Missing the Big Story: Did we really?

Patricia Mukhim

In the business of journalism, missing a story is a cardinal sin. However, newspapers have their own way of testing the veracity of a story and whether or not to carry it. About three years ago the Indian Express carried breaking news about a possible coup by the Indian army and said that there were unscheduled marches of two army units in January 2012 towards Delhi. The story was done by a term of reporters led by IE editor Shekhar Gupta. No other newspaper carried that story. The story as we were later told was based on selective leaks from the Defence Ministry. Newspapers don’t usually check with each other about what their stories for the day are going to be. But Shillong being a small city, journalists regularly exchange news. Exclusive stories are done more in the breach than as a matter of duty.

This article is aimed at clearing the cobwebs on a breaking story about Raj Bhavan that appeared in an English daily on January 24, last. The daily alleged that Meghalaya Governor, VS Shanmuganathan made sexual overtures towards a candidate that was shortlisted for the post of Public Relations Officer (PRO). The story was based on text messages exchanged by the shortlisted candidate with the reporter of the newspaper who incidentally had also appeared for the same interview but was not shortlisted. The Governor had invited the young lady for a one on one interview with him at the Raj Bhavan at 7 pm on December 8, 2016. The young lady entered attendance at 6.55 pm at the Raj Bhavan gate. It is not known how long she was interviewed but after coming out of the Governor’s office she texted the journalist friend telling her of explicit overtures made by the Governor and how she felt uncomfortable. The journalist goaded her on to tell her more. So the conversation ensued in what can be called a girlish exchange about an attempted sexual escapade.

On the evening of January 23, at about 7 pm, I received a frantic phone call from the young lady in question telling me that our reporter was harassing her. I calmed her down and asked her to explain the circumstances to me. She said that our reporter wanted to know what exactly transpired at the Raj Bhavan on the evening of December 8, 2016 since a screen shot of her conversation with the lady journalist was now circulated to all media houses. The young lady sounded very troubled and said, “I sent those text messages as a private conversation and now she is going to use it for her story. I don’t want to have anything to do with the story.” I spoke to my reporter, also a young lady, and asked her what exactly transpired. She too was agitated and told me to apologise to the young lady (interviewee) because she had apparently said, “Don’t harass me any further…Goodbye.” Our reporter was afraid that the young lady might be driven to do something tragic and was therefore apologetic that she even interviewed her. Later we decided to take a call about whether or not to do the story. The fact was that we only had screenshots of a private conversation between two people, one of whom is also an interested party (the journalist) who had applied for the same job but was not shortlisted. We also had to weigh the cost of doing the story since the young lady concerned had told us to back off. We decided in our better judgment not to carry the story.

The next day there was a splash and the name of another candidate who had already been appointed as PRO appeared in print. She had also been part of the text message but she made no explicit or implicit charges. We later learnt that this young lady whose name appeared in the newspaper was outraged and wrote a letter to the newspaper questioning its journalistic ethics since she was never interviewed by the newspaper. A copy of the letter she wrote to that newspaper that published the Raj Bhavan story was also sent to us. Since we never carried the story we did not carry her rejoinder. What’s interesting is that the newspaper which published her name never published her rejoinder.

Following the publication of the news item about the Governor’s misdemeanors, the Raj Bhavan staff numbering nearly a hundred wrote a very cogently worded letter, evidently with help from some interested quarters, to the Prime Minister and President of India which they also circulated to a section of the media. From social media discourses, it is learnt that they did not give it to all media since according to them some media are ‘sold out’ and “they would manipulate facts.” As it turns out now, no free, prior or informed consent was sought from a large section of Raj Bhavan staff before their names were appended to the letter. They were almost coerced to sign or put thumb impressions there.

Some questions arise about the timing of the letter. The Governor had been around for more than a year and his alleged high-handedness would have been evident to all. So why did the complaint come only come after a news item compromising the Governor’s position came out in the news? There is need for an in-depth investigation into this issue and the Government’s easy explanation that it does not wish to pursue the matter further is rife with suspicion about this being a well orchestrated move. This was a political scandal that the Congress could have used against the BJP and which its spokespersons are even now hammering out loud although the Governor has demitted office.

This incident brings to the fore the question of journalistic ethics. Can we in the profession use private text messages between two or more individuals as the basis for news? Can we dishonour a request made by a person who is the subject of the news, after she had, in a state of agitation, told us very categorically that she did not wish to pursue the matter? My years of experience in the profession tells me that a line must be drawn between the private and the public. Personal is political may be a feminist slogan but it cannot apply to the profession of journalism where consent of a person quoted in the news story is a must. My exchange of a text message with a friend or acquaintance cannot be splashed out in the news without my consent. And if we go by the Sexual Harassment Act, 2013, the name or names of victims are never to be made public. But we see that these niceties being trampled with disdain and without any explanation simply because of the need to ‘fix’ the Governor and deliver a verdict on his actions even before an investigation is carried out. According to the Sexual Harassment Act, 2013 every allegation of sexual harassment needs to be investigated by an Internal Complaints Committee which is mandatory at every workplace. One wonders if such a Committee is in place in the Raj Bhavan which has over one hundred employees.

But coming to ethics in journalism one must point to an important and eventful report called, “A Rape on Campus” which has now been retracted by the Rolling Stone magazine which first published it in November 19,2014. It’s an article written by journalist Sabrina Erdely. The article claimed to describe a group sexual assault at the University of Virginia (UVA). Rolling Stone retracted the story in its entirety on April 5, 2015 after several media houses delved into the story and brought out the discrepancies and journalistic lapses in it. The story can be read at www.rollingstone.com/culture/…/a-rape-on-campus-what-went-wrong-20150405

The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post later interviewed the accuser at the center of Erdely’s story and two of the friends that Rolling Stone said she had met on the night of the incident. The accuser told the Post that she had felt “manipulated” by Erdely, and claimed she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article, a request refused by the journalist. ‘Jackie’ the pseudonym given to the accuser requested that her assailants not be contacted, and Rolling Stone agreed. Bruce Shapiro of Columbia University said that an engaged and empathetic reporter will be concerned about inflicting new trauma on the victim saying that when the emotional equity of a story is so high a journalist would have to verify it. Shapiro’s comment that experienced reporters often work only with women who feel strong enough to deal with the due diligence required to bring the article to publication, is worth considering here. The young lady of the Raj Bhavan episode has just got into a shell now and refuses to pursue the matter further.

In the Rolling Stone case the journalist Erdely stood by her story. But on December 5, 2014, Rolling Stone published an online apology stating there appeared to be “discrepancies” in the accounts of Erdely’s sources and that their trust in the accuser was misplaced. A subsequent tweet sent by Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana offered further comment on Erdely’s story saying they made an error of judgment. On December 6, Rolling Stone updated the apology taking responsibility for the mistakes in the article and noted that “there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account.

Journalism is different from activism. Activists want to fix every wrongdoer even before the wrongdoing is established beyond reasonable doubt. A newspaper brings out facts for the public to weigh them. We are not a law court to deliver punishment.

And so to those readers and eternal critics who smirk at us and say we “missed the news” or that we tried to do a cover up, the answer is we did not miss the news. We followed journalistic ethics.

 

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