Following the paper trail

Ben Bradlee led ‘The Washington Post’ during the days of the Watergate scandal.   | Photo Credit: AP

In a scene in the 2017 movie The Post, a group of journalists peer into a cardboard box holding the Pentagon Papers. It is an exciting and equally stressful moment: the team has a mere 10 hours to sift through 4,000 pages, make sense of them, and hammer out a report for the city edition. As all of them start complaining about the seemingly impossible task, Tom Hanks, who plays The Washington Post Editor, Ben Bradlee, says, “We have 10 hours till the deadline, so we dig in.”

This scene and what follows is what a reporter’s dreams are made of. The documents may come to us with different names — police charge sheets, government file notings, personal correspondence, confidential reports, internal memos, and so on — but each of them is a hard piece of evidence.

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The paper is the key here. Documents, unlike people, will never betray you or withdraw comments. They will never blame you for a “misquote,” especially in the face of an unflattering story. The spoken word can be denied, retracted and changed before a story, whereas documents mostly leave no room for doubts or questions. The cold and indifferent document provides a news copy with protection as tough as Teflon; it makes the story undeniable.

It is for this reason that reporters spend most of their time chasing documents. This is why we coax and convince sources to part with papers. Often, journalism is just about following that paper trail. It is about knowing where else to go looking for a document that has been denied to us by one source. We love our documents so much that most reporters are well equipped to read text even upside down on files that officers sometimes forget to close, all the while carrying on with a casual conversation.

I am sure that my colleagues at The Hindu and in other media houses have a number of exciting stories about how they landed key documents for their scoops. These are stories of our little personal triumphs.

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I remember, for instance, the jubilation, as a cub reporter, when a source walked out of a police station on the pretext of having tea, sneaking away from the TV cameras in front of the station, only to hand me a First Information Report. What I was chasing was not a scoop; it was just a routine story that everyone else was following. But often, the difference between a half-baked news report and a rounded one is that one chit of paper or sheaf of papers.

Technological changes have made accessing documents a little easier. With multiple social media sharing platforms, often voluminous reports land directly on our phones. Instead of the hard print, we now spend time squinting at our laptops. Sometimes, if a source is too reluctant to part with the documents, we try and convince them to allow us to photograph a few pages. For paper hounds like us, the spoken word, which is the most common source of news stories, pales in front of having that document. This is often a problem.

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Whether it’s a digital or a hard copy, the joy of having the written word to back your byline makes a world of difference. It also means that you can have a good night’s sleep on the day you have filed that rare scoop.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 1:06:51 PM |

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