Journalistic Methods in Pakistan

One of the problems with news reports, whether in print or on a screen, is that most of us care enough to consume them but not enough to verify whether they are completely true, partially true or a whole pack of lies. This behavior is understandable as we have more important things to spend/waste our time on, like work, family and consumption of mindless entertainment.

All this changes if you are the news. After the ‘OBL tweet’, the more that I have tried to stay away from interviews and journalists, the more I have been thrust back into them. Ironic as it is, the last few months have allowed me to interact with a lot of journalists and observe how they go about practicing their profession. There are a few journalists who impressed me with their honesty and unbiased reporting, but the majority of journalism that I have witnessed has to do with loaded words, double-barreled questions and twisting of facts to paint a pre-conceived picture of the news, as they want to show it – some call it a ‘package’ in journalistic lingo. I had the chance to speak about my impression of journalism candidly with Steve Myers from Poynter, when he invited me for our SXSW 12 panel and talks at a few other institutes last year, and it was an educational experience. I have been trying to lay low and focus on my work instead of being a journalism critic since then – a role which I am still unqualified for, but it gets harder to ignore when you are the one being misquoted.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the Social Media Mela in Karachi. Since May 2011, I have only scanned a very small portion of the thousands of articles written about Abbottabad, OBL and my tweets from ‘that night’, but while wasting time at the airport due to a delayed flight, I came across this ‘news’ from The News about my session at the SMM that day, and it shocked me by revealing that I had a daughter that I did not know of!

This piece of journalism has been nagging me for two weeks now, so I have no choice but to criticize it line by line – maybe this will even help a journalist or two, but at least writing it down will help me get it out of my head.

So first of all, the title – it says

The night that changed a tweeter’s life

Thankfully, my life has not changed much due to ‘the night’ – I am still living in Abbottabad, I am still doing my software consulting, and it has not made me richer by even a single penny (or rupee), but I guess that does not make a good headline.

The article then says

On Twitter, he is known as ‘Really Virtual’, but people worldwide know him as the guy who live-tweeted the Osama bin Laden raid in Abbottabad.

It is actually ReallyVirtual, or @ReallyVirtual – spaces are not allowed in twitter handles, but I guess the author doesn’t use twitter that much.

Before tweeting about the raid, the biggest achievement of Sohaib Akhtar’s life was to open up a coffee shop in Abbottabad, as he quipped he did not like the coffee there. But all that changed on the night of May 2, 2011.

The media people at SMM were given press kits, and the schedule in the press kit had the correct spelling for my name (for once), so this is a rather serious mistake. If this mistake was in a software, it would have been reported as a bug to be fixed in the next version – too bad news articles do not have next versions.

Then there’s the matter of the coffee shop being my ‘biggest achievement’ – at no point during the interview did I say or imply that. I do remember saying the coffee shop was an experiment in many interviews, but an experiment is certainly not a big achievement. Even the multiple technology patents that I have worked on or the successful silicon valley startup that I was a founding member of are not really ‘big achievements’, though they are much bigger than the experimental coffee shop that I started. The coffee shop is now being run by my wife and is doing well.

Sitting opposite the corporate lawyer and session moderator, Ayesha Tammy Haq, Akhtar spoke about how he did not know for an hour that a raid was under way. “Around 1am, I saw a helicopter hovering quite low in Bilal Town where I live, which is a rare event. And I tweeted my thoughts.”

The FAQ on my website has all the details about the raid and the tweets, but I guess the author wasn’t listening to me during the session and did not bother to check facts before writing the article either. I did not see a helicopter, I heard it, and to quote the Abbottabad Commission judges, I was an ‘audio witness’. I do not live in Bilal Town, I used to live a couple of kilometers away from it, a fact that I have repeated too many times to mention, in interviews and the FAQ as well.

For a minute, the helicopter took a few circles and then he heard a loud explosion that shattered a window of his house. And Akhtar tweeted that as well.

There’s a difference between ‘shattered’ and ‘shook’ or ‘rattled’ – the explosion did not shatter any windows, but I guess shattered sounds cooler so the author went with that.

“I tried giving it the benefit of doubt by thinking that it might be a UFO but it turned out to be more than that.” He, however, took the whole incident a lot more seriously when he started getting calls from the people he knew.

When people use quotes around text, at least I expect the enclosed text to have been actually uttered by the person quoted. What I said was that there were all sorts of rumors in the air, that it was a UFO, that it was an enemy aircraft etc. – I did not ‘give it the benefit of doubt by thinking that it might be a UFO’. An explosion is serious enough, so I did not need calls from people to take it seriously, I don’t know why I was quoted like this in the article.

“They informed me that a raid had apparently taken place around my area and a terrorist had been caught,” he shared with the audience that listened intently to his every word.

Nobody informed me about a raid around my area at that point in time, nobody said anything about a terrorist being caught either! There is no tweet where I shared this with the audience.

Curious to know what happened next, Ayesha asked him what he did after that. “Nothing,” he replied, “I tweeted that, went offline and read a book.”

Ah, finally something in the article that I agree with!

The next morning, Akhtar woke up to the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed by the US Navy Seals in a midnight raid. But what disturbed him more was that he had 25 missed calls and above a hundred emails on his account. And to top it all, he reached a whopping 105,000 followers on Twitter within a few days.

25 missed calls? Never said it. Above a hundred emails, okay, though I remember saying a couple of hundred.

Everyone wanted to know him all of a sudden. While he was taken aback by the “sudden attention”, he said that it was overwhelming to the point of being harassed.

Nobody wanted to ‘know me’, they did want information about Abbottabad, what the town was like, what was happening, and all the stuff that journalists are interested in – ‘knowing’ me was not one of them.

The people in the audience wanted to know if he was “bugged” by the intelligence agencies or was he threatened with dire consequences, to which Akhtar politely replied, no.

Correct.

“The first people to meet me were Mosharraf Zaidi and Omar Warraich. The media was the only department that harassed me. So I wrote answers to all the repeated questions that news channels were asking me and posted them online.”

‘The media’ in its entirety did not harass me, only one outlet tried to get in touch with me by coming with the local police to the coffee shop, which does not look good for business and I would count as harassment.

Akhtar also made it to Time magazine’s issue about the raid and the man who live-tweeted it.

Ayesha asked him if he was afraid. “I was for a while. Afraid of the impact this incident would have on Abbottabad and our country.”

The incident not only earned Akhtar many followers, but instilled a feeling of responsibility in him as well.

“Some people tweeted that Pakistan is in the Middle East and that I’m an Arab tweeting from God-knows-where. But I clarified that. Similarly, there were equally outrageous remarks about our country that I clarified as well.”

Arab tweeting from God-knows-where”? God knows where the author got this line from. I don’t remember mentioning any outrageous remarks about our country either. I remember mentioning there were incorrect facts about Pakistan that I tried to correct when I could, and still do.

For people outside Abbottabad, the reality that the Osama bin Laden was found and killed in their own country was difficult to accept. But Akhtar said the people in Abbottabad forgot about it a few days after the incident. But the changes were evident and hard to ignore.

“For instance, there were security checks that are usually found in Lahore and Islamabad. People were not used to that. Similarly, foreigners were thoroughly checked etc. So all of that was difficult to adjust to.”

Changes that were difficult to adjust to, never said anything like that.

What is most striking about Akhtar is his down-to-earth nature. He was sitting easily and had no airs about him as he spoke about the incident and his life after it.

Aww thank you for the compliment dear author, but I don’t see any reason to be proud of the tweets or to develop an attitude due to the whole episode.

Married and father of a daughter, he said he had met with the judicial commission on the raid as well.

I have a son! Male, boy, 9 year old, and no reason to believe there is a daughter out there that I fathered either.

When asked about what Justice Javed Iqbal had told him as the investigation got over, “He said tweet on,” he replied smiling.

At least the news ends with something that I actually said.

So there it is, a news article on me, dissected, which is probably a typical example of how news/non-news in Pakistan is written/created. I do hope the Pakistani journalism industry matures to a point where people like me start to reconsider consuming traditional news again, but until then, I will let my Twitter feed push the news to me.

2 Comments

  1. ThirstyJon says:

    It’s amazing how much the story can change by the time it is heard by the public!

    Thanks for the personal testimony of that observation.

    :-)

  2. Vicky Henson says:

    Hi! While I did start following you after the OBL raid, I find your tweets and blog very interesting and honest. I love our take on things. I’m a Texas fan and hope you and your family are doing well! Thanks for your showing us how the news ad libs. Good grief, does your son know he has a sister? Lol! That’s just crazy! Have a great day!

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