18-24 July 2014 #716

The truth about facts

It’s a thin line between using news sources and being used by them
Rubeena Mahato
Journalists are a self-righteous bunch who relish telling people what they ought to do. We may be expected to just report, but we also like to dispense unsolicited advice on what is right and what is not, what is to be believed and what should be questioned, which ideas are morally revolting and which are worth leaps in faith.

The ethics of doing so might be endlessly contested but that is how the media works, and not just in Nepal. To those who take issue with opinion pieces, it might be worth noting that even news reports can be subjective in terms of where they are placed, how the story is angled, who is quoted and in what order.

Journalists report, but more importantly we are also supposed to interpret, analyse and explain events. And the license to do so comes from the assumption that the media or those working in the media business are people of high integrity and conscience and can be trusted upon to interpret ‘facts’ and meanings for the public. But what if those trusted with delivering the truth or the closest version of it, have compromised their independence? Consider this: all newspapers have dedicated beats for political parties, overseen by reporters considered closest to those influential in the parties. A NC, UML or Maoist beat reporter, for instance, can be trusted to speak for his sources.

Office-bearers of the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) openly contest elections on behalf of political panels. Various professional associations of journalists, even clubs, are divided along party lines and most journalists make no effort to hide their allegiance.

It is standard practice in Nepal to elevate political leaders to god-like status often around the time they are about to rise to power or have taken up office. There is a race among reporters to be the first to profile a leader as it would bring, among many other things, the opportunity to be close to a power center and enjoy his blessings. Reporters are sometimes in such thrall of a rising new leaders that they are elevated unquestioningly and prematurely to high pedestals.

Journalists are taught not to get too close to their sources, to keep perspective, and not to accept freebies. But that has not stopped some to go out of their way to practice mutual back-scratching journalism, virtually becoming mouthpieces to their news sources in exchange for whatever has been offered in return.

The credibility of Nepali media today is threatened by embedded journalism. It is of course convenient to have news to come to you especially from institutions that are fiercely secretive like the Army or intelligence agencies. Any information from them carries news value, but there is no free lunch in the corridors of power. It is always a quid pro quo: the journalist gets a scoop, the source gets to spin.

Reporters rarely ask whose interest is served by such leaks, and whether they are being manipulated. The bargain already compromises the reporter, editor, or even publisher, because we cannot expect them to cover anything that may embarrass, endanger or expose wrongdoing of the very institutions they are in bed with.

Who is going to expose corruption within the opaque procurements of the Nepal Army, for instance? Will it still be possible to investigate corruption in the judiciary? Can one expect a reporter embedded with the Nepal Oil Corporation to expose graft there?

It’s a thin line between using news sources and being used by them. Journalist face this ethical dilemma regularly. Some succumb because it’s just not worth the effort to resist the temptation, others are disillusioned enough to leave a profession they idealistically believed could be an agent of change.

Journalism is simple as long as you follow the old-fashioned rules: protect news sources but more importantly protect the news from the sources. As in most things, in reporting too, the process matters as much as the outcome.

And while the desire and initiative to serve the ‘facts’ might be praiseworthy, compromising the values and ethics of one’s profession while doing so is not. Fact that come this way stop serving the cause of truth.


Read also:

The urban bias, CK Lal

Telling truth to power, Anurag Acharya

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