Some sections of the media are beginning to credit their audiences with less and less intelligence as times goes on. Hungry for sensational news that titillates their audiences a little more each time and scores them more brownie points, journalists and the organizations they work for are moving way off the tracks of truth.
Take for example a recent case, which occurred in Ludhianna, Punjab. A cameraman working with a local news channel hungry for an 'exclusive' coaxed an entire family to attempt suicide. This he explained would attract the district administration's attention to their plight.
Fortunately, the police arrived before the gory scene could be enacted and arrested the cameraman, Vipin who managed to convince Tilak Raj, a local businessman fallen on hard times, to consume poison in front of the SSP's house on Sunday morning.
Vipin reached the spot at the appointed time and even sent out SMSes to reporters of other channels. But when the family members got near the SSP's house, a police team arrested all of them and seized the poison from Tilak Raj.
"Tilak Raj confessed that Vipin instigated them to commit suicide to attract administration's attention. We have registered a case against Tilak (under Section 309 of the IPC) and Vipin (Section 116 of the IPC), and arrested both of them," Ludhiana SSP R K Jaiswal was quoted.
According to a senior police officer, they were in the process of procuring call details of the cameraman. He added that the others who connived with him would also be arrested.
This incident is just one among many of the same kind; termed 'sting' operations, that are beginning to disgust Indian audiences. Public outrage is being expressed through newspapers that denounce such reports. These TV channels' exposés are accused of being "a new low in journalism", "televised entrapment" and such employees are being called "peeping Toms."
"It is the desperation of the rating-crazed TV journalism. It is not investigative journalism but pornographic," says S. Prasannarajan, deputy editor of the newsweekly India Today, "Competition does not mean that you have to compromise on ethics. It is an old trick, in the name of an exposé of pornography, you indulge in the same sleaze", he adds.
Sting journalism is not new to India. Some years back, an operation by an online news site called Tehelka caught top politicians and army officers taking bribes from journalists posing as businessmen. It was widely praised as investigative journalism carried out in the public interest. Today, almost all television news channels in India routinely use spy cameras to expose corruption.
In defense, the chief editor of one such channel which uses sting operations ;India TV's Rajat Sharma, says that there is no violation of privacy in exposing such matters as political corruption or the trading of jobs for sex in Bollywood, a practice known in movie and theatrical business lore as the casting couch. "If you are serious about exposing certain social evils, there is no other option but to use sting operations," says Sharma. "Everybody knew that there is a casting couch in Bollywood, but the film industry refused to accept it. We merely showed them the mirror", he states.
Says Mahesh Bhatt, filmmaker : "Bollywood's widest-known family secret is out in the public glare now. "Instead of beating the messenger, the industry must lock eyes with the truth. But unfortunately it is like selling mirrors in the land of the blind", he adds. Yet, as intense competition leads to more aggressive reporting and deeper investigations, there runs parallel to it, dishonesty and shadier tactics. As long as sting operations are genuine and responsible, and as long as journalists don't take their audiences for brainless fools, these innovative forms of reporting have a long future.