14 November 2019 05:33 PM

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SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 23 OCTOBER, 2019

Should Journalists Pay For Information?

The problem is that the media does not see this as a major offence. Why?


Source is one of the major keys for journalists trying to dig deep into a story. How does one access a human source? By reaching out and persuading someone close to an incident – an eye-witness to a murder or someone who has actually witnessed a group of students adopting wrong means such as copying at an examination and so on. Lately, however, the grapevine – via media outlets – is crying itself hoarse about subjects chosen as “source” for certain sensitive stories asking for hefty sums in exchange of an interview. That is one side of the story. The other and more worrying side is that they are being paid for their interview by media hungry for “exclusives.”

An internationally renowned actor of Bengali cinema openly agrees to any interview on condition that he is paid – not under the table but openly and above it. As a senior journalist, I desperately wanted to interview him. He did not once say “no” but gave some excuse to avoid it. Later, my colleagues informed me that he does not agree to any interview without being paid. So, I gave up as I had no intention of getting a paid interview. Once, the head of a p.r. firm organized an interview with him for me for the promotion of a new film. I got my prized interview and it remains one of my cherished ones. Later, my joy got diluted when the friend from the p.r. firm informed me that they had paid him a hefty sum for a series of interviews on the same day for different journalists.

So, paying the interviewee-subject for his part of/in any story is not new. What is shocking is the way media organizations so easily surrender the principles of objectivity, integrity and accuracy in true journalism by actually paying for a story. The latest in this series of paid interviews doing the rounds is that of the friend who was with Nirbhaya when she was being gang-raped on a night of December 16 2012. Several media reports have stated that this friend had charged up to Rs. One lakh from a satellite channel for his interview on his experience as witness of the Nirbhaya rape.

So far as memory goes, all we know about the Nirbhaya rape is that her ‘friend’ was bashed up and was unconscious when the girl was being raped. In other words, he did not ‘witness’ the rape. Then, how does he become an important ‘witness’ seven years after the fact?

Any media surrendering to a prospective subject for his account of a gang-rape that has acquired international attention is more shocking than the person who is asking for payment! Can his account be relied on as accurate, honest and authentic? Or, is he creating ‘facts’ in order to make some quick money on the side? His uncle, it is said, had done the negotiation and accompanies him everywhere. Which means that this guy has given interviews to several media outlets for the same reason and has been paid by all of them! What kind of journalism is this?

Of course, in certain cases, a modest payment is justified. When experts are called in for a panel discussion on a subject of national or international importance, they may not be paid or may be paid a modest sum on demand. A defence expert for example, may be paid for his expertise where integrity, objectivity and accuracy are not compromised. But a “witness” in a rape case is a very sensitive issue. Specially when the case is brought out of the archives more for its “sensational” than for its objectivity which is doubtful because the subject it can be presumed, is using his ‘sole witness’ position to make money and not to tell the truth.

Rod Young, who worked for some time in radio stations, says, “This is a controversial thing in Journalism circles. If they are a consultant of some type or expert; Political, Defence, Counter Terrorism etc then yes. Now generally people in the news do not get paid. But there are exceptions. Some News Magazines will pay for sit-down interviews for people in news. Some don't but it hurts their chance to land an interview. Some don't have to if the outlet has an audience that the subject wants to reach.”

Jeremy W. Peters, media reporter, New York Times (August 6, 2011) reports: “Evolving standards or no, cheque-book journalism has been a persistent and problematic feature of news coverage at even the most powerful and reputable news organizations, long predating the hyper-competitive 24-hour cable news cycle and the celebrity gossip boom.” He goes on to add, “Newsmakers who have been cut large checks over the years include not just players in courtroom melodramas like the Casey Anthony and O. J. Simpson trials, but former presidents.”

Presidents and Prime Ministers have been paid hefty sums. But theirs is a different story. Why should an unreliable witness to a terrible crime demand money when no one knows for certain whether he was really a ‘witness’ to the crime or not? If he was rendered unconscious, he is lying now. If he was not, he was lying then!

It rarely occurs to people, including academics, scholars, researchers and activists, that misrepresentation of human beings in and by the media itself constitutes a violation of human rights. And to get paid for misrepresentation of facts (the interviewee) and the presentation of these (media) to the masses is even worse.

The problem is that the media does not see this as a major offence. Why? Probably because of the cut-throat competition between and among media houses running the race for carrying “exclusive” stories without being sure of whether these are at all ‘exclusive’ as has happened in the case of Nirbhaya’s friend. Nirbhaya’s rape, torture and death have turned out to be her poison and his bread with a lot of butter spread on it. And the media has merrily been taken for a ride.

What does objectivity mean in an age when technology is racing ahead of fact and content in the world of the media? What does it signify when the media itself is being reformulated and redefined every moment depending on factors like culture, language, education, social conditions, affluence or the lack of it and everything that matters? In a rapidly changing media world where sensationalism reigns supreme, does objectivity become the scapegoat to surrender to factual news reporting, investigating and even commenting?

The functions of writing, reporting, reviewing, analyzing, investigating and questioning human rights issues in general and gender issues in particular involves a constant and fragile tight-rope walk between objectivity and creativity for a journalist. The Nirbhaya case is most certainly a gender issue and a human rights issue where accuracy, objectivity and integrity should never be compromised. But times are changing and so are perspectives and journalism also demands varied perspectives to be presented to the readership.

A guideline essay among the many posted in API’s (American Press Institute) Journalism Essentials states that the term ‘objectivity’ began to evolve within the unwritten code of ethics in journalism after the turn of the 20th century, particularly in the 1920s, out of a growing recognition that journalists were full of bias, often unconsciously. Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information – a transparent approach to evidence – precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work. Perhaps, the very term ‘objectivity’ in today’s world, demands a redefining, who knows?
 

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