So the recent efforts of the Cobrapost, which has been claiming to do investigative journalism through the highly problematic method of ‘stings’, were aimed at exposing Bollywood celebrities who promise to put out messages on their social media pages for a fee.
Seriously, do you need tools of investigative journalism to figure out that celebrities endorse a line or two in exchange of money?
But Cobrapost’s attempts are problematic at many other levels, and actually expose the pitfalls of undercover journalism.
To start off, a celebrity’s social media page is, by all definitions, his or her own personal space. What they do with it is their prerogative. It is their right to leverage their popularity with the public. What law or rule is contravened if they put out a post for a commercial consideration?
It can be argued that there should be an upfront disclaimer saying that a post is in commercial in nature. But that is an expectation that belongs to an ideal world that doesn’t exist. “The celebrity by posting a paid-for message is not cheating. He or she is just monetising his or her popularity. That is legitimate in all books,” says M Kaushik, a digital media marketing head in Mumbai.
Cobrapost’s journalism could have been easily ignored if it had merely tried to stopped with trying to expose the celebrities.
The most disturbing part of its so-called journalism is the subtext. It has gone to specific celebrities with specific messages that are essential pro-government in nature.
So the implicit message that the sting journalism seeks to convey is that these celebrities are sold out to pro-government arm-twisting.
No. The point is these same celebrities would have more than obliged, of course for a fee, to mouth ideas or messages in favour of, say, the Congress.
That is where the problem in Cobrapost’s ethics lies. It is misleading and delusional.
“What they are indulging in is cheap stealth. Trying to paint the right wing bad in isolation is problematic. No can argue that the right wing does not try backroom methods. But so do others. Why cherry-pick here?,” asks Asha Prabhakar, a social media strategist.
She adds, “Even in one of their previous hit and run journalism bids, they targeted media houses. Then too, the idea was to prove that media houses were ready to carry right-wing material as editorial output at a cost. Every one bought that narrative. But it was a flawed one. The industry is badly hit, and all media houses these days will carry news from anyone, not necessarily just from the BJP types, for a fee. But just by presenting one side, Cobrapost showcased a distorted picture.”
Aside from these lopsided choices, there is also the allegation that classic sting journalism is all about being ‘a wallpaper in the room’, and not tempt people with loaded baits and ask them leading questions. “That is unfair to most individuals. In this age and time, most of us will fail the moral test in the face of a loaded bait. And that is not journalism,” says M Bharat Kumar, a senior news person in Chennai.
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