Geo, ARY and the plasticity of truth

“Life could be horrible in the wrong trouser of time.” – (Guards! Guards!)

 

From the middle of the ceiling in the Pakistan Today newsroom hang four televisions, two each facing either way so that all in the room may be able to watch if they so wish. Naturally the same television channel does not run on all four. So it is fascinating to watch when on the rare occasions two televisions on the same side display Geo and ARY side by side.

It will not be hard for the moderately-informed reader to realise why this is so. Geo and ARY news fall on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to narrative. It is amazing to see just how different the two narratives are given that the channels do not have a particular ideological clash. And it is equally enthralling seeing the extent to which the news can be reported differently simply on the basis of party lines. But what is perhaps the greatest image that can arise out of this split-screen experience is when the two channels simultaneously run smear campaign ads against each other. At times, it seems almost as if they toe different lines not for reasons of principle but just to be able to spite each other.

However, to the rational mind, it would seem that if there was one thing the two channels would have to agree on (no matter how begrudgingly), it would be numbers. Facts and figures are by their very nature a certainty. Accurately compiled, they are possibly the closest we can come to the truth. Words can be twisted and moulded but math does not lie.

It was thus equally confusing, yet expected given the standards the electronic media often checks itself with, that Geo and ARY’s reporting on the former Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif’s GT road rally was vastly different.

Of course some things cannot be helped. One can say that the move is the former premier trying to demean the judiciary that ousted him. One can also say that the rally was a spontaneous outpouring of public support or ‘awam ki adalat’. These are just opinions, after all, and everyone has the right to express them. It is problematic however when one major national television channel reports that the cavalcade was attended by ‘lakhon’ supporters and the other, at the same time, reports that there were some 7000 supporters and at least 900 cars in the rally.

This would either mean that Geo news was seeing 29 more people for every person or that ARY was claiming there were 225 people sitting inside every single one of the 900 cars they reported as part of the rally.

It is admittedly hard to report exact numbers when it comes to crowd. Generals of fame such as Hannibal Barca of Carthage reportedly had an uncanny ability for scouting, measuring and announcing the exact size of an army on an open field. However even such giants have been thrown off by simple tricks such as multiple tents and numerous camp fires.

What then can a simple reporter, or even officials for that matter, be expected to say about the number of people lining streets and rooftops and travelling in cars?

What can be said without doubt, however, is that no matter the difficulty of the situation, the gap between the figures being propagated should not be the glaring hole that it was on this, and many previous occasions. And if the two media houses are insistent on playing this game of cat and mouse, they should at least have the decency not to use numbers. They’re giving math a bad name.

If there is anything that this number gap reminds the writer of, it is an argument between two reporters of an English daily about whether there were 100 or 200 people at a religious conference hosted by Tahir ul Qadri much before his entry into mainstream politics. When one of the reporters called the esteemed Sheikh ul Islam for confirmation, the response he received was “There were 2 million people. But you can write 1 million because it will be hard for the readers to believe 2 million.”

The two gentlemen agreed to settle on the figure of 150 for the purpose of the report.

 

 

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