Sting journalism is not investigative journalism

It is a lazy substitute to meticulous reporting. It may create a buzz but can never examine anything in depth

Published - June 19, 2017 12:05 am IST

In this age of digital storage of information, one is not sure whether it is the power of the search engines or their own stupendous memory that helps readers to remember and recollect information and pose questions. Whatever be the case, the fact remains that the printed word, which has now entered cyberspace, seems to have acquired a much-longer shelf life since Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.

Some of the readers wanted to know whether the latest sting involving AIADMK MLAs taking money for switching factional affiliations has changed my opinion on sting journalism. They wanted to know whether, as a Readers’ Editor, I would recommend undercover journalism and deployment of spy cameras for The Hindu . They cited two of my earlier columns — “The dilemmas of sting journalism” (December 16, 2013) and “Means and ends matter” (September 22, 2014) — in which I had strongly repudiated the idea of ‘sting’.

My reservation against sting journalism goes back to the days when Tehelka ventured into ‘Operation West End’ that looked at murky deals in defence procurement. I am convinced that sting journalism is a lazy substitute to meticulous investigative reporting. It is true that some of the defence deals are murky. However, the investigations that have had some sort of national resonance are the ones that have deployed conventional investigative modes. For instance, the Bofors investigation by this newspaper was a long-haul exercise that involved meticulous documentation, first-hand interviews and, in the words of Columbia Journalism School, “evidence of a qualitatively new, unimpeachable kind”.

The ubiquitous 24x7 news channels do not understand the rigours of serious investigative journalism. The moment they access a sheet of paper coming from officials, they think they have unearthed a scam, and their decibel levels reach a crescendo, only to be lost following the discovery of another sheet of paper, to proclaim another exclusive expose. In 2008, Aidan White wrote an excellent handbook, To Tell You the Truth , in which he laid down the ground rules for journalism to remain a trustworthy endeavour. “Fierce competition and a lack of regulation have created a dangerously competitive environment in which ethical and professional standards have been sidelined. In broadcasting, for instance, where 40 television news channels compete for viewers in one of the world’s most crowded media markets, ‘sting journalism’ — some might call it voyeurism and entrapment — has come to dominate the news mix,” he wrote about Indian television channels. Now, with numbers of channels going up, the downward spiral in standards seems to be touching a new low.

In public interest?

One of the defences advanced by sting journalists is that the subterfuge is in public interest; hence, it should be accepted as a normal journalistic practice to bring out the truth. I can cite at least ten outstanding investigative reports for each decade since Emergency. For instance, in the mid-1980s, Praful Bidwai explained the huge gap between the claims and reality in the functioning of the Indian nuclear establishment. Unlike the garrulous AIADMK MLAs, the Indian nuclear establishment is known for maintaining its secrecy — remember how the West was hoodwinked about Pokhran-1 in 1974? — and has a powerful legal cover in the form of the Atomic Energy Act, 1962.

The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) had made a claim that nuclear energy had become a major source of energy. Bidwai collected data on the quantum of power purchased from the DAE by various State electricity boards and established that the DAE’s figures were highly overstated. Sucheta Dalal’s investigative stories — which broke the securities scam in 1992, India’s biggest financial scandal until then — still remain a touchstone on how to look at data from the financial institutions.

The Saturday special of this newspaper, Ground Zero, is a contemporary version of ethical investigation that is rigorous, fact-checked, and in public interest. The stories are not based on hit-and-run, off-the-cuff, surreptitious recordings of a gullible single source, but involve painstaking suturing together of facts culled from multiple sources that make up our interlocking public.

Is it possible to do a sting to replicate Tony Joseph’s “How genetics is settling the Aryan migration debate” (June 17, 2017)? Lord Leveson’s voluminous report refers to sting journalism as “journalistic dark arts”. Sting journalism may create a buzz, but its logic is never to examine anything in depth but to just skim the surface till it finds a new villain of the day.

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