Updated Thursday Dec 26 2019
News consumption forms an integral part of the everyday routine for ordinary citizens in Pakistan. Be it the written word, the gossip heard, or the theater of the absurd, nothing seems to escape the attention of the hundreds of millions of Pakistanis who zealously consume news via newspapers, radio, television, and increasingly so, the internet.
For a country consistently ranked in the bottom-tier of press freedom rankings and considered one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, it seems like something does not quite add up here. In the absence of a free press, and amid constant threats to media workers, what kind of news are the people of Pakistan consuming every day?
To answer this question, it is perhaps important to briefly consider the media landscape of the country. Pakistan has come a long way from the era of state-owned newspapers, radio, and television channels. The dawn of the previous decade ushered in the age of private television channels, and the beginning of this decade saw the rise of digital news networks.
As internet penetration increases, electronic devices become cheaper, and the youth bulge enters the workforce, television seems to be rapidly conceding space to digital as the go-to medium for news consumption. If it has become easy to muzzle print and broadcast mediums, the set of tools needed to fully subjugate the digital realm are a little harder to get by.
As the year comes to an end, and with it, the decade, it is perhaps worth exploring the topics that dominated the headlines in Pakistan over the past twelve months. The most-read news stories on the Geo English website, and the front-page headlines of The News, are a useful measure of the news consumption habits of Pakistanis.
In the following paragraphs, top news data has been grouped into themes such as politics, security, judiciary, social development and international affairs. For each theme, certain pre-determined keywords relevant to the topic have been selected and character-specific searches carried out in most-read stories on the Geo English website and front-page stories of The News paper for 2019.
By comparing the trends in keywords of top headlines from sister news brands the past twelve months, one can gauge exactly where the interests of the news consumers lie, as determined by the news team. Editors are responsible for shaping the headlines and sharing them. Have they succeeded in empowering citizens by magnifying their voices? Let us take a look.
Political developments in the domestic sphere remained a key area of interest for people across the country in 2019. According to data from most read stories on the Geo English website and the front-page of The News paper, political parties were constantly featured on both platforms.
The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) garnered the most attention, compared to other political groups, getting top coverage in print and proving popular among readers on the internet as well. Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) was second most popular in top headlines.
Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) came in at third place, with Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam - Fazl (JUI-F), Jamat-e-Islami, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Balochistan National Party (BNP), among others, also managing to get top coverage on both print and digital.
In tandem with the coverage afforded to political parties, the leaders of these groups also command mass attention on print and digital media. 2019 was no exception, with Prime Minister Imran Khan (identified in the data as Imran Khan, PM Imran and PM Khan), from the PTI, emerging as the most popular political leader overall on web and in print.
PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif (identified in the data as Nawaz Sharif and Nawaz) followed the premier as the second-most popular leader, according to top headlines, with PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari (identified as Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Bilawal Bhutto and Bilawal) coming in at third place.
JUI-F head Maulana Fazlur Rehman (identified in the data as Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Fazlur Rehman), and JI bigwig Sirajul Haq, were also mentioned in some of the top stories. In addition to the major political leaders, other names, like ANP chief Asfandyar Wali, BNP President Akhtar Mengal, also featured in top headlines over the course of the year.
Developments in the security sector are eagerly consumed by the readership in Pakistan. With the help of military operations launched against terror groups over the past few years, the country has witnessed a remarkable decrease in extremist violence the past few months.
However, the keywords associated with terrorism remain in the headlines, even if Pakistan is not in them. This year, on both the website and the newspaper, international terrorist attacks attracted the attention of domestic readers in Pakistan.
The evidence of decreased internal violence in Pakistan is perhaps best explained by the absence of banned groups from top headlines. The notorious Tehreek-e-Taliban - Pakistan and Baloch Liberation Army were both absent from most read stories on web and in print through 2019.
Mentions of the military in the top headlines of the year for 2019 were quite commonplace. Not only were these stories featured prominently in print, with the discretion of the editors, but they also made it to the most-read stories on the web, with the help of readers.
Two names associated with the military immediate jump out when sifting through the top stories on web and in print: Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa (identified in the data as COAS, Army chief and General Qamar Javed Bajwa) and Director-General Inter-Services Public Relations Major General Asif Ghafoor (identified in the data as DG ISPR, ISPR and Major-General Asif Ghafoor).
Most news related to the army floated through the ISPR, but the army chief was also in the headlines for a variety of reasons. The Pakistan Air Force, which downed an Indian jet and captured the pilot back in February, featured on top stories prominently as well.
The courts continued to dominate the headlines in 2019. Even though the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan through most of 2019 (identified in the data as Chief Justice, CJP, and Asif Saeed Khosa) was less proactive than his predecessor, the judiciary and the verdicts handed out by it shaped the news and managed to capture the attention of readers.
The Supreme Court (SC) towered over the mentions related to court stories in top headlines on both the web and the print. In addition, the higher courts, especially the Islamabad High Court and Lahore High Court, were also mentioned in several most-read and front-page stories. The lower courts, though, remained conspicuously absent from top reads.
A couple of stories related to the judges of the superior courts involved in political controversies also featured in top headlines. The video scandal involving former accountability court judge Mohammad Arshad Malik garnered top coverage on both web and print. The presidential reference filed against Justice Qazi Faez Isa also proved popular with readers.
Several high-profile cases involving top political leadership, as well as notorious criminals, dominated the coverage of court cases in Pakistan over the course of 2019. Mostly though, the mentions related to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and the filing of corruption references against the opposition appeared on top headlines.
Of all the individual cases involving former top officials, the high treason case against former president General (retired) Pervez Musharraf proved most popular with readers.
Mentions related to NAB references were also popular, and the cases involving former premier Nawaz Sharif were present in top headlines for 2019 on web and in print as well.
Since political and security issues constitute the bulk of the news coverage in the country, it is perhaps not surprising that social issues take the back burner in top coverage on both the web and print issues of major news outlets. In this context, 2019 was no different.
Top stories related to social issues mostly concerned new taxes levied on the public by the government, and conflicting reports related to the economy by different reporters. Urgent issues like the environment, education and poverty remained absent from top headlines in 2019.
However, the coverage of women-centric stories was a healthy anomaly. On both the web and in print, an encouraging number of mentions were made of stories related to women. More work, though, still needs to be done to increase the news coverage of issues faced by women.
It seems that the most popular topic for news consumers in Pakistan is international affairs. Mentions related to neighboring countries, and the fraught relationship with certain allies, dominated the most-read stories on web and front-pages of the newspaper for the year 2019.
Mentions related to arch-rival India got widespread readership, certainly more than half of all top coverage of other countries on Geo English and The News. The US was second on the list, getting more mentions in print than on the web-based edition. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were popular topics for readers as well.
Friendly Muslim-countries Iran, Malaysia and Turkey were also featured in top headlines, along with the United Kingdom and some other European nations. Developments in Afghanistan earned mentions in top stories on both web and print too.
A collective glance at all the keywords associated with top headlines on Geo English and The News provides interesting insights into the topics most widely read over the course of the year. India emerges as the most-read topic across both platforms, with PM Imran and stories related to the courts following close behind.
Developments in the United States and United Kingdom also make it to the combined top ten-list of most-read stories on web and in print. Chief of Army Staff and Director General ISPR make the cut as well, along with the PTI and NAB.
Editor of The News, Talat Aslam, when asked to comment on the top headliners driving news consumption in Pakistan, said that a self-fulfilling loop had been initiated wherein the social media picked up a story, the electronic media highlighted it, before the print took it.
"But in the print media there is still a hierarchy of importance. It's rare to see popular social media stories on celebrities etc on the front page of serious papers here. It's usually politics, courts, foreign policy issues," he said, adding that the target audience for web and print was different.
Responding to a question about the steps print media could take to forge a separate identity in the age of digital, Aslam remarked that the print needed to focus on doing more investigative and in-depth journalism and transition to tackling topics like health, climate and education.
"Reading patterns have definitely changed. More and more people are getting their news on the social media, smart phones. This exposes them to a lot of unedited propaganda and fake news," he noted, adding that, "the next two years will determine whether print sinks or swims".
Senior Digital Editor at Geo and The News, Fazil Jamili, when asked to comment on the drivers of news consumption, said that anything that engaged readers was on his list of priorities. "When we talk about digital it means we have to think and act digitally," he said.
"Technology is the main landscape for digital identification. You can engage the readers by doing multimedia stories/videos/blogs/features and interactive pieces, and then invite comments from the readers without any constraints of space," he added.
Asked to comment on the reading patterns of the Pakistanis, Jamili said that the way people consumed content was changing. "I think the reading habits and patterns of people have been changed with time, especially in the digital era. Readers now prefer brief snippets than detailed tomes," he noted.
"You don’t need to keep hard copies of newspapers or books. E-papers, e-books and social media platforms are the new reading patterns," he remarked, adding that as digital editor, he is always interested in exploring new ways of engaging readers on the internet.
"Furthermore, on digital [platforms] data can be visualised in a much better way, while referencing is also much efficient — both of which enrich stories," he added.