Generations of journalists, across beats, have struggled with the dilemma of how to build expertise in a field without developing strong biases
Spend an evening with a group of journalists at the Press Club of India, and you come back with a host of stories about other fellow-journalists. The conversation would be littered with how a particular reporter covering the government is a ‘Congressi’; how someone tracking the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a ‘Sanghi’; a writer of national security issues is an ‘IB-wallah’; someone critical of the government’s security policy is a ‘Naxal’; or how a particular business journalist is batting for a certain corporate house.
Most of it is speculative, rich in gossip, and weak on facts – violating precisely the principles journalists must internalize while doing stories. But the insinuations reflect an underlying problem that reporters, across generations and beats, have had to confront. Journalism involves cultivating sources, and developing a degree of expertise and background. But in the process, a reporter may become so dependent on particular set of sources, or develop such strong convictions and biases, that he stops being an independent reporter altogether.
In the case of political parties, the challenge to independent reporting either comes from being ideologically swayed, getting close to a set of leaders to the point of being blinded to other views, or succumbing to patronage opportunities.
A veteran political journalist, who has covered all of India’s major parties, but wished to be anonymous, says “While covering Congress, reporters get swayed largely for reasons of money and patronage.” This can take the form of vying for Rajya Sabha nominations, getting government positions, and playing a role in power politics. There are others who may have a deep aversion to BJP’s politics, and while not being Congress supporters, end up being more sympathetic to what they consider as the ‘lesser evil’. She adds that the party institutionally itself does not get worried about critical coverage, but individual leaders often complain if there are ‘negative’ stories and have expectations from beat reporters.
If it is patronage in Congress, reporters often turn ideological while covering BJP. The senior journalist says, “There is a greater chance of turning sympathetic to the party’s worldview in BJP. But BJP leaders are open, and often spend more time with reporters not ideologically aligned with them.” In a recent essay on the BJP’s internal politics in the Caravan magazine, journalist Poornima Joshi wrote how senior leader Arun Jaitley is often called the ‘Bureau Chief’ in the party, given his excellent links with the national media in Delhi.
But political reporters say there is space to do critical coverage. There are multiple factions in each party, all willing to leak stories. Leaders also have a relatively thick-skin, as compared to bureaucrats. And when it is clear to politicians that a reporter may be critical, but is not batting for any other side or has a vested interest, they continue to respect the work of that journalist even if they would like to ‘manipulate’ the story by pushing their view.
The problem in reporting on ministries often is that sources dry up if the official line is not followed.
Examine the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), a much-coveted beat.
Journalists are often briefed by the foreign secretary, and respective heads of divisions when an issue comes up in a field related to their area. There is a legitimate expectation that the official view-point will be reported accurately, but this then gets coupled with the somewhat undemocratic expectation that a contrarian and critical view will not find space at all. Reporters who depend on MEA sources for news details on a day-to-day basis face the real danger of being cut off if they go ‘too far’, in the eyes of the mandarins.
Ajaz Ashraf, former foreign affairs editor at Outlook and a senior journalist, says, “MEA is unique. In other ministries, bureaucrats come and go and there is constant shuffling. But in this, an officer is attached to the ministry all his life. A journalist, if he has met an under-secretary, will have to interact with that person in different capacities for the next 35 years.” This, Ashraf suggests, makes it more difficult to challenge sources. More importantly, he adds, “Indian Foreign Service officers have a strong perception of how foreign policy should be articulated. And so there is a single-window clearance. Losing access is a real possibility.”
The pressure can get even more intense in the case of intelligence agencies. A reporter who covers Home Ministry for a national daily recently said that he was getting calls from intelligence sources every day, questioning him if a story documenting their version of the Ishrat Jahan case was not carried. “Documents were being delivered right at the door-step.” The additional problem in intelligence reporting is there is almost no way to cross-check the information being provided and corroborate it through other sources, a key tenet of reportage.
The continued, and often uncritical, acceptance of what the source is saying shapes the convictions of many who cover the beat – manufacturing a consensus. It is not surprising to find some defence, intelligence, and foreign affairs reporters who are more establishment than the establishment in defending an official viewpoint. This is not anyone’s fault necessarily, but just the way incentives are aligned and reporting structures are shaped.
There is no easy way out. One way to deal with the dilemma is to maintain a strong separation between news and opinion, where reporters stick to factual reporting. But this is limiting, for it blocks them from doing stories and analytical pieces which project different shades of opinion.
The other, suggests a journalist, is to have political correspondents covering various parties instead of being confined only to one outfit. This will enable them to get exposed to different view-points, and check biases that creep in while reporting.
Additionally, in the bureaucracy, there are always the outliers and dissenters, and reporters can get details from them if the authorized official refuses to speak to them.
Ajaz Ashraf, however, suggests that a trade-off is involved, where the role of the editor assumes critical importance. “If a reporter cultivates a source, then the source expects something in return. This is natural in any human interaction. If you then turn critical, there will be a price to pay. And the editor has to take a call, on whether he is willing to burn that source, and give the reporter breathing space.”