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The sting in the tale
The hidden camera might be a potent weapon in the battle for TRPs but sting operations can rebound on the unwary or inexperienced sleuth, with disastrous effects both for the reporter and for the channel. TV news professional NILAMBAR RATH proposes a set of ethical guidelines. for 'undercover journalists'.
Posted/Updated Wednesday, May 19 00:06:26, 2010
Undercover journalism should be the last resort, taken up only when nothing else can really work.

Undercover journalism is justified when...

* the issue is of major public interest;
* no other means can dig out the facts;
* you are confident that no gross violation of laws is involved;
* you are sure that no harm will be caused to individuals.

Don't  go undercover...

* just for the thrill of it;
* to push up the TRPs;
* because your promoter/manager/boss wants you to;
* because your competitor has done it;
* for personal rivalry or personal gain;
* for subjects or issues which can be dealt with using normal news-gathering mechanisms;
* as part of an academic exercise or as an experiment.

An undercover operation should not be undertaken without...

* a considered decision by the top editorial/management team including legal experts who can evaluate the pros and cons;
* an evaluation of its possible impacts for society and the general public, to ensure that it will not compromise national security or lead;
* to blackmail, sexual abuse, suicide or rights violations;
* setting clear boundaries for the team -- they should know what is and what is not their job.

During post-production, don't...

* handle the footage in public -- potentially obscene images or unethical/immoral acts should not be previewed in public;
* leave the job to anyone else -- preview and production should be done under your direct supervision/guidance;
* sensationalise the story -- if the issue is really important, the story will be explosive even without embellishment;
* show the face or reveal identity of victims (especially if they are children, women and juveniles);
* violate norms of public decency -- cover/blur the footage or even, if necessary, delete some portion of it and inform the viewers why you have done this;
* present only one side of the story -- take a 360 degrees approach, especially while handling a controversial subject;
* give a byline unless it is really required;
* waste/delete the raw or original footage/data -- keep the entire content in an unedited and undistorted format for future editorial previews, investigations or legal requirements;
* allow the story to be aired without a proper group/team preview -- show the final story to your boss get approval form others as well, where required.

During and after the telecast, don't...

* hesitate to review or correct your story if there is any critical input or feedback -- keep your eyes and ears open when the story goes on-air;
* shy away from taking the responsibility for moral and legal issues that may arise after the telecast -- the thumb rule is, you are responsible for anything and everything that you put on air.
NILAMBAR RATH is news manager and head of output production at Kanak TV, a 24X7 news channel in Oriya.
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