On Our Media

December 1, 2010

Last weekend, I conducted a training course for the staff of an emerging Kurdish TV station that says it wants to uphold the values of strong, professional journalism.
News judgment was heavily emphasized in the course. This skill is fundamental for professional journalists and builds a news outlet’s credibility as well as its audience. For those not familiar with the concept, news judgment involves prioritizing the most important news by placing it at the top of a story and running the most important news items in a publication or newscast first.
After a number of discussions, we studied several TV news bulletins on the same day. All of the stations are owned by political parties. The bulletins highlighted the key defect and crippled nature of political party media.
In one of the exercises, I asked the journalists to reorder news items based on the impact it had on the public, and to estimate the number of people affected by the story.
The result was that we turned the original bulletin upside down! Instead of running a story about a leader’s (rather dull and non-newsworthy) official meetings first, as the party media had done, we prioritized stories about mobile petrol stations closing and explosions in Talafar and Jalawla.
For another exercise, we watched bulletins from two party-run TV stations and were able to predict exactly what a third party-affiliated station would run. The stations’ news line-ups were entirely based on the political stance of the parties that own them.
A quick analysis of the stories and issues that news outlets choose to report shows that the coverage is reflective of Iraqi’s divisive politics: pro-government media praises official initiatives while anti-government media is critical. At the end of the day, our media tailgates our politics.
But in every society, the number of people who are interested in politics is much smaller than those who are not. Our media unfortunately caters to politicians and political junkies, and fails to give the public information they need for their daily lives.
Many of my western journalist colleagues have observed that our media has not yet transitioned from acting as a political party’s revolutionary mouthpiece to serving as a mirror of a society that is working to rebuild itself.
Particularly in this delicate phase, the news media should reflect our society and should gauge our progress. So far, this has not occurred. We need to follow stories from multiple news organizations to get a complete picture of what is happening in our country, because most have their own agenda that does not reflect the entire truth.
We still don’t have a single trustworthy news source. This is mainly because our media is either owned by wealthy political parties that are focused on broadcasting their views to the public (as well as the daily schedule of its leaders); or by not-so-wealthy media owners whose outlets primarily criticize the political parties and publish items that the parties won’t.
The result is that neither of the two provides the full picture. In many ways, both operate in the same way but with different content.
This deadlock will not break until one decides to fundamentally shift toward independence. This requires a wealthy investor who wants to change the landscape of media and to serve as the leading news source for the public. Such an investment would be profitable,www.ekurd.netgiven that there is a huge untapped market for credible information. Advertising dollars would follow. If this model were applied, the party media would be left behind as it would be too late for them to catch up.
The other avenue is for the political parties to overhaul their current media policies. This can be done by prioritizing the public’s need for information above the party’s desire to inform the public of its leaders’ meetings.
This is done by separating news from propaganda, i.e. the news division of any media outlet should be completely independent from other departments. It should be managed by professional journalists who are not even members of the party, who prioritize public’s right to know.
It is clear that there is a huge news and information gap in our society. Whoever fills this gap by creating a trustworthy news outlet will reap the benefits –the investors will profit and the political parties will win votes.

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