Investigating a report for its authenticity

As a part of The Hindu ’s public outreach efforts, the Office of the Readers’ Editor has been holding open house meetings in various cities. The objectives of these interactions between the readers and the newspaper’s editorial and administrative staff have been to listen to our readers carefully to find out what they are interested in and to explain to them some salient features of this newspaper’s working. For the next open house in Vijayawada on February 1, I have requested the Andhra Pradesh editorial team to make a short presentation on how the report, “At least 70% of Amaravati prone to floods: IIT-Madras” (January 12), was filed as some readers have contested the story. We are hosting the meeting in a college hall to accommodate more readers this time.

An agitated reader, Naresh Raghava, wrote: “I always trust the genuineness of The Hindu . In the same sense, I trusted an article published on January 12 regarding Amaravati (“At least 70% of Amaravati prone to floods: IIT-Madras”). Today there are reports on various television channels contradicting the genuineness of the report... In these times of fake news, I hope you will respond to my email.” Another reader, Sivakanth Mundru, wrote to us saying that the dean of IIT-M has clearly stated that the institute did not provide any study to The Hindu. He wondered on what basis the report attributed its findings to IIT-M. He also wondered why the comments section was closed on the fourth day since publication of the story, and hinted at some conspiracy behind the move.

How the report was done

Before getting into the details of sourcing and reporting the contentious story, let me clarify the doubt about the comments section. The comments section in this newspaper is moderated. It is open for comments for three days from the publication of the story after which it is closed. For this story too, the decision to close the comments section on the fourth day was deadline-driven, and not due to external pressure.

While the report attributed the findings to IIT-M, it did not say that it was sourced through IIT-M. In journalistic investigations, reporters source a study or a survey through various channels. That does not negate the veracity of the study. The same study was first mentioned by the Commissioner of Municipal Administration, Vijay Kumar IAS, when he read out the Boston Consulting Group report on the development of Amaravati on January 1. Our reporters checked this document before filing the report.

After many rounds of meetings with senior officials in the State government, the reporting team got access to some internal documents, including the PowerPoint presentation by IIT-M. Further, the statements by the Ministers for Municipal Administration and Agriculture clearly indicate the existence of the IIT-M report. The Agriculture Minister K. Kanna Babu said there was a clear communication from an IIT-M professor to the chief engineer of the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) on floods. This was reported in The Hindu on January 18.

I would also like to share a YouTube link where the Agriculture Minister mentions that the Structural Engineering division of IIT-M communicated with the CRDA through email: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-srapVZdVjE. The reference to IIT-M can be heard between 59:00 and 59:50.

No refutation

Crucially, no one from IIT-M has written to this newspaper to refute the story or deny their study of Amaravati. We cannot take masked screenshots as conclusive evidence of a denial. An institution with IIT-M’s repute would have challenged the story directly if it had nothing to do with the proposed capital city for Andhra Pradesh. It is possible that there may have been more than one body that was commissioned to study the viability of the new capital city. We now know that some aspects were studied by the Boston Consulting Group and some by IIT-M, and it is for the government of Andhra Pradesh to clarify who studied what aspect. According to our reporting team in Andhra Pradesh, most of these documents will become public once the Assembly session begins. This will put a lid on some of the wild speculations that have been dominating social media over the last week.