Journalism 101: Was Cyril Almeida’s Story in Dawn Technically Correct?

While we don’t deal with political stuff, as such, but this past week’s story by Cyril Almeida in Dawn newspaper has gained a lot of traction. As a blogger, I have been asked about my stance on how correct the report was, academically, technically and journalistically as well.

Is it safe to report on sensitive matters without naming anyone? What will happen if all the parties — mentioned in Cyril Almeida’s report — deny the news, what could be the legal outcome if any action is taken against Cyril Almeida or Dawn News, are some of the questions that many are asking me.

At a time when blogging and digital reporting in Pakistan have been on the rise — with literally no training on how to prepare news items — we believe that a dissection of Cyril Almeida’s report will serve as a lesson for many of us.

After consulting with top editors and reporters of the country, below is what they had to say about what a “News Report” is, “how it’s prepared” and “Where does Cyril Almeida’s News Report Stand Academically”.

So let’s see what’s a News report is, how it’s different from opinion items and what ingredients are necessary for a proper news report.

What is a News Report?

While this is very basic stuff, let’s write it down for the sake of completeness: A news item has to be an exact recollection of facts — spoken or written — with figures, facts and incidents in exactly the form they took place.

In a news item, unlike in opinion pieces, reporters can’t opine their thoughts about the incident. They just state facts, figures and report the incident exactly as it had happened, without including their feelings, thoughts and commentary about the event.

So technically speaking, if you are reporting a cricket match, you can’t say “Pakistan played very well”, or “Pooray Pakistan ko mubarak ho“, instead you should just state that Pakistan won the match by this much wickets or runs etc.

So basically, you just need to state facts and this is why news items are supposed to be brief, to the point and very valid in what they are saying.

How is a News Item Prepared?

  • Tell/write a story, with or without naming your sources
  • Present facts, in a very straightforward manner
  • Here’s the must: You must speak with parties involved in the story, get their viewpoint and include it in your story.

You need to ask for info from people who are aware of the developments. You can either include the names — who gave you the info — or don’t, depending on how comfortable your sources are at being named in the story.

Then you must speak with the parties involved in the news story. Sources — mentioned above — could be different from parties involved, and hence viewpoint of those whom you are reporting about must be included.

A Possible Scenario:

I get a call from a friend, telling me that Telenor’s 4G network is available in Islamabad. I will at once verify the info to make sure that whatever I am writing is correct or not.

Once I am certain — after verifying with at least two more sources — that the initial information I had received was correct, I will call up Telenor Pakistan to see what they have to say about the availability of 4G network in Islamabad.

Not to mention, Telenor Pakistan will have the right to comment or simply avoid commenting on the matter.

Once I will have the response from Telenor (concerned party) or otherwise a denial for comment, here’s how I will prepare a story:

  • Telenor’s 4G Network is available in Islamabad, Mr. X confirmed us
  • or Telenor’s 4G Network is available in Islamabad we have checked with sources who confirmed us but decided to remain unnamed
  • Then we also include Telenor’s viewpoint by saying that “We asked Telenor Pakistan about this and they confirmed that company is working on its 4G network testing”
  • Or otherwise by saying “We asked Telenor Pakistan about the matter and they decided not to comment on it”

So we either name the source, or we don’t but we must speak with the parties concerned and get their viewpoint.

Not to mention, some news reports are time sensitive and while concerned parties take time in responding, reporters can always clearly communicate a deadline to the parties and tell them that they won’t wait after a certain deadline.

In such cases, reporters mention something like this in their reports:

  • We asked Telenor Pakistan about this but a response is still awaited.

What Happens if Telenor isn’t Happy About the Report

If I had asked Telenor about their viewpoint and if it’s included in my report then chances are that Telenor won’t have any issues with the report.

But let’s assume that Telenor objects over my report and maintains that no 4G network is available in Islamabad (considering I didn’t ask for their viewpoint in the first place).

Telenor will contact me — asking me to correct the info with “There’s no 4G network available in Islamabad”.

I will have two options in such a case:

  • I submit to Telenor’s information, and make a correction
  • I stand firm on my stance and tell Telenor that we had fact-checked and that 4G was indeed available. So we aren’t taking back the story.

In such a case, Telenor can pursue legal action against me in a court of law, where I will have to prove my news report.

  •  I can either name my sources before court, and tell the court that this info was shared by Mr. this and this.
  • Sources will have to confirm that the information they had shared was based on certain evidence (documentary, video, voice or whatever)
  • Or I can hold the names — since court can’t force me to reveal my sources — and I will try myself to prove that the info I had provided in report was correct — obviously through solid proofs, either in form of video, voice or documents.
  • If I am able to prove, I will walk free or otherwise I will lose the case and possibly few million in damages to Telenor.

Things to Learn

  • It’s the reporter who has to prove things when asked
  • Reporter can hold the names of sources
  • Reporter must be able to prove facts that he’s writing about

This is exactly why reporters drop tons of news tips that pop up everyday. Since they are unverifiable, or don’t come with solid proofs, reporters simply discard such news tips.

When a reporter is tipped with certain information, he’s at once put on test to judge if this news tip is verifiable or not. He speaks with people, visits places to get all possible evidences. If findings are solid, and verifiable, he goes ahead and files the report.

Then there are reliable sources, sources whom you can trust with your life. Any thing they say is as good as you seeing the documentary evidence yourself (even when you haven’t), then you judge the possible outcomes.

If story is sensitive and is potentially going to result a legal outcome, then it is advised to not to run the story without documentary proofs.

But if it’s not a sensitive matter, or is not going to negatively impact anyone, then you can go ahead and trust your (reliable) sources, hoping that you won’t be asked for evidence in a court to prove your report.

What’s More Important in a News Report than Sources or Even the Viewpoint of Parties?

Even if your news report has all the ingredients, i.e. sources (named or otherwise), viewpoint of all concerned parties, you must be sure about what you are writing about.

A news report has to be factually valid, because you are ultimately going to be the responsible if it’s not.

Even if you include all the sources, or even the responses from parties, your news story won’t be of any good if its not based on facts or if it’s just half truths.

Case in Point: Cyril Almeida’s Story in Dawn.com

What’s missing in the report:

  • Named sources, but as we mentioned above, it’s okay to not to have named sources
  • Responses from PM House and ISPR are missing, which were vital. Since meeting took place at PM house and it involved military, official responses from at least two offices were must which were never obtained.
  • It is unclear if reporter asked ISPR or PM House for comment, but since it’s never mentioned in the piece we assume that he didn’t ask for any comment from the parties concerned.

So technically, this report has a lot of missing ingredients in it. And since everyone involved in the story — both civilians and Military — have rejected the story, Dawn’s report doesn’t stand a chance.

Dawn, on the other hand, claims that the information it published was verified, cross-checked and fact-checked.

We hope they did and obtained documentary proofs (such as a signed copy of meeting minutes) because if there’s litigation involved, Dawn will have to provide evidence that the information provided in the report was correct.

And since everyone is rejecting it — at least on the record — there’s no way for Cyril Almeida or Dawn’s editor to prove the facts and hence they may face legal action, if the aggrieved parties pursue it.

Case of National Security

Cyril Almeida’s story involved top government officials and there’s precedent for a reporter being asked to reveal their sources because sensitive information risking national security was revealed.

While we aren’t judging for now if Cyril Almeida’s report carries such important information that it can be termed as a risk to national security or not, let’s recall this case of Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter, who was sent to jail after a judge declared that she was “defying the law” by not revealing the name of a source who had disclosed the info on a covert operative of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In such case, if the government/court terms the information provided in Cyril Almeida’s report a threat to national security then it may also term the leakage of information provided in the report a criminal activity.

In such a scenario, the source will become criminal and Cyril Almeida will have to reveal the source or go to jail for protecting a criminal.

This is why, there’s serious caution advised when reporting topics are related to national interest, national security, blasphemy and other sensitive matters.

Is it Okay to Write Against Armed Forces?

Its not. As a law, you can’t say things that go against the integrity of Armed Forces. You can of course criticize, analyse and report on armed forces, but be very sure that there’s nothing said against the integrity of defense of Pakistan.

Here’s the relation section 19 of Constitution of Pakistan:

Freedom of speech

Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, [commission of] or incitement to an offence.

So what Cyril Almeida did, if it is proved in court that it was against Armed Forces, may go against defined rule book and ultimately against the gentleman and the media house.

Conclusion

Technically speaking, there could be following potential problems with the story:

  • No viewpoint included from ISPR and PM House
  • If documentary evidence isn’t available, it will become hard for Dawn to prove the facts stated in story as everyone’s denying it
  • Reporter will have to reveal sources, if they are termed criminal (by the court) for leaking information that possibly posed threat to national security
  • If proved (in the court) that the story is anti armed forces, and hence against Pakistani constitution then reporter and media house would be in trouble.

Tech reporter with over 10 years of experience, founder of ProPakistani.PK


  • I think he did try to reach PM Office and ISPR. you need to read the article again

    According to one official, commenting on the ISI DG’s
    commitments, “This is what we prayed to hear all our lives. Let’s see if
    it happens.”

    Another government official offered: “Wait
    till November to see if action will be taken. By then a lot of things
    will be settled.”

    Military officials declined to comment.

    http://www.dawn.com/news/1288350/exclusive-act-against-militants-or-face-international-isolation-civilians-tell-military

  • Yaar, This is truly a meaningful post. But I like the conclusion. I want to just add: if this is true its isn’t the right time to reveal it.

  • I appreciate the efforts of this blogger that he/she puts to provide us the informative news in such a great way that we understand well particularly putting light on its positive and negative sides and lack of solid reasons… (y)

  • I don’t know what actually happened but to me the article endorsed everything India has been saying past few weeks. There is something fishy here…

  • Mr Amir Ata ! You must know that no one I say no one can force a reporter to reveal his source…..

    • Law of can force it. There are many famous cases in world in which reporter revealed the sources when cases brought into court. If he chooses not to disclose case then he will have to face legal consequences.

  • Government should file case against Cyril and Dawn if it
    “really” wants to solve this instead of putting Cyril name in ECL

    • Google for PMLN leadership family relations with DAWN owners. there will be no cases against Dawn only reporter (for show shaw).

  • Thank you for writing this ProPakistani!

    The problem is that Cyril’s article was not hard facts but hearsay as you very rightly pointed out. I don’t consider nameless “insiders” to be good enough source of truth. Cyril is not a saint. Journalists are bought and paid for and his article childishly suggested of possible ‘isolation’ with not a single proof or public record or secret cables that confirm that a particular country has said what Cyril claimed in his article. Such journalism without concrete facts and just hearsay is banana journalism by definition.

    Some pseudo-jounalists tried comparing Cyril to Snowden / Glennwald which is super funny and far from accurate. There is absolutely no comparison with Snowden. Snowden shared actual concrete documents that the US government not once disputed, so totally different case there. There was no anonymous ‘sources’ based on hearsay, it was all concrete information. Did Cyril share even a single concrete document / video clip / audio clip? No!

    At the end of the day, accusing the government on the basis of “anonymous sources” on such matters of national security is just not convincing enough. Irrespective of how good or evil our government is, I think its pure banana journalism to write an article with not a single proof but all hearsay like Cyril did in that article.

    • I dont know who is snowden but i have been reading cyril for quite a while. He seems to be a nice guy. not lifafa type. He was feeded that information from someone inside. that is why editor dawn is still standing by that story. If govt. is true then they should take this case to court. media and show shaw will not work.

    • You should watch the Series “Newsroom” to see how news is reported. Have you considered the possibility that the reporter has facts which makes him and the editor “believe” in this story? Some stories are reported like this because no one wants their names named, doesnt mean the story is not true, its up to us to believe it or not. To believe that every journalist is a lifafa journo, in my opinion that is a very cynical view of the world.

      • Alrite, i give it a look on google. But in any case only a court can decide what was right or wrong in this case after seeing all the facts. Without that we all can believe as we wish.

  • Whether the news is right or wrong, we damn care, the fuc*in freedom of press is not above our country’s integrity. Nothing is more than country’s repo. Almaida or alqaida whoever is behind should be dealt with irony hand.

    • how do you define country integrity. every one can have different definition of that. Only court can decide who was wrong and right. So if PMLN govt is right then they should take this case to court.

      • I don’t want to get into any arguments, my country is above all. That’s it. If someone tries to destabilize our country by speaking enemy’s language. We won’t spare him in the name of so-called freedom of speech. After that news our enemies are quoting that report to malign our Army n country. So stop with your definitions n don’t try be scholar at the moment. Pakistan above all. Simple is that.

        • brother, if i remember correctly i never said anything about freedom of speech. I said who will decide the definition of “country integrity” and “national interest”? Everyone can have different approach and understanding towards it. So its better if we do NOT declare each other traitors. If PMLN govt. feels something wrong was done then they have option to drag cyril + dawn to court and let the court decide who was the real culprit. Cyril or someone from inside that meeting. And whoever it was – should be severely punished. WHOEVER. But let the judges decide it in court after hearing views from both side. I hope you agree that it is better approach than passing verdicts in comments section of propakistani website :)

        • > I don’t want to get into any arguments, my country is above all.

          Wrong. Even this was written it many decades ago:

          “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’” — G. K. Chesterton

          Honestly, when you say your country is above all, do you also defend Zardari’s administration? Do you dare to defend Yahya Khan’s administration? After all, their governments (and militaries of the time) represented “Pakistan”

  • Our decision making is a comedy of errors. Even Modi must be laughing now. We served a better joke to the world. btw, If we cant trace culprits by now, catching up to Mulla Fazlullah is just a wet dream.

    • Here’s something from the article:
      “After consulting with top editors and reporters of the country, below is what they had to say about what a ‘News Report’ is, ‘how it’s prepared’ and ‘Where does Cyril Almeida’s News Report Stand Academically’.”

      • Funny thing is, admin can claim it was not “news” but a “blog” which is why he did not try to get Cyril’s opinion before publishing it.

        • I’m not getting it. What’s there for the admin to defend himself from? If it’s the objection that he didn’t include Cyril’s opinion, then what would be funny in his reply to that?

          • The above post says

            After consulting with top editors and reporters of the country, below is
            what they had to say about what a “News Report” is, “how it’s prepared”
            and “Where does Cyril Almeida’s News Report Stand Academically”.

            Now, who did he not consult? Cyril…

            It also says

            Here’s the must: You must speak with parties involved in the story, get their viewpoint and include it in your story.

            Now, who did he not talk to? Cyril…

            So how is it an evenhanded story? Answer: it’s not, it’s an opinion piece.

  • Cyril is a professional journalist and one of the best known in Pakistan and always takes account the journalism every time he jots down a story. Problem is, Mr.Amir, that in our very own country issues and incompetencies are being tried to mask under the label of “National Security”. Haven’t you seen CIA Chief and State Minister of the USA going through the media and their stories took atop of news ? So be honest and don’t try to fabricate stories for sake of post updates.

  • In my view if somebody has breached national security its DAWN news itself. I know Cyril AlMeida as I took a course with him in LUMS. He has always been anti Army and ISI. To me this is not a surprise whatsoever. Unfortunately, some people in media get paid in $…..


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