Yellow journalism vs. freedom of speech

BY Sultan M Hali

Yellow journalism is a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism.

The term originates from the period of the nineteenth century, when William Randolph Hearst, the proprietor of “New York Journal” was competing for circulation with Joseph Pulitzer’s “New York World”. In a bid to outdo his rival, Hearst sent his correspondents to Cuba to “cover the war”. On reaching Cuba, his reporters observed that there was no war. Hearst assured them that there will be a war and they must position themselves to cover it. The highly ambitious Hearst was cognisant of the fact that a war with Cuba would not only sell his newspapers, but propel him into a position of national prominence, surpassing his rival Pulitzer. He directed his reporters at Cuba to dispatch fake pictures and stories which would tug at the heartstrings of Americans and appeal to their conscience. Horrific tales of Cubans maltreating American females, executions, valiant rebels fighting and starving women and children motivated the US to go to war with Cuba. The main catalyst was the sinking of the US Navy’s battleship “Maine”, which Hearst, without evidence, unequivocally blamed on the Spanish, demanding US intervention. The term yellow journalism came from a popular New York World comic titled “Hogan’s Alley”, which featured a yellow-dressed character named the “yellow kid”. Determined to compete with Pulitzer’s World in every way, Hearst copied Pulitzer’s sensational style and even hired “Hogan’s Alley” artist R. F. Outcalt away from the World. In response, Pulitzer commissioned another cartoonist George B. Luks, to create a second “yellow kid”. Soon the sensational Press of the 1890s became a competition between the “yellow kids”, and the journalistic style was coined “yellow journalism”.

The era of yellow journalism may be said to have ended shortly after the turn of the century, with the World’s gradual retirement from the competition in sensationalism. Some techniques of the yellow-journalism period, however, became more or less permanent and widespread, such as banner headlines, coloured comics, and copious illustration; in other media, most notably television and the Internet, many of the sensationalist practices of yellow journalism have become more commonplace.

In Pakistan too, yellow journalism prevails but is mostly utilised by tabloids and media houses of ill repute.

Some reporters and correspondents indulge in using fake or doctored videos, concocted and distorted stories to create sensationalism. This scribe observed a certain reporter coming across the visiting Indian Minister for External Affairs in a hotel corridor, many moons ago. The reporter said “good morning” to the Indian Minister. The visitor responded “good morning”. This was the total contact between the two but the next morning, an exclusive interview of the visiting Indian External Affairs Minister was published in the daily, to which the reporter contributed.

In the recent past, an english daily of high repute, published the proceedings of a classified national security meeting. Reporting on the proceedings of the classified meeting would have been tantamount to breaching the Official Secrets Act but what is worse is that the reporter concocted the details of the meeting.

Pakistan is facing one of the biggest challenges to its existence. Narendra Modi, the extremist Indian Prime Minister, his secret agency RAW, India’s fanatic Hindu organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Ajit Doval et-al are breathing fire and brimstone, threatening to decimate Pakistan. Modi has declared open season for Baloch separatists and alleged insurgents in Gilgit, Baltistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir. Purported “surgical strikes” against assumed terror camps in Azad Kashmir have been launched by Indian troops. India is also intimidating Pakistan with a water war. Under the influence of Indian lobbying, two US Congressmen have tabled a bill to have Pakistan declared a “Terrorist State”. Another proposal to outlaw some Pakistani organisations by the UN was blocked by China using its power of veto. Afghanistan is blaming Pakistan for all its woes and blackballing it at every international forum. The Afghan government has jacked up transit tax on Pakistani goods by 100 percent, prompting the transporters to go on strike and creating a crisis like situation.

Under the current hostile milieu, it is essential that the entire population of Pakistan, especially its government and law enforcing agencies are united to meet the threat head on. Unfortunately, the publication of the fabricated story providing details of the government and the military, not being on the same page in the war on terror has made the situation murkier. It was a speculative story, which the author of the news item himself failed to corroborate and the office of the Prime Minister and Chief Minister Punjab had to issue rebuttals to the story.

What is alarming is that the story was not published in any rag tag tabloid but a leading English daily, which was founded by the Quaid-e-Azam himself and whose Chief Editor was Shaheed-e-Millat Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan.

The daily did publish the formal rebuttals to the fictional exposé, bordering on yellow journalism, issued by the respective spokespersons of the central and provincial governments but the damage was serious since the editor of the daily stood by the veracity of the report. Such a sensational news item professing chinks in Pakistan’s armour was like milk and honey to India, whose media blew the story out of proportions, hammering Pakistan with the alleged dissent between its lawmakers and defenders of Pakistan. As mentioned earlier, Indian media is already on the warpath insisting that Pakistan has a rogue army, which does not follow the diktats of the government but is culpable of sponsoring terrorism.

Under the prevailing circumstances, the local media, which is free and open, should also be objective and supportive of the national interest. Journalistic objectivity is a significant principle of journalistic professionalism. Journalistic objectivity can refer to fairnessdisinterestednessfactuality, and nonpartisanship, but most often encompasses all of these qualities. Freedom does not entail fabricating or concocting stories. Some elements of the media do provide a spin or twist to stories, only to grab the attention of its readers or viewers but to base one’s stories on total falsehood amounts to deception and following the diktat of the Chanakyan dictums of guile and dishonesty.

The government, on the other hand has also acted beyond its mandate by placing the name of the reporter on the Exit Control List. Such an extreme action is tantamount to curbing press freedom. If the government was displeased by the story, besides issuing repeated rebuttals, it could have spoken to the editor in chief of the daily and expressed its displeasure. By barring the reporter from international travel, human rights and press freedom organisations from around the world are pressurising the government to remove the travel ban and are expressing solidarity with the reporter.

Source: Pakistan Today

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