By Minerwa Tahir
KARACHI: How many times have you read a story and felt that it weighed unfairly in favor of certain people and was biased against some others? When reading a story on rape or crimes committed in the name of ‘honor’ against women, do you feel perturbed that the only voices you hear in the story – from police officials to family members of the survivors and victims – are those of men? That voices of the people that the story is about are suppressed? And what about stories that assign interpretations and conclusions to people (Blacks person is a rioter but White person is a protester)? In most of the cases, this happens because we, as journalists, allow our prejudices and bias to reflect in our work.
In an attempt to help journalists understand and overcome such bias plaguing their stories, a workshop, titled ‘Overcoming Bias: Covering Gender, Ethnicity & Social Class’, was held on Wednesday at CEJ-IBA in collaboration with a non-governmental organization, Aahung.
During the two-hour workshop, Mahim Maher, News Editor at The Friday Times, carried out an interactive session after which Wusat Ullah Khan of Dawn News and BBC Urdu, the guest speaker, gave a lecture. The participants of the workshop were journalists from different print, radio, electronic and online mediums. After the lecture, the floor was opened for questions for the audience.
The workshop began with an exercise. All the participants were asked to jot down the first five adjectives that came to their mind when they heard the words ‘Parsi, ‘Sex worker’, ‘Indian’, ‘Pakistani’, ‘Jatoi’ and ‘Millionaire’. Almost everyone completed the task in five minutes and shared their responses promptly.
Next, they were asked to list five names of people who belonged to the mentioned categories. Responses could only include names of people that the respondents personally knew. Most people failed at that.
“Let’s take sex worker. You wrote down the adjectives. What are the names you wrote in this category?” said Maher. The only answer that was heard to this question was ‘Qandeel Baloch’ – as a matter of fact, Qandeel was not a sex worker.
“What’s happening here?” she asked. “Are you getting what it [the exercise] accomplishes? We had all these adjectives. But when it came to people whom we personally knew, we got stuck.”
Maher added that even when we knew someone personally from any category, not all the adjectives that we jot down were fit to describe the particular person. (For example, Qandeel was not ‘poor’ as one participant wrote in the category of sex worker.)
The news editor shared that she learnt about this exercise at a conference she attended in India. “I wrote smelly in my adjectives for Indian,” she said. “But then when I had to write the names, I personally knew one or two Indian academics, that too via email, and they were surely not smelly.”
Are all Indians smelly and all Pakistanis terrorists, she asked. “We’re full of adjectives when it comes to other people or categories but do we know them personally? And even if do know them personally, not all of the adjectives apply. The idea is that you cannot use blanket stereotyping for anybody.”
She called this ‘invisible bias’, saying that this bias is something that we as journalists do not realize that we are harboring.
Citing Sadaf Baig’s research of 2013, Maher then pointed out that in 21,949 stories that she reviewed in six newspapers over a period of three months along with over 1,000 TV stories appearing on two TV channels, there were only 74 articles that carried women as sources of information. “Women [in Balochistan] are not showing up as sources of information and the bias manifests itself in journalism in the form of silence,” she said.
No why is this important, asked Maher. “It’s important because of the power structures,” she said. She added that if you pick up the leading English daily and review it, it should come as no surprise that women are absent from the front page – there is no story on women and there is no byline of a woman. “No one ignores women on purpose,” she said, adding that it’s happening because of a system that is in place to allow this.
Maher pointed out that the only time we see women on the front page is when they are dead, sick, poor, raped, kidnapped, in power or have done something spectacular.
Talking about the presence of female voices, Maher referred to Prof Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay, titled ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ and asked why should a White British man have to save Brown women by criminalizing suttee in India. “I do not understand or condone suttee,” Maher said. “What Spivak is saying is that the White man decided to speak for the Brown woman and tell her what was good for her.” She added that one may not like the niqab but they have to respect the woman who chooses to wear it.
Pointing out how unnecessary the mention of criminals’ ethnicity is, she asked if we ever mention the ethnicity of the investigator.
Maher then touched the topic of the DHA rape case and how it was handled by the media. She shared a clip of an interview that Sharmila Farooqi, the then information minister, gave when the incident happened. The video is available on YouTube and can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/2wYg1uX
“It’s [the woman’s] right not to speak to the media,” said Maher while discussing the video clip. “Sharmila was basically pissed off at the girl because she was rude to her.” She talked about how she assigned a female reporter to cover the story after her crime reporter told her at the time of the incident that the rape survivor was a ‘sex worker’.
After that, Maher wrapped up her interactive session and Khan was asked to take over. He began his monologue with how his mind was conditioned regarding gender roles since childhood.
Talking about his childhood, he spoke about how his father raised his hand on his mother in spite of her being ‘the strong character’ in his house, and how this was normal for him and the entire neighborhood back then.
He talked about how society sees woman as weak, dependent and emotional. In his usual sardonic style, he asked whether his mother made an emotional decision when she told him that he could not work before completing his Master’s.
Khan further referred to the Global Gender Gap Index 2016, on which Pakistan ranked second last. “Masha Allah, Pakistan has maintained this rank for the past three years,” he said. “Bangladesh’s rank is 72, India 82 and we are on 143.”
Until women get representation in political decision-making, things are least likely to change, he said. “Once legislation is in the hands of women, all of us, including media, journalists and men, will be fixed,” he added. “Without that, no one will listen to you [women].”
When the floor opened for questions, someone from the audience pointed out that he finds it difficult to discover any ‘authentic’ women in Pakistan other than Fatima Jinnah or Benazir Bhutto. “We discovered even Ruth Pfau after her death,” said Khan. “The fault lies with us not the authentic women. Authentic women are constantly working in their own ways. It’s us who are blind actually.”