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Why media ethics, humility and goodwill in journalism are non-negotiable

As members of the fourth estate, we have a responsibility to the society first. We are not here to tell people how wonderful we are. Instead, we are fellow travellers with people who have given us their trust and ear.

By Chitra Subramaniam
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Thirty-two years ago, I was invited to a private dinner in Stockholm. The food was excellent, the conversation was easy, we laughed a lot, and I took notes as things were being explained to me. I went back to those notes recently. A situation arose where I had to write about something I had heard during that conversation in Stockholm. I called my host and sought his permission, which he granted immediately. I had the option of not getting back to him and writing about it. Who cares after 30 years was the swifter option. If I were to do that, I would not be able to face myself.

In my book, ethics are non-negotiable. You cannot be little or more ethical no more than you can be little or more pregnant. You are ethical, and people trust you because they know they can speak to you or around you freely. In my over three decades of active and less active journalism, I have learned many things. One thing that stands out is this – editors who make a lot of noise about ethics are those who have none. It is almost as if they have to hear themselves to convince them that the wrong thing they are doing is right.

In all the dossiers I have dealt with and continue to do so, whether it is arms control, human rights, Bofors, trade and public health, the same rule applies. I have also learnt that when I don’t rush to print, the source is reassured. Nothing is more appalling than a breathless journalist rushing to print – it’s a bit like a trader shouting over everyone to make a quick buck at the expense of all.

When I was investigating Bofors, it took Sten Lindstrom, my principal source in Sweden, almost eight months to start talking to me. I had the same experience in Switzerland. Sources are also testing us out. Together we have to arrive at a place where both respect each other’s work. Trust is a two-way street. It has to be nurtured with duty and respect. Speed and social media can wait.

As far as possible, I try to get two independent sources for every fact I am pursuing. That is the ethical way to do it. This can be difficult, but the satisfaction that one gets at securing this is worth the struggle. Even today, when I get a primary source, my joy is just like when it happened for the first time when my phone rang. I thought I was dreaming. This is journalism that is not trying to prove a point – this is journalism that is revealing a point. That difference is crucial.

As members of the fourth estate, we have a responsibility to the society first. We are not here to tell people how wonderful we are. Instead, we are fellow travellers with people who have given us their trust and ear. The twinkle in my eye must translate to a smile on their lips.

Something is changing in India. In fact, it is changing worldwide, but I have a special interest in my country. Twenty four seven television has destroyed journalism in India. I am, however, happy to see that spirited pushback is taking roots and growing, and it is coming from young journalists who are not afraid to take on greedy legacy media. I mentor groups of young media professionals who are bringing back value to our beautiful profession. They have domain knowledge and are willing to learn from each other. These are communities of journalists who are willing to walk that extra mile so a colleague can get help. Yes, it is happening.

Recently, we were working on a piece that a journalist could not handle because she didn’t have the bandwidth. We agreed to give it to someone else because it was important for the time-bound source-based story to run quickly. It mattered less who was telling it because at the base, we were all held together by values we had developed collectively and for which we had joint intellectual stamina.

Teams do better than individuals. Yes, there are teams of journalists helping each other arrive at common goals. All are committed to good journalism. When something like this happens, competition takes on a whole new meaning – we are all competing against a rotten system that is pulling all of us down and against whom we are all struggling. The fight goes from person to people, from me to us and from individual to society.

The search for facts can be tiring, and the road is often a lonely one. I see young men and women finding solutions that would not have been possible without social media and the many opportunities it offers. Amplifying other people’s work is becoming increasingly common. Sharing work has other benefits too. It protects us from plants. I can pretty much tell a planted story before it lands on my desk, but I am happy to report that the young people I work with are sharp as nails. This comes from the pressure on them to perform at speeds unknown to me when I set out to be a journalist. They have to think on their feet literally, and I look at them with awe and admiration. There is only one message to be drawn from this – good journalists are feared. I don’t think they should be, but I can live with that.

Ours is a beautiful profession. When people allow us into their homes and hearts, it is a privilege we must respect, not only for ourselves but for our entire profession. Not every conversation is a story. It may eventually become one, but pushing it is to forget who we are.

We are storytellers who connect people in a society that is home to all. We are the friends that people should be able to turn to when all doors are closing in on them. We are the voice that speaks to justice when all seems bleak. We can flourish only if we look out for each other because we are charting a new course at a time of significant tumult not only in the media but also within and between nations. We cannot afford to let each other down. To do so would be to go back on the promise we made to each other when we first put pen to paper.

Journalism is, above all, a promise I made to myself. I have to be worthy of it every day.

Chitra Subramaniam | The Probe

Chitra Subramaniam is an award-winning Journalist and media entrepreneur, best known for her path-breaking investigative stories on Bofors scam. She is the founder of Geneva-based CSD consulting and writes on public health, media, development and geopolitics.