minute changes to Pakistan’s constitution yesterday, shoring up his legal defenses before lifting a six-week-old state of emergency, a senior official said. Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said Musharraf may also move to restore the credibility of January elections by suspending local mayors and scrapping a two-term limit for prime ministers. The US-backed leader cast Pakistan into turmoil and raised serious doubts over the credibility of next month’s parliamentary elections by imposing a state of emergency on 3 November” (Independent Dec 15, 2007) The Independent does not use any flowery language, nor does it try to soften the reality, perhaps a vindication of the politics and policies of the newspaper. The background information provided to the readers explicitly implicates Musharaff in a strong voice, as if the newspaper is telling that it does not want to kill the objectivity in the story. The expressions ‘the US-backed leader’, ‘cast Pakistan into turmoil’, ‘raised serious doubts over the credibility of next month’s …. elections’ are enough to announce the politics and the attitude of the autocrat. Thus the reader gets a vivid picture, which only a detailed news footage or a documentary could give.
Assassination of Benazir: Obituary as celebration
When the crisis in Pakistan escalated to the assassination of the former prime minister, Benazir, most of the Western media reacted quickly, but it failed to be a faithful obituary to the departed leader. Again, it was a big story for the media, a celebration in name of obituary. The coverage of the events by the The Times and the Independent are good examples of the general nature of the Western media, in dealing with such situations. The Times in fact had spent the first eleven pages including the op-ed and the editorial to cover the tragedy. The headline runs ‘Fears rise as Bhutto falls’ (The Times, Dec. 28, 2007) with a four column blown up photo of the assassinated leader. Photographs filled the inner pages that tell the violent scenes from the place of tragedy, to a number of human-interest photographs that reveal the life and times of the popular leader. In fact, The Times had spent a huge space for obituary for the departed leader, analysing her personality, the state of affairs at the troubled nation and the implications of the tragedy. In fact it was featurisation at the core, giving more view points to the reader. The headlines stories in The Times on Dec. 28, 2007 run like.
2. Can democracy survive and who will take Bhutto’s place?(column)
3. Main suspects are warlords and security forces
4. Civil war feared as angry mob demands head of Musharaff.
5. I asked her whether she felt immortal. No, she answered.(Memoirs)
6. ‘I know death comes. I don’t fear it.’ (Extracts from interview)
7. Leaders denounce senseless murder of a courageous woman and friend.(General report)
8. Pakistani community in Britain is split as fears surface. (Analytical report)
9. News could be pivotal in the race to replace Bush as president. (Analytical report)
10. End in sight for a dynasty steeped in power, death and politics.
11. ‘I have only now begun to mourn my wife’s death. Now my heart is broken’. (Report)
12. The nightmare scenario (Editorial)
13. The queen is dead. Long live the cause.(Opinion)
The Times indeed has made it a kaleidoscope, virtually covering everything about Benazir encompassing the pros and cons of everything. But not a single report came against the Government failure announcing that it is the same Western criteria of gate keeping that’s still working. The Times was in fact celebrating the event, with plenty of stuff for its readers, what else news as a commodity can do. This was also supported by a number of photographs:
2. Photographs from the scene of tragedy
3. Benazir, when she was at Oxford.
4. Benazir, putting on her make-up before addressing the rally.
5. Mixed reaction of the Pakistani community.
6. Benazir with her children.
Among the photographs, the most striking is the front-page four-column photograph of Benazir. The photograph was cleverly selected, and it was a close up photograph of Benazir, shortly before she addressed the political rally, at which she was killed. The picture shows her determination and courage that is expected of a political leader, and her stubborn gaze conveys how powerful she is as a charismatic leader.
The Times was also timely in using some human-interest photographs that revealed Benazir’s personality. The most striking was that of Benazir, putting on her make-up before addressing the rally. The woman with lipstick on her lips conveys the message that even amidst her tedious (and dangerous) political career, she was a woman to the core, the other picture with her children, tells the different roles she plays in life. Its true, the message conveyed that Benazir belonged to a rare breed of courageous and diplomatic leaders, but it also meant that news is also sold at the same time more as a commodity.
The Independent coverage of the Pak crisis was objective than its competitor. The tone of voice in the story below that was reported before the assassination of Benazir had an independent tone of voice.
‘President Pervez Musharraf made last-minute changes to Pakistan’s constitution yesterday, shoring up his legal defenses before lifting a six-week-old state of emergency, a senior official said. Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said Musharraf may also move to restore the credibility of January elections by suspending local mayors and scrapping a two-term limit for prime ministers. The US-backed leader cast Pakistan into turmoil and raised serious doubts over the credibility of next month’s parliamentary elections by imposing a state of emergency on 3 November. He is expected to lift the emergency and restore the constitution on Saturday. But he still faces a barrage of criticism at home and abroad that the 8 January ballot will be flawed. Musharraf has said he acted to halt a “conspiracy” by top judges to end his eight-year rule and ward off political chaos that would hobble Pakistan’s efforts against Islamic extremism.’ (Independent, Dec. 15, 2007)
The news paper was very much conscious in maintaining a neutral tone of voice, even within the constraints of the market oriented present day journalism. This was how the lead story on Dec 28 read.
‘Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in a suicide attack today as she drove away from a campaign rally just minutes after addressing thousands of supporters. The death of the charismatic former prime minister threw the campaign for the 8 January election into chaos and stirred fears of mass protests and a wave of violence that had already erupted by the evening. President Pervez Musharraf blamed Islamic terrorists for the killing.’ (Independent, Dec. 28, 2007)
The Independent does not show any confusion in presenting the facts before it’s readers. The stance and neutrality of the newspaper becomes vivid in the back ground information. The story continues:
‘Bhutto’s death left a void at the top of her Pakistan People’s Party, the largest political group in the country, and threw into turmoil US President George W Bush’s plan to bring stability to this key US ally by reconciling her and Musharraf. Speaking to reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, a tense-looking Bush condemned the killing and demanded that “those who committed this crime must be brought to justice.”‘ (Independent, Dec. 28, 2007)
The Independent does not show any restraint in telling the world, how the United States play in the Pakistani politics and how dearer is Musharraf to Bush. Thus the newspaper has taken the readers beyond the borders of Pakistan and placed the entire issue in an international context. The leading article tells the newspaper’s objective stance clearly.
‘There was an appalling sense of inevitability about the death of Benazir Bhutto at an election rally in Rawalpindi. The risk she had taken in returning to Pakistan was brutally apparent from the moment her plane touched down. The failed attempt on her life during the interminable procession that day showed how inadequate her protection would be if she continued her campaign. That she did so nonetheless showed admirable, if perhaps foolhardy, courage. An accursed symmetry had it that she died yesterday in the same garrison city where her deposed father was executed. Her quest to avenge his death and return elected government to Pakistan came to naught.’ (Independent, Dec. 28, 2007)
It is true that Independent showed a greater objectivity with careful use of words and minimal photographs which were just enough to give Benazir’s assassination an international importance.
John Hartley gives a tribute to Roland Barthes’ observation in his seminal study of news. To quote Hartley ‘ Roland Barthes makes a distinction between two kinds of pleasure available from reading texts: plasir and jouissance. Plasir is contentment, but jouissance describes a more explosive kind of joy. Texts which get near to producing jouissance are not usually associated with news’. Independent understands the sense of plasir more than The Times; its what the news stories tell.