The Necessity of Culture Journalism

Journalists Association of Korea (JAK) held the World Journalists Conference 2022 on April 25-26, 2022. The two-day online conference included speeches and discussions on two topics: ‘the current status of fact-checking in global journalism and the operation of media self-regulatory organizations’ on day one, and the ‘society changed by journalists’ on day two.

Over 70 journalists from 45 countries around the world participated in the conference.

The following is the content of the speech given by Pakistani writer, filmmaker and journalist Rahul Aijaz during day two of the World Journalists Conference 2022:

Society Changed by Journalists

Hello everyone, I am Rahul Aijaz. I’m a writer, filmmaker and journalist from Pakistan. It’s wonderful to be part of the World Journalists Conference once again this year. The topic for today’s conference is ‘Society Changed by Journalists’. I would like to focus on an area of journalism that’s not taken much seriously in Pakistan, that is, culture journalism.

It’s hard to begin to talk about it as most of what happens here in the name of culture and, especially film journalism, cannot be called journalism at all. It’s no surprise that even worldwide, writing about culture and film and art comes under fluff or something that’s not as important as politics or sports. And much of that, culture and lifestyle journalists have brought upon ourselves by choosing to publish stories about what this celebrity wore on the red carpet or who is dating whom for the sake of clicks and hits.

And that’s the point. You feed people garbage and they will eventually start to like the taste and they will want more of it. But if you do it right, offer them delicacies in a silver bowl, give them something to think about or challenge them, they slowly develop the taste for it and grow.

So, today, I would like to present another perspective on what, if done right, culture reporting has the potential and the power to do. While working for one of the most read English dailies in Pakistan, The Express Tribune, a few years ago, I found out about a Pakistani film student in Bahrain who had made a documentary about a young man in Punjab province.

Living in a remote village in Punjab, his family had the only motor vehicle which the entire village would use when travelling to and from nearby cities, especially in case of medical emergencies. He then sold it, borrowed money from relatives and friends and went to Dubai to find work and support his family back home. He returned soon after, unable to adjust to the urban lifestyle. But his failure cost him his respect around the town as he and his family now owed money to most people they knew.

‘No Place Like Home’ poster

The short documentary titled ‘Pakistan: No Place Like Home’ made by Syed Owais Ali was picked up by Al-Jazeera. Meanwhile, I also did a story for the print publication I worked for. The story and the Al-Jazeera platform provided a boost to the story to the point where they launched a crowdfunding campaign and the young man from Punjab received enough money from around the world to be able to buy a new van.

I never knew him personally but a few weeks later, I received a photo of a hi-roof Bolan with a print of my article enlarged and pasted on the back. I assume it was the guy who had finally got a new vehicle for his village and gained back his respect and self-confidence.

Recently, I was also on the other end of such a story. Right as the Covid19 spread and the world began to shut down in 2020, I was working on a short film called ‘A Train Crosses the Desert’. Another participant of the World Journalists Conference present here, Mr. Ashraf Aboul-Yazid, was also involved with it as he allowed us to use two of his wonderful poems in the film, the title of which is also based on one.

We shot it two days before Pakistan shut down, edited it during the pandemic and sent it out. Once film festivals started accepting it, we realized it was the first ever Sindhi-language short film from Pakistan to make it to international film festivals. This USP attracted a lot of press coverage in several countries and in all mediums – print, digital, radio and TV – and started a sort of a conversation on a national scale about the necessity of regional cinema in Pakistan. It also turned the Sindh provincial government’s attention to it. How they follow up or not is a different debate.

But Sindhi cinema doesn’t exist in Pakistan. It hasn’t for over 40 years and even before that, there has never been any representation of Sindhi cinema on the world map of cinema. And I think it’s important to share this story because for a short film to kickstart that conversation wouldn’t have been possible without culture journalism. It wouldn’t have been possible without culture journalists willing to write about something that’s not ‘sensational’, per se. But it’s important.

‘A Train Crosses the Desert’ poster

There are many more examples that I can recount, such as starting the trend of pro-wrestling coverage when no one in the country covered it despite there being a massive audience interested in the combat sport. On some days, as I recall, we even outdrew major politics and social issue news with our wrestling stories and brought together a community of fans online. It eventually built up to the first ever wrestling shows being held in Pakistan, which were attended by thousands of people.

Now how does all of this ‘change’ the society? How does journalism, and particularly culture and lifestyle journalism change the society? Well, I do believe art and culture and cinema and music and theatre and literature are the true catalysts to change society for the better. And in times when we are bombarded with the news of all the chaos of the world – plague, war, human rights violation, and whatnot – it’s important to take a step back and immerse ourselves into art and culture. And reporting on such topics encourages us as humans to, perhaps, pick up a new book, watch a new film, check out that emerging artist’s paintings and reflect on it in the context of our society, our personal convictions and how they coincide or conflict with each other. It helps offer people ideas that start a conversation about their beliefs and values, or art and culture in the context of social issues and plant seeds for developing curiosity and knowledge and growth. I can’t remember how many times reading an interview of a filmmaker, a feature about a certain practice in the film business or an analysis of a film made me question myself and how I function or realize something important about my own work.

I feel qualified and educated culture journalists are perhaps the third most important people, after artists and poets, who can definitely help mold the shape of society for the better by giving people something to aspire to. And that is how journalists change the society, because, after all, what else do we live for if not to preserve our culture and foster and nurture its evolution?

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