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Investigative Journalism: An analysis of reactions to it

We have John, the journalist. John is known for investigative journalism & has a unique knack of unearthing facts on people he suspects to be corrupt. After he digs up the facts, he does not hesitate in exposing the corrupt using print & electronic media. So far John has had an excellent track record.

John has recently been working on an expose against Sarah, a businesswoman. However, this time, Sarah decides to dispute John’s article. We do not for sure if John is right, or Sarah.

Sarah’s thought process

First, let us put ourselves in the shoes of Sarah & think from her point of view. Sarah opens the morning paper and reads the article written by John against her & learns that the article identifies her as a wrongdoer. To put it simply, Sarah is viewed as guilty of wrongdoing & now her reputation is at stake. There is a chance her reputation can get damaged. Sarah sits back & thinks about what she can do. She thinks of the following routes:

Don’t react to the article

Sarah can choose not to react to the article. But, if she does that it is very likely that it will be interpreted as an admission of her guilt. Sarah’s silence will put doubt in people’s minds that John’s article may have carried the truth.

React to the article

Sarah can react to the article & say that it is false. In other words, Sarah decides to clear her name & try to erase any doubts people may have on her following the publication of the article. Sarah can do this in two ways-

i. In private:

  • Sarah can personally meet John, provide supporting documents to prove why the article he published was incorrect & request John to publish a correction. This is without doubt an equitable method, but it is workable only if both parties have the mindset to agree to this method. If either Sarah or John decline to yield, then the method is ineffectual.

ii. In public:

  • Through Public Statement: Sarah can issue a statement in public & say why she is innocent of the charges mentioned in the article & provide evidence to support her claim. But, the situation now becomes one of Sarah’s word against John’s. Who is saying the truth? If the evidence is fairly technical, most people may not understand what Sarah is going to say. So, people can either side with Sarah or John. Sarah is risking her reputation by choosing this method.
  • Through Courts: Sarah can ask a court to weigh her evidence & that of John’s. With this method, Sarah can be assured that an educated evaluation of her evidence is guaranteed, unlike going to public. The judge will assess the evidence impartially & deliver his verdict on who is right. The judgement can be 50:50 in favor or against either party. But, the judgement will be valuable in restoring Sarah’s reputation, or it will give a stamp of validity to John’s article, thereby opening doors to further scrutiny on Sarah.

In addition to the above options, Sarah can also choose unfair means, like:

  • Threaten John to retract the article & publish an apology.
  • Cause injury, harm or death to John, in reaction to the article.
  • Foul-mouth John and/or bring discredit to John’s reputation by other tactics, which may undermine John’s journalistic integrity, thereby weakening the truthfulness of the article he’s written on Sarah.

Sarah sips her coffee & contemplates her options.

John’s thought process

Now, let us get into the shoes of John. John has just returned home from working night at the press, his paper is at his doorstep, which he picks it up to read. His article on corrupt Sarah is published. John is elated that he is exposing another corrupt individual. He believes in the evidence he has against Sarah & is confident he can back what he has written, which is why he wrote the article in the first place.

John wonders how Sarah will react. If Sarah chooses to keep silent, John wins, because it would mean that Sarah is accepting her guilt. But, John knows that Sarah is not one to remain silent. John anticipates what Sarah’s reaction could be. He guesses that Sarah could react in the following ways-

i. In Private:

Sarah may pay John a visit, in private, explain why the article is wrong. Sarah can even give him more evidence that he is not aware of. If her evidence trumps the ones John has, she may demand that John publish an apology the next day. If this were to happen, John’s integrity is at stake & the editor will be annoyed with him.

If, however, Sarah’s evidence is insufficient to trump John’s, then John can ask her to go away or bring the right evidence if Sarah believes she has done no wrong. If this happen, John has little to gain.

ii. In public:

  • Go Public: Sarah can openly declare that she is innocent & the article is wrong. People may start buying her story, even though she is wrong. John cannot easily counter her if she manages to swing public opinion towards her. There is a possibility that Sarah can get away by going public with her innocence. If Sarah were to do that, all John can do is publish another article trumping Sarah’s claims & write that her evidence is false. The tango will thus continue, & it can potentially damage John’s reputation, or not.
  • Go to Court: Sarah can take the matter to court. She will present her facts & will argue why she is innocent, in other words ‘why John is wrong’. John will have to present his evidence. Here, the judge will decide who is right, after his/ her investigation into what John & Sarah have presented. Judge may ask John and/or Sarah for more evidence if the Judge is not convinced. John is confident of the evidence he has against Sarah & knows that the Judge’s verdict will only add further value to his article. If the court holds Sarah guilty, it may even draw further investigations into Sarah’s corrupt practices, which is the main goal of John’s article anyway.

John also knows what his colleagues have faced. It would be naïve not to expect Sarah to do something harsh or illegal, like-

  • Cause injury, harm or even death out of vengeance. He may have to stay indoors till the dust settles.
  • Sarah can foul-mouth John & put his journalistic integrity to question to weaken the article’s veracity. John will have to defend himself before public if he does that.
  • Threaten John to retract the article & tender an apology. John cannot do that knowing Sarah is in the wrong.

John drops the paper & sips his tea, while he wonders what would happen next.

So, I ask you all to put yourselves in the shoes of both Sarah & John. Try to understand the mindset of each person. Which method would you choose as an equitable solution to the problem? What must Sarah do, and which reaction must John prefer? You may have more options in your mind, please share them too.

Note: This is not a discussion on investigative journalism as much as an understanding of reactions to it.

Vinay Kumar Narayana Murthy

West Lafayette, IN

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