Aniruddha Bahal is one of India’s best known investigative journalists. Formerly with India Today, Outlook and Tehelka, Bahal now runs cobrapost.com, the website that broke the cash-for-questions scam. Here, Bahal throws light on the eight essential traits that make a good investigative journalist.
1. The basics are the same as journalism. In fact if you just refine the basics to the extreme you develop the characteristics automatically. The what, where, why, who, how, when. The basics can never be overempasized. Any story that is not up to the mark is essentially weak in one or more of these elements. If you get a little thing like a name wrong—misspell it or something—it has ramifications on people who know the correct spelling, etc. If you cannot get something as basic as that right can you be trusted with more complicate or dangerous facts?
2. Most of you will be working in organisations that wouldn’t be spending much on news gathering-travel, communication and most importantly, time. You should learn early on the virtues of perseverance. There has to be initiative. If an idea gets rejected don’t lose heart. Go to your editor with another idea. You may succeed in making him feel guilty and the sixth or seventh time around he could sanction some travel time and a budget.
3. Never take anything at face value. That doesn’t mean that you should be cynical of everything. All that is suggested here is that you don’t allow anybody to take you for a ride, for then your readers or viewers are taken for a ride as well. A common way of being taken for a ride is allowing yourself to be a vehicle for interested parties to plant a story in your particular media. One of the biggest ills plaguing Indian media, television mostly, is this apparent competitions for plants. It is deemed a scoop if one media gets a plant before another!
A general thumb rule of a plant is that it is generally pro-establishment. For example, if a SEBI official gave you an exclusive on a stock market investigation on companies responsible for insider trading or whatever don’t swallow it hook, line and sinker just because it’s a quasi-official body giving it. All these bodies have an agenda and most reports cannot be taken at face value. In the end you might hurt people other than the real villains.
4. Persevere in developing sources. Early on make it a habit to meet at least three new people a day. Or talk to 7- 8 people a day when chasing a story. The more people you meet the more ideas you will get and more the probability of cultivating a good contact. Sources have various motivations—intra-department rivalry, ideology, friendship, money, alcohol, etc.
I once trailed a contact for four-five days in the morning before meeting him. I came to know that he visited a particular place at a certain time. I met him accidentally there. An acquaintance developed that way has a better understanding. I had also came to know that he had a weakness for Kannada literature from somewhere else. At our next meeting I carried a few books of that genre and he was flabbergasted.
5. Journalism in many ways is like being a salesman. A salesman has to get people interested in buying his product. A journalist has to get sources interested in talking to him or her. Essential to both is communication skills. A certain degree of getting the other person to lose guard, make yourself interesting enough for the other person to spend time with you.
The more time you spend with your source the greater the chance of him telling something valuable to you. In practical terms it could mean meeting somebody at 8 am after travelling one hour from home. Don’t shirk that kind of effort. If you will not work hard now when you are young when will you?
6. Never betray your source if he doesn’t want his identity to be disclosed. Apart from ethical consequences, it’s practical common sense. You will be burning him as a future source and others, hearing of this, would shut up on you. It may also have legal and other consequences on your source as well as yourself.
7. Also do your research well for whatever subject you are investigating. And these days it has become much easier than when we started out because of the internet.
8. Pray for a lucky break.