About fake stings and fraudulent journalism
The media has been full of the fake sting operation conducted by a TV reporter, a sting which was designed to implicate a female teacher (Uma Khurana) in a sex scandal. She supposedly supplied school-girls to clients for a fee. The motive for the fake sting? The reporter did it on the behest of someone who had scores to settle with the teacher. Terrible and humiliating for Khurana…can’t begin to imagine what the lady must have gone through in jail.
But while this reporter’s motive for his fake sting is disgusting, journalists cooking up stories for self-aggrandizement and quick promotions are rife…in fact I even remember seeing a movie (Shattered Glass) on this subject. In the movie a young, up and coming journalist (Stephen Glass) fakes story after story and it turns out that he is psychologically disturbed. The movie is based on a real life story. But the fact is that in real life, the journalists who cook up stories do not usually have psychological problems…they are simply cheats.
According to the Wiki, this is the definition of a journalistic scandal:
Journalistic scandals include: plagiarism, fabrication, and omission of information; activities that violate the law, or violate ethical rules; the altering or staging of an event being documented; or making substantial reporting or researching errors with the results leading to libelous or defamatory statements.
Editors are human, and can be fooled
Reporters even from prestigious publications have committed these frauds as in the case of a New York Times reporter. He not just lifted material from other papers without attribution, but also invented quotes. Photographs have been faked as well, as this story from Britain shows. The reporter wanted to expose a drug selling racket outside schools, and therefore staged a scene with a ‘drug-dealer’ and a ‘receiver’ of the drug.
Actually a lot of cases do not come to light at all and this must be the case in India too. This recent fake sting scandal has made the public realise just how vulnerable they are to fake news.
This site gives a list of the journalist scandals that have rocked the world.
The authenticity of stories are not usually checked
But while cheats can fool the best editors, the truth is that editors do not thoroughly check stories submitted by reporters, at least in India. I am talking about verifying the content or truth of the story, not editorial checking. I have worked with several publications and the story is as good as the journalist. Junior reporters’ stories are looked at more carefully. Hierarchy plays a big role in all Indian organizations, whether it is a publication, an advertising agency or a manufacturing company. But while any good manufacturer has a strong quality control department for its products, and there are often outside labs which are used to check and re-check the product, I have not seen similar levels of quality control in media organizations. The celebrity status of a journalist can often be a deterrent. In the case of Stephen Glass, he was a ‘star’ journalist and that was one of the reasons why he got away with faking stories, even though some of his stories were unusual enough to raise eyebrows. Actually, all investigative stories should be verified on a routine basis by senior editors, as people’s reputations are involved.
So what is the solution?
Fear of getting caught and severe punishment should deter people, but will not stop this menace. Even China, where the fear of punishment is usually high, had a similar problem recently. Termed as the fake bun report, it was a story about a Beijing vendor who “soaked and used chopped cardboard as filling” for steamed buns, a popular food item in China. The buns are normally stuffed with minced pork and/or vegetables. Hidden cameras supposedly captured this adulteration. This ‘sting’ operation created public panic and people wondered whether it was safe to eat out at all! The story was picked up by the mainstream newspapers and created a big stir. But an investigation revealed that the sting was fabricated…and well, the wrong-doer is going to be in for some pretty severe punishment.
Well, neither punishment nor vigilant editors can completely wipe out the scourge of fraudulent journalism, just as crime itself cannot be wiped out. That is why in this land of fake encounters and fake stings, the public needs to be vigilant! But in my opinion, denouncing sting operations in toto is not the answer. We need stings to expose public scandals.
(Thanks to one of my readers, Madhu, as it was her suggestion that I write on the fake sting operation)