Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Stings - An excuse for shoddy and half-hearted journalism?

Yet another sting has fallen flat on its face, entangling itself in legal and ethical complications. (Live India’s reporter Prakash Singh finds himself behind bars for concocting a plot to frame Uma Khurana.) The question everybody is now asking – Do stings have a legitimate place in journalism? Most respond yes. But what nobody says is that a sting is a poor excuse for bad journalism. It’s something the police ought to do to catch criminals. Not journalists for a copy.

Once in the 1970s, the panel for Pulitzer prizes had to decide whether it wanted to award Chicago Sun Times a prize for a widely appreciated story on how cops regularly prised money out of bar owners. To set the trap, the students went to the extent of opening bars. The cops came and, expectedly, asked for money. Only to be caught in the act on hidden cameras. Good story, you think? The Pulitzer panel didn’t and rightly so. The students were not reporting, they were acting. They were not reporting news but creating news. This is what we are experiencing today in India with stings. We (journalists) no longer report news but manufacture it. We are no longer flies on the wall (what we ideally should be), observing and reporting, but actors in the script we write. We still do have to have to ask hard questions and labour well enough to get the facts. But that doesn’t mean we can get it through other means.

As the pressure to deliver piles on the newly created television channels and papers, stings have emerged as a shortcut to “great” stories and TRP ratings. Nobody wants to labour like Woodward and Bernstein did for Watergate. Who has the time? It’s simpler to act than to report meticulously. Tehelka got prostitutes to do the luring act (something they initially hid) and NDTV got an eyewitness (Sunil Kulkarni) from the BMW case to expose the defence and prosecution lawyers. Pray, where and what was journalism in that? Aaj Tak even sneaked in a Shatrughan Sinha (who was then a MP) look-alike into the Parliament premises and cried hoarse about a security breach post-December 13. Never mind that anywhere else in the world it would have been passed off as something comical. Remember the recent breach by a Laden look-alike at the APEC summit in Sydney? It was carried out by a satirical and not a news channel. Looks like I have missed out on a defining change in television journalism in India - farce now qualifies as breaking news these days!

The truth has never been simpler – We have worked our way around ethical and logistical hurdles for a quicker copy. We are plain lazy and in far too great a haste to follow the rules. Nobody unfortunately seems to be saying this in the ongoing debate.

(PS: Yours truly is a print journalist. Therefore, I can claim to speak for ourselves.)


Blogger gautam chintamani said...

Just shows the desperation on the part of new entrants to gain some mileage. In any case everything seems to be 'breaking news' worthy these days so this doesn't surprise me. As a matter of fact then only thing I watch on TV these days is news.

The latest Network 18 ads sum it up; the slogan has 'inform, entertain, educate' and something else.

Get the drift?

11:08 am  
Blogger Siraj Wahab said...

I love your comments. Very well said. I am an Indian journalist based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and I write for The Asian Age. I completely endorse your view. The Breaking News stuff is a joke. And that Live India episode is criminal. I sympathize with Uma Khurana. Poor woman.

7:25 pm  

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