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UNDERCOVER JOURNALISM AND ETHICS

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Sunanda K. Chavan
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UNDERCOVER JOURNALISM AND ETHICS - October 29th, 2010

INDIA TV'S STING operations, ostensibly aimed at exposing the prevalent sexual exploitation in the entertainment industry, raise knotty but important issues relating to journalistic ethics. Hidden cameras captured a Bollywood actor and a TV game show host seeking sexual favours from a young woman reporter of the news channel, who posed as an aspiring starlet seeking a break in the industry.

If there is a deep sense of distaste about the two undercover ‘investigations’, it is partly because the television channel went out of its way to entice the individuals into behaving inappropriately before capturing them on videotape. India TV's Editor-in-Chief Rajat Sharma's justification for carrying out the sting — exposing the casting couch menace in the entertainment industry — has a hollow ring to it. All that was exposed by India TV, which carried out the stings with offers of whiskey and invitations to hotel rooms, were the frailties of two sad and susceptible men.

It was sordid ensnarement, not enlightening investigation.

Undercover journalism is not a new phenomenon in India. In 1981, a newspaper reporter bid for and bought a young woman, ‘Kamala’, for Rs 2,300 at a ‘sale’ in Madhya Pradesh to establish trafficking in women and the involvement of bigwigs in the racket.

More recently, Tehelka used deception and hidden cameras to expose ‘match fixing’ in cricket and, more importantly, to show how easily penetrable and corruptible a section of the defence establishment was. Some of the methods used by Tehelka to acquire information were rightly criticised, particularly, the use of call girls in a flagrant exercise of entrapment. But the investigation, which revealed how deeply entrenched corruption was in the process of defence procurement, did have a serious public purpose.

In contrast, the India TV sting operations were widely perceived to be ploys to attract more eyeballs and increase the profile of the news channel.


The central point is that investigative journalism that insists on going after information through deception and invasion of privacy can have only one serious defence: a larger social purpose.

Undercover investigations by journalists go back a long way. It was in 1887 that the celebrated Nellie Bly feigned illness, got herself admitted to a notoriously ill-administered New York lunatic asylum, and wrote a powerful expose that hastened legal reforms relating to the treatment of the mentally ill. It was socially purposeful and impactful undercover journalism at its best. Three decades ago a Pulitzer Prize for journalism was awarded to a reporter who concealed his identity in order to write a series of articles on voting irregularities in Chicago.

These investigations have won admiration within the profession and from the public, which suggests that relevant and purposeful undercover journalism is not merely acceptable under certain conditions but is an indispensable force for the social good.

Journalism that relies on active deception and, more typically, `passive' misrepresentation to acquire information must satisfy at least the following three professional ethical requirements. First, the information pursued must be directly and strongly linked to a larger social purpose. Secondly, the public value of such information must clearly outweigh the injury caused by the deception and the privacy violation. Thirdly, undercover methods must not be resorted to where the information can be gathered by straightforward means.

The problem with the India TV sting operations is that they fulfill neither the first nor the second condition. The lukewarm public response suggests there is a reflexive understanding of this in Indian society. Yellow journalism should provoke those in the profession to think more deeply about the purposes and methods of journalism, and to take a clear stand on the interface between freedom of expression, and professional and social responsibility.
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