Investigative Journalism Is Not Slander
| 28 Sep 2020
By Chitra Subramaniam | 28 Sep 2020
Deontology. It’s a word that constantly speaks to the journalist in me. Rules, ethics, respect and language must guide an editor 24/7 as s/he examines evidence, facts, leads and stories. There comes a time when journalists who respect their work and that of their colleagues seek to secure the hard won gains of free speech and human dignity and feel compelled to speak.
This is one such moment for me.
I write this in the context of the Bollywood and drugs controversy in India. In the first part I speak about the spin. The second is a snapshot of substance – five non-exhaustive and broad strands of investigative journalism. How does investigative journalism work? How do investigative journalists gather evidence? How does a reporter gain the trust of a source or a whistle blower? Who decides when to publish and finally is investigative journalism dangerous?
At the time of writing, famous Indian film stars (mostly women) are being called drug addicts. Their private lives are being dissected and their private space is being violated. I’ll skip the salacious language and abominable innuendo.
First things first – what we are witnessing in sections of the Indian media, especially prime time television, is slander, defamation and character assassination, self-appointed experts in tow. I would be surprised if any of what is called “evidence” stands up in a court of law. I know what I am talking about. The real drug lords – unfortunately they exist the world over where unaccounted money is generated – remain free. I’ll write about that in another blog. The one question I will pose now is this – why are the top male actors of the Indian films on whose shoulders we are told the estimated $2.69 billion industry rides, silent?
I have followed the media reporting on the tragic death (alleged suicide) of Sushant Singh Rajput, one of India’s most promising actors. Suicides are never easy to report on. When a person ends her or his own life, shock, shame, denial, alienation and a sense of failure are common among close relatives and friends. When a famous person takes the irreversible step, copycat suicides follow. Television anchors have been unkind to all in their breathless pursuit of ratings.
There are rules about reporting on suicides and they are based on human decency, journalistic ethics and public health evidence.
We now see police officers building political careers using the tragedy as a launch pad. Medical terms are bandied around and depression (Singh was reportedly dealing with a depression diagnosis) has been dismissed as a fashion statement. I do not believe the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), now charged with the investigation, will unearth anything. I hope I am wrong.
How did the story of a suicide grow into the saga of a global drugs cartel that further metamorphosed into an exposé on national security including threats from China and Pakistan all wrapped in a paper packet called investigative journalism?
Investigating journalism works IN public interest to pursue evidence when a person, a right, an institution or a country is being damaged by a few. This is not to be confused with stories OF public interest that are general in nature and contribute to knowledge.
1. How does investigative journalism work?
There is no set formula but one thing is certain – trust built assiduously over time is key. The cornerstone of investigative journalism, like much of legal learning and even epidemiology, is intent. Stories break or are broken with the intent of seeking justice and the enquiry is strict.
The relationship between a journalist and a source is no less sacred than that between a doctor and patient or a lawyer and client.
In all three areas, in addition to sources, case history or data, it helps to have a hunch. It is not for nothing that we say never lie to your doctor or your lawyer – good journalists know when someone is lying. They know the difference between leads and plants – it’s training that comes with being on the ground, taking nothing for granted and treating people with the same dignity and goodwill that they seek for themselves.
2. How do investigative journalists gather information? Do they always get documents?
Again, there are no hard and fast rules, but keeping quiet and not showing your hand till all the angles are explored is a good way to go. This includes giving time to respond to people who may be accused of wrongdoing. A journalist is not a jury, judge and executioner.
Most sources have their own way of connecting with journalists and few journalists have the luxury of reaching their sources at will. Getting documentary evidence is ideal, but securing documents is only the first step of a long process. Analysing them needs work, patience, more sources and even more verification if necessary.
A golden rule for journalists is to seek at least two independent sources per fact because the likelihood of one source backing out is high. If both sources know each other, they may be planting stuff on you. This means you have to do independent legwork even if you have the best sources if you wish to remain independent.
As a thumb rule, I write one story for every three or four about which I know and have first drafts ready because I want to see what comes back as reactions.
When you receive privileged information, it is a good idea to let it rest for a while without rushing to print. This gives you time to digest, read, investigate further and also makes sure that the source is not exercising any pressure on you to print. A genuine source will never be pushy.
3. How does a reporter gain the trust of a source or a whistle blower?
When I was investigating Bofors, one of my sources gave me some irrelevant documents along with some damning ones. Once the initial confusion had passed, it helped me understand that not all data is relevant and what may appear as a lead is a red herring. That was the source’s way of ensuring that I was sincere. I remember being tired. Over time, sources and journalists develop their own relationships.
An honest source seeks two things. One that the reporter adds to the information and two, there’s no fudging of data with innuendo that cannot stand up in a court of law. Trust, once lost, is difficult to regain, like in a court of law or in public health.
4. Who decides it’s time to publish?
This is a tricky one. Ideally, sources want stories to see the light of print as soon as the necessary work is completed. If a reporter is at the mercy of an editor the situation is difficult. One way forward is to set ground rules at the beginning in an independently verifiable way that acts as a safety for the reporting, the report and the reported.
If the reporter is also an owner, it becomes fairly obvious very early if the investigative work is pursuing an agenda or the truth.
5. Is investigative journalism dangerous?
Yes, it can be. Journalists have lost their lives reporting on money laundering, arms and drugs trade. All governments spy on journalists.
There’s a reason I prefaced this piece by writing what we are seeing on Indian television is not investigative journalism. Defaming actors is easy and carries no risk. An investigative journalist would pursue drug lords and politicians who protect them.
Chitra Subramaniam secured over 350 documents that nailed the Bofors bribes gun deal between India and Sweden. Her work resulted in Switzerland transferring secret bank documents to India. The Bofors case also helped change jurisprudence in Switzerland.