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 there may be more than meets the eye. It may be untrue and designed to set one up. It could have been tailored to serve someone else’s agenda. And it could very well be other powers at play, attempting to set your reporting agenda. The same rules in verifying rumours apply, but when evaluating such tip-offs, you must also ask yourself:
- > Is this a subject that I would have written about if I did not get the tip off?
- > Is the issue one I feel passionate about?
- > Is the truth that has been unearthed here really in the public interest?
If you can answer ‘yes’ to all three questions, then proceed.
Corruption — a topic with two sides of a coin
In some cases, however, exposing yet another allegedly corrupt individual may not have a major impact on social justice, as shown in the examples of the tender board member and tax-evading ex. This is likely to be the case in countries where corruption and evading taxes are so pervasive in state structures and some social groups. Many journalists argue that by exposing one wrongdoer, others might get frightened off and refrain from such activities. The battle against corruption would advance. There is some truth in this. And as it is taxpayers’ money, the public has a right to know. But the mere press exposure of a corrupt individual has little impact on systemic corruption, as numerous examples have proven. When it is ingrained in all structures and transactions — and sometimes even in the structures that have been created to fight corruption — people will often dismiss the story and ask, “What’s new?”
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 greater impact and make it harder for factions or parties to sweep them under the rug