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The slippery slope of stings

The tendency to outsource the journalistic activity is certain to lead to an erosion of journalistic values, writes Vir Sanghvi in Counterpoint.

india Updated: Jan 15, 2006 04:28 IST

After the success of the Aaj Tak–Cobrapost sting, nearly everybody in the media has got used to the concept of the sting operation-for-hire. The way it works is this: an enterprising journalist/web site/small news organisation sets up a sting operation. When the results are in and the victims are trapped on audio or video tape, the perpetrators of the sting approach a large media outlet and offer to sell the story.

Faced with this kind of offer, many large news organisations are tempted to bite. Stings are very much the flavour of the month. For TV news channels functioning in an extremely competitive environment, they provide an opportunity to win the ratings wars and — when the story spills over into other news media — to capture the mind space of target audiences.

Moreover, a sting is — almost by definition — the sort of story that a proper TV journalist cannot do. It requires ‘reporters’ to masquerade as other people and most TV journos — whose faces are well-known from repeated exposure on the box — lack the anonymity required to pretend to be arms dealers/star aspirants/whatever. Far easier, therefore, to buy the story from somebody else who has hired unknown faces and done the dirty work required to set the traps.

There is now a measure of consensus in the news business that it is legitimate to buy ready-made stings from smaller operators. Apart from anything else, the large news organisation also buys deniability — if it later transpires that the people who ran the sting paid bribes, hired call girls to soften up sources or engaged in any kind of activity that might later prove embarrassing, the buyer can disclaim all knowledge.

First Published: Jan 15, 2006 04:28 IST