What do we mean by that? They primarily focus on what happened, when, where, and sometimes, maybe by extension, why. They track what happens that they consider noteworthy in their field, and they report it.
But while that makes us all better informed, it is a limited — and limiting — framework of what journalism really is, and has the potential to be; a powerful tool of unearthing, revealing, getting behind what those in power do not want revealed, whether that power resides in individuals or governments, in corporations or technocrats. Journalism at its most ethical, at its most truthful, represents national interest, represents citizens’ interest and sometimes might place both those secondary both those in order for something even greater, the idea of human interest, of justice, even if that implicates the nation in wrongdoing.
In the contemporary media landscape where corporations own media houses and politicians hound those that dare to investigate them, there remains a glittering if highly contentious genre of journalism that swims against the tide.
Public interest journalism
They’re sometimes lauded as heroes and other times flagellated as muckrakers. Their methods often draw censure and ethical debate. But one thing is for certain — public interest journalism can change a society, a country, and in some ways, the world. And in our lifetimes alone, both at home in India and away, across the world, we’ve seen it happen.
What is Public Interest Journalism?
At its heart, public interest journalism is simply about telling stories the public has a right to know. This doesn’t mean merely interesting, or even important, stories: rather, public interest journalism is, in a sense, actively calling attention to something crucial to the public’s interest that out of focus, obscured or very often, deeply hidden. Investigative journalism, hence, is at the core of public interest journalism — where an individual reporter or an organisation devotes a substantial amount of resources, whether time, manpower, or money and often with a potential for immense danger to those conducting this journalism, to dig into what someone wants hidden.
Think, for instance, of one word that itself encapsulates the idea of public interest journalism: Watergate, which brought down President Richard Nixon after journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward uncovered the wiretapping of the Democratic Party’s headquarters — a wiretapping that was eventually traced back right to the Oval Office, along with several other highly egregious actions vis-a-vis political opponents. Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment — the only American president ever to have done so — and the judicial probes into the Watergate scandal were broadcast live on PBS network. But it was Bernstein and Woodward, along with their informant “Deep Throat”, whose identity remained undisclosed for 33 years, till 2005, who brought the whole edifice tumbling down. And thereby gave journalism perhaps a singular moment of impact in American history.
Here’s a few other examples of deeply valuable work done by investigative journalists and platforms:
1. It may not be the most familiar name to story but when journalist Julius Chamber of New York Tribune got himself admitted to an asylum in 1872 to conduct an investigation, his work went on to change the very laws related to “lunacy”. His investigation brought to light that 12 patients who were not mentally ill were admitted in the asylum, and the devastating ambiguities in the law that allowed this to happen. His account led to the release of the patients, a change in the laws, and later the publishing of a landmark book called A Mad World and Its Inhabitants.
2. The Bofors Scam. A watershed in Indian history and Indian journalism, the Bofors scandal broke in 1987. Not only did it have massive fallout for the ruling party, the Congress, that went on to lose the 1989 general elections as a result, it went on to put corruption as an issue at the heart of Indian political discourse. Two journalists — the then relatively unknown Chitra Subramanian and the influential N. Ram of The Hindu unearthed the scandal, which centered around a then substantial weapons contract between India and Sweden, and brought to light illegal kickbacks given by Bofors AB, an arms manufacturer, in order to win contracts to supply India with its howitzer guns. The journalists created the Bofors report after secretly sourcing, verifying, and translating almost 200 documents from Swedish over the course of months. The Bofors expose has also been featured as one of 50 great stories produced by Columbia Journalism School Alumni, in this case N. Ram.
3. Operation West End. Defence deals and politicians seem a match made in public interest hell, as a 2001 investigation by Tehelka went on to prove. This wasn’t by chance: co-founder Tarun J Tejpal made explicitly clear public interest journalism was the very foundation of why Tehelka was set up, and that the platform would aggressively pursue stories the powers-that-be wanted kept out of sight. Over the course of months, undercover journalists carried hidden cameras and went systematically up the defense procurement food chain in order to get at the highest levels of corruption in defense deals. And it went higher than anyone could have imagined — BJP president Bangaru Laxman was caught on camera accepting a bribe, had to resign, and was later convicted by the judicial system. Tehelka didn't stop there: in the same year, living up to Tarun Tejpal’s founding intent, they also blew the lid off an explosive match-fixing scandal in Indian cricket. While critics often debated the methods required to dig out the truth of these stories, it remains incontestable that these are some of Indian journalism’s most iconic stories. Tarun Tejpal later spoke of those as being deeply difficult times, with the government hunting the publication and its journalists and friends deserting the core team for fear of retribution. That said, Tejpal and Tehelka, as well as a glittering roster of journalists went on to do seminal work in public interest journalism in the country
Tarun J Tejpal is a journalist, publisher and novelist. In a career spanning 26 years, Tarun Tejpal has been the editor of the India Today and Indian Express groups and the managing editor of Outlook, India's leading news magazine. In March 2000, he started Tehelka, a news organization that has earned a global reputation for its aggressive public interest journalism. Tarun Tejpal's first novel, The Alchemy of Desire, was published in 2005. Tarun J Tejpal's second novel, The Story of My Assassins, was published in 2009 to rave reviews. Also you can check Tarun J Tejpal.