Many stories that expose wrongdoing start with a tip-off. For example, a contact in the police department knows about a car-theft racket involving the commissioner; a vengeful ex-spouse phones the newspaper she subscribes to, denouncing her tax-evading former husband; a politician tells a friendly editor about an untoward relationship between a company tendering for a government contract and a member of the tender board.
But this information may not be everything that it seems. It may be untrue and designed to set one up. It may be only a partial truth, tailored to serve someone else’s agenda. And, true or not, it may be an attempt to set the reporting agenda for you. The first thing you must do with a tip-off is question it:
- > Is this a subject that I would have written about if I did not get the tip off?
- > Is the topic an issue I feel passionate about?
- > Has a truth been unearthed here that is really in the public interest?
If information can be corroborated, then in the example of exposing the police commissioner and his car racket, your answers would probably be yes, yes and yes.
Corruption – a topic with two sides of a coin
But how would you answer in the case of the tender board member or the tax-evading ex? Exposing another allegedly corrupt individual may not have a major impact on social justice and the public interest more broadly. This is likely to be the case in in countries where corruption and evading taxes are systemic in state structures and endemic in the behaviour of some social groups. Journalists often argue that by exposing one wrongdoer, others will ‘get a fright’ and the battle against corruption will be advanced. There is at least some truth in this. The danger of exposure will deter some aspiring robber barons and a small amount of money may be saved. And as it is taxpayers’ money, the public does indeed have a right to know. But press exposure of countless corrupt individuals has shown little significantly impact on systemic corruption, as it is ingrained in all structures and transactions – and sometimes even in the structures that have been created to fight corruption.
But if journalists can use one instance of corruption to highlight flaws in the system that make tax evasion and bribery easier, that story may have significant impact. If investigative journalists can link the impact of tax evasion to the lack of resources for clinics, they can explain a public problem rather than simply bemoaning it. And if the way factions and parties use anti-corruption finger-pointing to take the spotlight away from their own misdeeds, these journalists have informed readers about the hidden processes of their country’s politics.