In my three years of writing for Daily Times, I have provided two articles offering guidelines for journalists. The discipline of a weekly column keeps me on my toes. Not only do I have to constantly read commentary, there is also a need to bounce ideas off individuals who have expertise in various subjects. I also cast a critical eye on things written by other journalists. Are they speaking the truth, or a partial truth? Is the goal to propagate a lie or to sustain an agenda? Is the opinion supported by facts or is it factually weak?
There is a digital waterfall of information available today. This flood of information can be difficult to sort out. What is worthy of a second glance? What is a complete waste of time? I make that decision by the time I have read the second paragraph of an article. Antediluvian activities such as merely reading a local daily newspaper seem provincial in light of what is available today.
One thing I have noticed is that the blessing of the digital age is also bound to a curse. We now have the world at our fingertips. So it seems there is a greater need to cordon critical information. Within the marketplace and within government, there is an accelerated use of pre-determined script for public consumption. If information is power, then the control and manipulation of information is the mother of all curses.
This control of script has even crept into the nooks and crannies of common courtesy and common sense. Marketplace script is incredibly irritating but it is merely the soft side of what is increasingly a media reality. Controlling the message and containment of succinct thoughts that challenge pre-determined boundaries for thought is part and parcel of power. So, how can the reader navigate these perils when reading breaking commentaries, which are now available 24/7? What critical elements are needed to read intelligently?
Intelligent reading is a discipline that is governed by a few simple rules. The first rule is quite simple: read with a critical eye. Are the facts presented verified by more than one reliable source? Is there an eyewitness account to an event and can it be corroborated or is the journalist hawking speculation based on rumour? The standard who, what, when, where, how and why are not merely the domain of journalists. The reader must also entertain questions as he reads along. Hence, we read to locate script. We read to check for the veracity of the facts.
What else should be considered when reading the news? Scan the text for moral equivalencies. The use of a moral equivalency is usually deployed as a means to shield the reader from psychological distress. There is no place for moral equivalencies when reporting human tragedy or crime but this tool is used far too often. Moral equivalencies are also deployed to explain the unexplainable and to deceive the gullible. Reject moral equivalencies. They are inchoate offences that do not belong in professional journalism. This sophistry continues to work in magical ways against the solid reporting of tragic current events in Pakistan.
When reading, ask the following: are the right questions being asked? Any question asked should not manipulate one to the opinion or bias of the journalist. Questions should be open-ended so the readers can form their own conclusion. Do not read things that lead by the nose. Read things that cause you to pick up a scent. Read things that leave you with a sense of discovery as opposed to an out-of-season conclusion.
As you read also focus on what is not being written. In other words, read the unspoken words that make up the silent spaces within a piece. Journalists work with both deadlines and word counts so we also communicate by what is not included within our writing. It can be compared to the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH): text, which defines what was acceptable based on affirmation and also the use of a distinct silence during controversy as a tacit and passive means of approval. One of the most common complaints that journalists hear is that they did not ‘address’ a certain aspect of a topic. Perhaps, it was addressed by our silence.
With print media, your most reliable literary companion is a yellow highlighter. Consistently highlight things that catch your attention. This allows you to return at a more convenient time to consider the merit of what is highlighted. There are moments in time when intellect intersects with the largely uncharted universe known as ‘illumination’. Highlighting a word, phrase or thought can function as a tool for memory retrieval of that moment. Illuminated thoughts move like wind through the mind. I can recapture a distant thought after noticing a highlighted remark. You can do it also! Minus this Luddite tool, a reader is at a disadvantage.
Here is the synopsis of ‘Guidelines for the reader’: read for enjoyment. Yes! Read for the sheer enjoyment of this gift from God. Read things you agree with and things you find offensive. Read novels and journals. Enjoy biographies, stories of drama and suspense. Wind down a day with poetry or a book of prayers but, as you move through your daily reading, take note of facts and/or ambiguities. Do a bit of research and corroborate text. See if you can locate what appears to be script for public consumption. The movement to a script is like the hinge on a door. Locate the hinge. Do not walk through the door. Examine and reject moral equivalencies. Consider postulations. Purchase a yellow highlighter.
Deconstruct the work of all journalists. Start with me. I do not wish to purposefully deceive but my writing is within a human dimension and temporal timeline. I am capable of error. My door is always open to those who disagree with me. It is a pleasure to receive an occasional pat on the back. Read on!
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of the novel Arsenal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org