The dilemmas of sting journalism

Updated - November 16, 2021 09:49 pm IST

Published - December 16, 2013 12:28 am IST

There are queries as to why the coverage in The Hindu of sting operations by activist media was on a low-key. The questions pertain to some of the recent expose that include Amit Shah’s illegal surveillance, IT companies creating fake following and manipulating the social media, and Members of Parliament writing letters of recommendation for a fee.

The answer lies in the very nature of sting journalism. It operates in a number of grey areas, and its authenticity cannot be verified independently. The act of verification and crosschecking is central to ethical journalistic practices.

Lord Justice Leveson in his ‘An inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press’ frequently uses the term “journalistic dark arts” to some of the methods the British tabloid press deploys to secure information. He takes a serious exception to giving money to public servants to secure information. Citing the British law, the Bribery Act 2010, he contends that “the making of payment for information for stories is clearly illegal as a matter of criminal law” and that “there is no defence based on actual or perceived public interest.”

Leveson also finds fault with the blanket usage of the term ‘investigative journalism’. He writes: “Most substantial use of subterfuge and deceit is generally the preserve of investigative journalism, that is to say, when subterfuge and deceit are used the press generally term the result ‘investigative journalism’, regardless of whether that label is strictly merited”.

Apart from the ethics and accepted norms, I also feel that this technique exposes only the gullible, who are not at the top of the political pyramid.

The ethical quagmire

Does The Hindu prohibit its journalists from indulging in sting operations? How does it respond to stories emanating from sting? Is there a written policy to deal with this increasing practice that has consumed a section of the media? Acknowledging the moral dilemma and the ethical quagmire posed by sting journalism, Editor-in-Chief N. Ravi explained three issues that influence the editorial judgment of this newspaper.

First is the difficulty in verifying the authenticity and factual accuracy of material gathered by an editorial process of which the paper has little knowledge, much less any control. Second, in his view, sting operations involving some deception could be used only when justified by an overwhelming public interest involving such questions as prevention of crime, some grave risk to the public, preventing people from being misled by public personalities, and so on. Thirdly, he felt that the drastic lengths to which one can go in conducting a sting operation — some forms of enticement including payments of money and dubious hospitality — would seem to vitiate the operation. He said: “For instance, waving money in someone’s face to test his integrity is to be seen as entrapment, and there are specific guidelines even in the case of traps set by law enforcement agencies in the case of corruption — they can only become part of an existing tendency to corrupt practices, they cannot initiate one where it does not exist.”

While the newspaper is wary of publishing the findings of any sting operation as conclusive proof of wrongdoing, when they become a matter of public debate in which the persons charged with wrongdoing and others also participate, it does not refrain from reporting it as a controversy.

As far as The Hindu is concerned, the Editor-in-Chief was categorical: “we ourselves do not resort to sting operations, and our journalists go about seeking information, openly, revealing their identities.”

In his media column, Sashi Kumar, Chairman of Asian College of Journalism, wrote: “It may appear to be a matter of professional propriety or social grace for one newspaper or television channel not to comment adversely on the performance of another. But for a calling whose lodestar is the public interest and where even not so legit means like the hidden recorder or camera or other intrusive methods of ‘sting’ journalism are absolved or pass muster in the name of the larger public good, this pretence of not noticing the sins of omission and commission in its own ranks smacks of hypocrisy.” The conscious decision of The Hindu regarding sting journalism makes it an exception.

Leveson has forcefully argued that paying for information is essentially unethical. “First, the source may require payment for the very reason that he or she has obtained the information in question by illegal, unethical or otherwise dubious means, and the payment is, at it were, the price for taking the risk. Second, the fact that a source apparently required payment for supplying the information in question may well be an incentive for exaggeration and embellishment. Third, the offering of money for stories may well encourage members of the public to engage in intrusive methods in circumstances where there is no clear public interest.”

Sting journalism can never aspire to occupy the high moral ground that a rigorous investigation could achieve and deliver for genuine public interest.


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