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Blurred pictures, dodgy ethics

Is it proper for a reporter to hide his identity to get a story? A quick survey of major media outfits shows that this is ethically unacceptable, writes Sorab Ghaswalla.

india Updated: Jun 21, 2007 03:47 IST

Nineteen years ago, while covering the civic beat in Pune, my colleagues and I were confronted one evening by a corporator who brazenly showed us an envelope with his share of a kickback from a contractor. It was well known that the standing committee of the legislative assembly, which awarded all contracts, took ‘commission’ and then parcelled it out to its members.

If this had happen today, would I have carried out a sting operation on the legislator? No. For it would be unethical to do so. This does not mean that the story of this corrupt practice did not come to light. It did after thorough investigation by my successor. As a result, the entire tender system which favoured certain contractors was changed and the process made more transparent.

Today sting journalism has become a substitute for investigative reporting. An earlier generation of readers will recall stories like the Bhagalpur jail blindings, the Bofors scandal and the Harshad Mehta securities scam. Recently, there was the petrol pumps allotment scam and the Manjunath murder case. These were the result of solid reporting with journalists and their editors checking, cross-checking and corroborating the relevant information to arrive at the truth before going public.

Change often throws up interesting debates. Sting journalism has been around in India since 2001. However, it is seen as a by-product of television journalism. Many also see it as a battle between the print and electronic media. It is not. Journalist ethics don’t change, whatever be the news delivery format. What is equally confounding is that while most feel that the camera never lies, we still tend to have faith in the written word especially where scams are concerned.

Every time there is a sting operation, it is usually accompanied by a debate on the correctness of it all, both in society and journalistic circles. How ethical is this fly-on-the-wall brand of journalism? Not very. Many stories which are the result of sting operations have been suspect. Using a hidden camera to expose an MP who takes money to ask questions in Parliament is not the only way “proof” can be obtained. Any talented investigative reporter will tell you that you can nail the MP, first and foremost by getting a credible tip-off, having well-placed sources, scrutinising the details, doing painstaking research and then putting in lots of hard work. Investigative reporters sometimes take weeks or even months to come out with a single expose. But in today’s world of instant gratification, even journalists have fallen prey to the quick delivery of investigative stories by way of stings.

Is it correct for a journalist to hide his identity in order to get a story? A quick survey of some of the major media outfits and journalists’ associations shows that this is ethically unacceptable. In the United States, for example, sting operations by private individuals are banned.

The canons of journalism clearly stipulate that a reporter reveal his identity and that of his organisation during each assignment. If in the rarest of rare cases, it becomes necessary for the reporter to go incognito, this must be made clear to the public before the story is put out.

Hiding one’s identity to obtain a story neither serves the journalist or his organisation well for such information often cannot stand up to legal scrutiny. Since the reporter had hidden his identity in the first place, any information he has gathered can be challenged in a court. It can be asked: did the journalist use unfair means to obtain his facts, did he offer money or any other form of enticement for the story? In the first place, were there genuine grounds to expose a particular form of corruption?

Some journalists point to the “support” from a large section of the masses for sting operations to validate their stand that the ends justify the means. Increasingly, many people have begun to believe that stings are the only way to nail corruption. This is not so. Corruption exists everywhere but few countries condone sting operations to get to the bottom of a scam. The press only mirrors the society it reports on. By supporting sting operations from the sidelines, citizens cannot absolve themselves of their own shortcomings. By lowering its own moral standards, the media loses its legitimacy to report on ethical issues. The press’ role is not to force change in society, its primary aim is to report what it sees, whether good or bad. If corruption has percolated to all levels of our system, as is being claimed, then, can we safely say that only the fourth estate has remained above it all?

No, we are all in it together.

First Published: Jun 21, 2007 03:44 IST