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RAMACHANDRA R. KOTHAPALLI
describes a case study.
Launched in 2000, Tehelka has become one of India's most popular independent weekly newspapers. Its editor is Tarun Tejpal. "Tehelka," a word which means "sensation" in Hindi, succeeded in creating that in March 2001 when it released video footage of its first major sting operation, "Operation West End." The videos showed several defense officials, officers, and politicians from the then-ruling coalition Indian government discussing and accepting bribes. Tehelka had two reporters pose as arms dealers peddling "fourth generation thermal hand held cameras" on behalf of a British company. The president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the mainstay of the government, was shown taking 100,000 Indian rupees (roughly $2,500 in U. S. dollars). He resigned the next day. He was followed a day later by the Minister of Defense who had also appeared on the video-accepting twice as much. Several additional defense ministry officials and officers were suspended later.
This scandal pushed the Indian government into an immediate crisis and this in turn hammered the Indian stock market-which was already down as the result of an insider trading scandal. The government fought back by attacking Tehelka's methods. It claimed that the allegations were based on misleading references and touched-up pictures. Even though it is easy to sum up the whole story and conclude that corruption was exposed due to Tehelka's efforts and that justice has been served, the underlying ethical issues regarding the case are still open for debate.
There are questions yet to be answered. First, is it investigative journalism or is it self-interest which encouraged the Tehelka reporters to engage in false impersonation, carrying hidden cameras and wiring themselves up? The reporters paid large sums of money (bribes) to touts, officials, politicians on false pretexts. Then they recorded their payments on hidden cameras and eventually offered these recordings as news to the public.
There were also reports from other media that the Tehelka reporters allegedly offered women as bait during the episode. This was later justified by Tehelka during a "meet the press" programme conducted by the Mumbai Press Club. Tehelka strongly defended its team for using women in the sting operation to unearth fictitious defense deals, stating that they were minor ethical transgressions used to expose the grave corruption in the system of governance. Is this justification morally valid? Are the methods followed by the reporters ethical and did they violate anyone's rights in the process? Did Tehelka create this mess?
The Tehelka undercover operation brought these acute questions out in the open, perhaps for the first time-which is interesting when viewed from the overall media ethics angle in India. Some writers and reporters argue that a vast gulf existed between exposing corruption either by snaring or tempting people into accepting gifts or bribes using the "sting" approach versus the exposure of corruption using traditional (and approved) investigative reporting methods. According to freelance journalist Sadhu (2005, Para. 15), "an occasional sting operation made with professional commitment may serve the cause for the time being. But that is no alternative to investigative journalism. To build its credibility and ensure its freedom under democracy, the media in India will have to turn to serious investigative reporting."
Then why are the media, especially in India, increasingly turning towards "sting" operations instead of investigative journalism to produce major stories, even though there are several risks inherent in these operations? First, to encourage investigative reporting there has to be an independent, free and fearless media. But sometimes the owners and the editors have their own political or corporate agendas which do not necessarily encourage investigative reporting. A second factor is the Indian bureaucracy, which is notorious for its red-tape. Even ordinary information is kept out of reach of the public. The third factor is the lack of ethics codes for media in developing countries like India. The fourth and final factor is time. India has more than 100 different news channels and more than one hundred major dailies, often competing against each other to be the first ones to deliver the "breaking news" to the Indian public.
Investigative reporting is a tough business and would need lot of self-discipline from reporters and editors. This type of reporting process is always time consuming and would often take weeks and sometimes months to come out with a single story. Under all these conditions it is natural for the media to believe that sting operations are the best, possibly the only, answer. For groups supporting this type of journalism, only the end results matter and the final outcome justifies the process.
Using the principles of Utilitarianism, actions are "right" insofar as they tend to promote happiness, "wrong" as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. What makes an act right or wrong is its consequences, how it affects individuals, whether it causes them pleasure or pain. This principle evaluates actions based on the outcome or consequences of an event. At the end, if the positively affected (people who benefit from the event) outnumber the negatively affected (people hurt by the event), this principle would support the view that the event is ethical because the greater good is served by it.
The important stakeholders in this case were the Indian public, the then-Indian government, Tehelka reporters, editor Tarun Tejpal, several Defense officials, the Defense Minister, BJP party President, BJP party, opposition political parties, media in general, the Indian stock market and its investors. The following table shows how these major stakeholders were affected by this case.
From a long-term point of view, the negatively affected stakeholders outnumber the positively affected stakeholders in this case. The Government, the Indian army and the stock market with thousands of investors were negatively affected after the disclosures. There was also an initial positive outcome in terms of the huge public euphoria (corruption had been exposed!) that followed the disclosures. The Indian public saw on TV, probably for the first time, how corrupt some politicians were and how some of the deals affecting the Indian army were made. Interestingly, after the initial shock waves, the public euphoria died down and the populace quickly lost interest in the case. The first reason for this could be that, in India, there has always been a general feeling of mistrust towards politicians, even before the Tehelka tapes, and people in general have come to accept that bribes and some level of corruption are a part of the daily routine. The second and most critical factor could be the methods adopted by the reporters. The alleged use of women, liquor, and money by the reporters to lure the unsuspecting in this whole episode have worked against Tehelka in the long term.
Even though this operation brought into focus the corruption issue, it is because of these two factors that it failed to capture the imagination of the nation long enough to ignite a massive clean-up of the corrupt political system in India. The end result was that, except for the then-BJP Party President, the rest of the tainted politicians were back in business within a few months.
Irrespective of the conclusions based on the outcome of various ethics theories, including the Utilitarian analysis above, there seems to be one universal fact. It is that journalists everywhere play a vital role in providing the public with knowledge and understanding and must remain sensitive to issues such as fairness and accuracy. Reporters continuously need to ask ethical questions throughout different stages of their investigations and be ready to justify their decisions to editors, colleagues, and the public. Usually, the ethical way of accomplishing tasks is tougher, but all reporters should be willing to confront such a challenge. Even though the methods adopted by Tehelka's team could be challenged using some ethics theories, they have forced people to debate and discuss ethics in media in India, probably for the first time-which is a good development indeed.
Sadhu, A. (2005, May). "Political expediency in journalism." India Together. Retrieved July 4, 2007 from http://www.indiatogether.org/ 2005/may/med-sting.htm