Lying to get the truth

Is it tenable to wage a battle for ethical journalism by deploying unethical means?

May 28, 2018 12:15 am | Updated 08:22 am IST

The American Journalism Review first used this headline in 2007 when it dealt with the ethics of undercover journalism. The ethics of sting journalism has been written about at length in this space. “ The dilemmas of sting journalism ” (December 16, 2013), “ Means and ends matter ” (September 22, 2014) and “ Sting journalism is not investigative journalism ” (June 19, 2017) were unambiguous articulations about this devious method to secure information. It seems as though this newspaper is ploughing a lonely furrow in this regard.

Reporting a sting operation

A Delhi-based reader of The Hindu , K. Balakrishnan, asked: “Why has The Hindu chosen not to even report the sting operation conducted by Cobrapost ? Is it not news that is relevant in these times? I can understand that you cannot verify the authenticity of it, but that applies to reports of hate speeches during elections too.”

Neither his question nor the decision of this newspaper to refrain from publishing the findings of the website, Cobrapost , was surprising. The question flows from the natural curiosity of a reader who gets news from more than one platform. The paper’s decision is based on its core editorial values, cherished and nurtured for over a century. The Hindu expects accountability from every institution of this country. It does not shy away from reporting ethical deficits in the media. It has reported in detail on paid news using time-tested journalistic tools such as extensive research and rigorous verification and without the deception of undercover reporting. It had never refrained from naming people and publications too. However, it is wary of investigative journalism that does not respect the norms of journalism.

For instance, P. Sainath’s report, “ Reaping gold through cotton, and newsprint ” (May 10, 2012), documented how The Times of India ( TOI ), in a span of three years, carried a full-page plug for Bt cotton twice, the first time as news and the second time as an advertisement. The report titled “Not a single person from the two villages has committed suicide” was published in TOI on October 31, 2008. The same story was run again in the same newspaper, word for word, on August 28, 2011, as a marketing feature during the Parliament session in which the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill was to be debated. The disclosure at the end of Mr. Sainath’s article read: “ The Hindu and The Times of India are competitors in several regions of India.” Another report that tried to map the boundary between legitimate news-gathering and lobbying and influence peddling in the light of the Niira Radia tapes was “ The spotlight is on the media now ” (November 24, 2010).

Ken Auletta did not conceal his identity when he spoke to the top management of TOI to do his rather devastating piece, “Citizens Jain: Why India’s newspaper industry is thriving”, for The New Yorker in 2012.

The question of ethics

Journalism schools have been grappling with the ethical questions posed by sting journalism for nearly two decades. These are not academic questions but are central to retaining trust in the media to deliver credible information. In the present polarised environment, some may use political ideologies to either endorse or repudiate the reliance on sting operations and subterfuge. It is myopic and suicidal to bring in ideology to define journalistic norms and best practices. It is worth remembering Greg Marx’s caution in the Columbia Journalism Review : “If the reporter has forfeited the high ground of transparency and honesty, how can his conclusions be trusted by the public? The fallout may not be limited to the case at hand.”

I asked the Editor, Mukund Padmanabhan, to explain the reason for not carrying the sting exposé. He said: “ The Hindu has not been named in the Cobrapost exposé. As a newspaper, we have a clear editorial policy against paid news. We also refrain from conducting sting operations and, as a general rule, expect our journalists to declare their identities when pursuing a story. We believe that it is difficult to independently verify and authenticate the material that sting operations throw up. As a result, we have been traditionally cautious about publishing the findings of sting operations as conclusive proof of wrongdoing. Even in the odd case where we have published a small report, we have been wary of naming those who were stung. However, we have reported and commented when the issues raised by sting operations become part of a larger public debate.”

This steadfast position to adhere to core journalistic values is the only way to retain trust in these trying times.

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