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A hatchet job on Smriti Irani

Publication: The Hoot
Date: April 18, 2015
URL: http://www.thehoot.org/media-watch/media-practice/a-hatchet-job-on-smriti-irani-8250

Outlook's cover story on Smriti Irani was based entirely on anonymous sources.
 This kind of journalism is unethical, says PRASHANT REDDY THIKKAVARAPU. Pix:Ministers Irani, Rajnath Singh and Manohar Parrikar. bjp.org

There is a thick red line drawing the boundaries between gossip and political reporting. Outlook appears to have been completely blind to this distinction when it published its recent cover story on Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani.
The cover piece was basically about the decline of her political fortunes and was a collection of three stories and an interview. The main story, by Saba Naqvi, reported on the perception of Irani from within the BJP. The two accompanying pieces by Mihir Srivastava and Prathna Gahilote reported on how the bureaucracy and RSS perceived Irani’s performance and future. The interview of Madhu Kishwar on Smriti Irani was conducted by Uttam Sengupta.
Cumulatively, these three different pieces quoted or cited anonymous sources on 25 different occasions and almost all the sources were critical of Irani. In fact, the pieces are constructed from gossip provided by only anonymous sources; there isn’t a single source speaking on the record.
Strangely, the reporters did not even think it necessary to explain why the sources chose to remain anonymous. It would perhaps have been a different story if all these anonymous sources were complimenting Irani but it is clear from the quotes in the three stories that the sources were criticising Irani. Apparently, these three journalists and their editor saw nothing wrong running an entire cover story based on purely anonymous sources. Is this ethical reporting?
Last year, I wrote in The Hoot about how several journalists threw journalistic ethics and propriety to the wind when they fell over each other to report, on the basis of entirely anonymous government sources, the supposed antics of Gopal Subramaniam. The aim then was to scuttle, at any cost, Gopal Subramaniam’s appointment to the Supreme Court and the media was only too glad to be used as the executioner by the government.
Is it ethical to expect a person to properly defend himself against allegations, without revealing to him the details of the person making the allegation against him? No it isn’t. Reporting is about informing readers about facts and in order for readers to form an opinion they need to know the source of the facts.
In the interests of greater transparency in journalism, anonymous reporting should be the exception and not the rule and should be resorted to only when the information can be corroborated by a source willing to go on record, or by documentary evidence. As taught to even cub reporters in the West, in no situation should a reporter rely on quotes from anonymous sources to criticize a person. It is very likely that such an anonymous source has his or her own agenda.
If at all reporters have to resort to anonymous sources, they should explain to readers the reason why the source chose to be anonymous. In cases where an individual is speaking out against a powerful government or corporation, the media may be ethically justified to use anonymous sources if there is a danger to the life of the source and also provided that the allegations are corroborated by documentary evidence or other persons who are willing to go on record. To attack an individual, however, on the basis of anonymous sources is simply unethical.
Excerpts from the anonymous sources in Outlook’s cover story are reproduced below:
Smriti, A Fading Memory? (by Saba Naqvi)
1. For one, well-placed sources reveal that she wouldn’t stand up to greet BJP veteran (and the very polite) Union home minister Rajnath Singh; she would keep sitting in her chair.

2. There is also the story of a verbal cat fight inside the national headquarters of the BJP with another woman leader and an older account of Smriti pushing out a woman who had come to a Mahila Morcha meeting when she was in charge.
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