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About fake stings and fraudulent journalism

September 13, 2007

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)

Related Reading: In defense of the Indian Media
Indian print media in trouble
Print readership takes a beating in India
Fake stunts by political parties
Shocking fake encounter

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2007 3:19 pm

    I would back the sting operation & I think most of us will do.. as long as they are not fake.. as they are carried out on basis of some evidence when the person or an organisation is being involved in corruption or a Bad thing. and We all know we have very LOW confidence on our Police/judiciary.. on top of that we have Slow justice.. huh! I think sting operation do Good job of Journalism.. and they are not different from rest of Journalism & Infact it’s riskiest job to a journalist.

    Instead of blaming or banning it.. Why Govt. is not targeting on screening process?? Before being published it could undergo fast legal screening/controlling process in an secret environment on priority basis..

    Fight for truth will always have critics involved.

  2. September 13, 2007 3:22 pm

    and yeah.. Banning sting operation will be a good relief to Corrupt people.. I mean they will be less worried..

  3. September 13, 2007 4:31 pm

    Just as a wayward thought:
    Is the reporter cheating any different from the cheating soooo many professionals do?
    A reporter reports, so he cheats by false reporting.
    A software coder codes, so he cheats by writing code he knows has bugs
    A security guard guards, and he cheats by taking a few winks.

    Are they all cheating equally?

  4. September 13, 2007 4:47 pm

    Bharath, glad to hear that you are keen on stings!

    Gurdas, in my opinion It depends on the individual situation.
    For example, what is the security guard guarding? What are the consequences?
    What is the reporter writing about? What are the consequences?
    And so on.

  5. spaceman123 permalink
    September 13, 2007 7:35 pm

    My problem with sting operations carried out by the media is it can (as you so clearly point out) be very biased and fraudlent.
    Why don’t the legal authorities perform the sting operations? If the media can do it – so can the legal authorities.
    Do they just not see the problems?

  6. September 13, 2007 7:44 pm

    Spaceman, legal authorities can be bought…but the media has more to gain from the sting operation (in terms of ratings) and therefore it is likely that the media will not be bribed NOT to do it, not that easily. They can be in fact intimidated not to, but the media wants viewers, and therefore it is in their self-interest to do the stings.
    And more important, legal authorities can be part of the government and they will never investigate themselves.

  7. shatrughan prasad permalink
    December 4, 2007 6:36 pm

    story is knoledgable. it will inspire students of journalism specially

    Thanks Shatrughan – Nita.

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