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Ethical journalism, investigative reporting and digital rights

Two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, played a major role in bringing down President Richard Nixon, who resigned in August 1974, after they wrote about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office building.

The Watergate Scandal, which is considered to be the most famous case of investigative journalism, is not easy to be explained as it includes multiple names, dates and events. The tale of how the two reporters broke some of the most significant stories in the entire scandal is well documented in the book and film, All the President’s Men, which is worth a watch.

Bernstein is reported to have repeatedly said that all good reporting is investigative – which is nevertheless true. Investigative reporting continued to ebb and flow since the Watergate Scandal with more and more newspapers and TV stations establishing investigative divisions. Investigative reporting requires in-depth research into the subject and staying up to date with the latest happenings regarding the case – one investigate report can take from six months up to one year and is considered to be a labour of love. This is considered to be the main thing that differentiates investigative reporting from the daily reporting or from other types of reporting. However, if the daily reporting is also dealt with the same ethos as investigative reporting, we could at least try to overcome the menace of fake news and disinformation.

However, with the current state of media in Pakistan, it has been observed that the media owners are certainly running the TV channels and publications for the sake of profit: facts are twisted, conspiracy theories are created, the anti-establishment and anti-faith-merchant voices are either completely silenced or given very little space. In such circumstances, the need to be the first to break the news is heightened as opposed to thorough verification of sources before breaking the news.

To discuss these issues and explore investigative journalism in the digital world, Digital Rights Foundation conducted a workshop for journalists from across the Gilgit Baltistan area. This workshop held a discussion on whether the existing media ethics are suitable for the evolving digital media landscape or new and different standards are needed. DRF discussed the Ethical Journalism Guidebook for Digital Platforms that it had recently launched. It has been argued that journalism ethics for digital platforms deal with the distinct issues, practices and norms of digital news media, which include online journalism, blogging and advocacy on social media. Therefore, distinct ethical standards should apply but a sensible approach has been to not reinvent the wheel but instead emphasis has been laid on coaching journalists on appropriately using new platforms as a source and online information verification standards, keeping in view the best practices and conventional journalistic canons, which have been around for nearly a century.

The sessions also focused on actions needed to tackle the spread of fake news and disinformation online, particularly as digital misinformation is extremely potent in Pakistan, owing to a large segment of the population lacking digital literacy.

Enthusiastic participants from across the GB discussed that investigative journalism is the most highly-regarded branch of the profession, which often helps to reveal corruption, shines light on social plights, influences public policy and aims to trigger change. It not only requires time and effort but also a deep understanding of the tools and concepts that are necessary to carry out an investigation. The workshop focused on freedom of information, investigating the environment, interview skills, source verification and personal security.

According to one of the participants, “Persistence is a must for investigative journalists. They have to run along with the subject and always aim to keep themselves updated with the happenings.”  Another participant said, “It is not only about gathering information, analysing and representing that information is the key skill – it is like putting the pieces of the puzzle together, which is an art that investigative journalists must possess.”

Another session was aimed at providing hands-on training and specifically designed toolkits to guide them on how they can make online spaces safe for themselves by adopting various tools and resources available to them. Journalists must stay abreast of the latest technology-driven investigative techniques, including different approaches to access and verify information as well as ways to protect themselves and their sources, particularly when communication electronically.

Importance of investigative reporting can be understated – it has the power of exposing criminal networks, money laundering, drug smuggling, corruption, human trafficking and a lot more. While investigative reports can trigger real change, increasing curbs on freedom of expression and zero tolerance for dissent have made it difficult for investigative reporters to work freely and they suffer major challenges and risks, not only life risks but also find it difficult to get their work published. One way out is to work for international outlets but then one is at the risk of being accused of treason. They also face risks and threats from criminal networks, drug smugglers, any other group that they are trying to expose and also governments, who sometimes work hand-in-hand with these networks.

Nevertheless, investigative journalists keep exposing and telling the truth, which sure is a never-ending job but trying alone is the ultimate win.

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