When the news is too good to be true

If you want to understand just how the news outlets in Pakistan, particularly the TV news outlets, are manipulated, read “Sensationalism, not journalism” at Dawn, one of Pakistan’s best newspapers. Here is a clip:

In unstructured societies like Pakistan, where fixing responsibility and holding accountability is not part of media routines, there is considerable damage. News is measured less by how objective and credible it is and more in terms of the potential devastation it can wreak.

Lack of organizational checks, not to mention encouragement, has given rise to news not only being dramatized but also created with ingredients being added to stimulate public interest. The result is that often unverified facts constitute a major part of the information telecast throughout the day, seven days a week. This has blurred the line between the do’s and don’ts of journalism in Pakistan.

An eerie reflection of this was the scene staged at the security forces’ headquarters in Saidu Sharif, Swat, some time ago. Six teenagers with trembling hands, half-covered pale faces and shabby clothes were paraded before a group of media men at the Army Circuit House. The boys had apparently deserted the militants after a few days of training sessions.

Later, their parents willingly handed them over to the security forces to avoid the wrath of the intelligence agencies.

No sooner had the press conference ended than the media men rushed out. However, before they could get into the Digital Satellite News Gathering vehicle for live broadcasts, the reporters received a shock. Some of them were asked by their producers at the headquarters to announce that the children were would-be suicide bombers. The reason? One of the channels had flashed a ticker branding them as such.

The next week, on July 27, NWFP senior minister Bashir Ahmad Bilour somehow obtained ‘information’ that the security forces in the Malakand division had got hold of 200 brainwashed children who had been trained for suicide bombing to be carried out in Swat etc. The ‘news’ caused a huge stir, and no other broadcast item could lessen its impact.

Read the whole thing, as they say. The sensationalized news is picked up by the Western media, which often runs the stories uncritically. As the article notes, the “200 brainwashed children” story hit most of the big Western news outlets. The Times Online even claimed the Swat Taliban had kidnapped nearly 1,500 young boys.

The Pakistani government is aware of this flaw in the Pakistani and Western media, and, in my estimation, runs with it. This is how we get the battle-at-the-Taliban-shura-meeting and the Hakeemullah’s-twin-runs-the-Taliban reports, among others.

I have a few rules for using the Pakistani news as a source: know the paper; know the author (sometimes this is difficult to discern), understand context of events and the main players involved, and look at the history. Then, turn on the BS meter.

For instance, the 200-child-Taliban-suicide-bombers story immediately set off the BS meter. Once I saw that NWFP senior minister Balour and Major General Athar Abbas were the primary sources, red lights flashed. When the The Times Online claimed the Swat Taliban had kidnapped nearly 1,500 child suicide bombers, alarm bells were ringing. The Swat Taliban are estimated to have had 7,000 fighters maximum. Depending on how you do the math, this would make child suicide bombers equal to 18 to 21 percent of the Swat Taliban’s forces. That is preposterous on its face.

The LWJ never linked to an article citing the 200 number, not in the News on the Web section, Today In, or in a main entry, because these articles were just too good to be true.

That being said, Daily Times, Dawn, Geo News, and several other Pakistani news outlets are very good sources of information. But even then they will throw in a clunker, and that is when you have to use common sense to judge the information. If it seems too good to true it usually is.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Lisan says:

    Hi Bill–One of the things we like best about LWJ and your writing is your finely tuned bulls**t meter. Keep up the excellent work, and love this new Threat Matrix feature.

  • Tom Egatherion says:

    Excellent post Bill. The only thing that I’d add is that shooting off a quick email to someone in the region usually helps separate the wheat from the chaff. Not everyone can do that though.
    Also, no love for Saleem Shahzad?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Yes I should have included bouncing off of sources, here and there.
    I am a big fan of Syed Saleem Shahzad. I just didn’t list them all.
    Thanks Lisan.

  • Ben Brandt says:

    Well put, Bill — there are far too many Western news outfits willing to outsource their reporting and editing to Pakistani news sources of questionable credibility.


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