OF all the news beats that Pakistan has to offer, the economy is surely one of the most underserved. My thoughts have been on the profession of economic journalism in Pakistan the past couple of weeks as I’ve participated as a trainer in a short course.
There is a widespread perception in our profession that the country’s economy is too small to merit any serious journalistic consideration. The prized beats are in politics and militancy, and also sports, although the manner in which the latter is covered, it looks a lot like political coverage. It’s telling that perhaps the best sports journalist covering Pakistan is based out of Abu Dhabi and writes for Cricinfo.
In my year in Washington D.C. as Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, I came across so much interest in Pakistan’s economy that it left me a little surprised that the field has so few takers. It’s true that economic reporting is not seen as a prized field, but it’s also true that some first-rate journalists and reporters operate in this area. We need lots more and here’s why.
Pakistan’s economy by itself is not a global story like the economies of India and China are. It is not large enough, and certainly not integrated into the mainstream of the global economy to merit purely business-related interest. But it lies at the crossroads of very important developments and holds the key to the country’s future, which itself is a bit of a global story.
There is a perception that the country’s economy is too small to merit any serious journalistic consideration.
There is plenty of interest in Pakistan’s growing relationship with China, but precious little reporting is going on in this vital area. There is an understanding abroad that Pakistan’s economy holds the key to the country’s future stability, but the very material with which to build an understanding of the economy and what makes it tick is in short supply.
Pakistan’s oil and gas field commands global attention, because it may not be the largest in the world but it is still sizable enough to merit specialised attention. Pakistan’s cotton and wheat crops are amongst the largest in the world and brokers in these commodities keep a watchful eye on the harvests, as well as stories related to weather and water availability in the days leading up to harvest time.
Pakistan’s relationship with the IMF is a unique story, with very few corresponding examples from elsewhere in the world. On more than one occasion in the past, countries such as Greece have reportedly pointed towards Pakistan and asked for similar treatment. Yet very little is covered in this area beyond the retail news that comes out of the press releases and programme review documents. Most of the material put out by the media on the IMF is in the form of analysis and opinion commentary, which is fine, but more room for reporting clearly exists.
But that is only the tip of the iceberg. The global news industry and those with an interest in Pakistan certainly have an eye on the economy of this country. But domestically, our economic conversation suffers from a lack of depth because of a shortage of reporting, not for a shortage of stories. Consider some of the big stories that have yet to receive full treatment, such as the default of Engro in 2012 or the privatisation of K-Electric.
Consider how the informal economy remains so poorly understood or the myriad channels through which charitable donations end up in the hands of militants. Consider the large war economy that has formed on our western borders and its relationship with the more formal markets and payment systems on the settled left bank of the Indus river. When I cast a glance at Pakistan’s economy, I’m struck with the rich pickings for stories that we have here and am a little surprised to see how few from our fraternity in the media are willing to take up the call.
Part of this lies in the very nature of economic reporting. Each beat has its peculiar challenges, and in the case of economic reporting, the peculiar challenge is in acquiring a conceptual sense of how things work in the economic sphere, and also the knowledge to read financial statements and decipher government data. These are specialised skills and require some effort to master. As a result, they serve as a bit of an entry barrier into the field.
But consider also the rewards. The economy is something that connects us all in a way nothing else does. When economic journalists talk about the play of economic forces, we are describing forces so large and so powerful that all other forces are dwarfed by them. Look at how the petrol crisis and the persistent shortages of gas play out in people’s lives. It’s only when these forces turn towards crisis that people wake up to the power they have over our lives.
Any economic journalist could have told you that Pakistan lives from tanker to tanker, or that the circular debt is not just a technical term, but a very real sword that hangs over the heads of millions of Pakistanis. In fact, many an economic reporter has told us that, but perhaps not in a language that the layperson can readily understand.
Some of Pakistan’s finest journalists work in the economic area, but there is room for lots more. Here’s a call to all young minds entering the profession: think about making the economy your beat. The field is wide open and there is plenty of new ground to break. The material you will be working on is of crucial importance to the country and its citizenry, and will find plenty of an audience at home and abroad. Given all that the field has to offer, think about making it your own.
Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2015