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Op-Ed

From CBS to Kolkata: An In-Depth Look at Investigative Journalism

By Naheed Ali, December 5, 2008

There is no more important contribution that we can make to society than strong, publicly-spirited investigative journalism.

There are endless examples where investigative journalism resulted in the downfall of governments, got politicians imprisoned, legislations triggered or the miscarriages of justice revealed. Just turning your eyes around your home, you might well remember what the "Tehelka expose" had done to the ruling party of the Indian Government. The party president was disposed and his reputation tarnished, not to mention the impact that the concerned political party had to bear during the following general elections.

Basically in the present political system, irrespective of the country, media is often found to collude with the power. The evolved sensationalism has resulted in the viciousness of the environment where truth is usually fabricated or better still disposed off. Therefore, the current situation increasingly demands the high-minded media investigative journalists to hunt for the truth where the powerless and the exploited are "democratically" exploited.

No wonder the effectiveness of the observation by Tony Burman, the editor in chief of CBC News with regard to investigative journalism is right on. He said "There is no more important contribution that we can make to society than strong, publicly-spirited investigative journalism."

Investigative journalism is characterized by its conclusive approach. It is a reporting genre where a deep investigation is carried out on a certain topic of interest that often involves crime, scandal or political corruption existing within the state machinery. The profession entails the effective discovery of truth and identification of lapses followed by a sort of blatant presentation through the available media.

Apparently, this process somewhat resembles the duties of the several regulatory bodies like the police, lawyers and auditors, but is distinctly different due to its intent and approach. An investigative journalist works in a manner that has no target limitations, no legal foundation and has a strong objective of publicity.

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A substantial amount of time and effort goes during the research and preparation of an investigative report. They can be months and even years, whereas a typical news reporter works on a daily or weekly basis. He prepares his reports immediately after the available news. Investigative journalism is practiced by newspapers, news channels, wire services and freelance journalists. Often the final report assumes the garb of an Exposé.

Investigative journalism observes strict adherence to the journalistic motto that opinions can be bartered but facts are sacred. A usual journalistic report concentrates on the presentation of an allegation and denial story. This practice is hugely preferred since a good deal of time and energy is saved on the research. The risk of libel action is also minimized since while airing the complaints, a good deal of space is also provided for the denial. Investigative reporting travels beyond the clichéd allegation and denial mode, striving to establish the basic facts. It transcends the impartial approach and works to decide the said issue on one way or the other. The judgment is expressed based on the facts that have been unearthed.

Investigative journalism is often confused with Analytical Reporting. In analytical journalism, the available data is reconfigured and questions are asked on the respective situation or statement in order to present different angels of observations. Investigative journalism is a step beyond this where the very 'reality' of the given situation or statement is questioned. An investigative journalist therefore naturally faces the ire of a lot of individual and collective authorities. Successful investigative journalism should also be prepared for certain potential consequences. The journalist can be compelled to lose his job and face indictment or conviction. His professional accreditation might be at stake. He might be forced to pay certain illusionary fines and have his personal and professional reputation challenged.

There is also a probability of domino consequences where his associates or family members might be involved in unrelated criminal activities that get unearthed through the process of investigation. It leaves an indelible impact on the society as a whole too. It compels a revision of the respective institutional policies and provokes appropriate changes in the related laws.

The state of investigative journalism in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, India, can be defined by a Briton, James Augustus Hickey. He had launched the first newspaper in the sub-continent, The Bengal Gazette. He is till date considered a pioneer since his four-page weekly was a political and commercial adventure. The details of the plundering of the British East India Company and the filling of the British coffers with the sweat and blood of the Indian poor built up his content. The zealousness for truth that was the hall-mark of his presentation inspires the young investigative journalists even today.

The first woman journalist in Kolkata, Vidya Munsi, was lured into this profession due to her deep commitment for the social and political causes of her times. She was the Calcutta correspondent of Blitz, a Bombay weekly that openly criticized the government policies during 1952-62. Her investigative journalism had stories on the infamous Chinakuri mine disaster in Asansol where hundreds of miners were killed. It was a sure disaster smelling of state negligence. She had the courage to take on the professional hazard as the state came down hard.

Today investigative journalism in Kolkata can find instances in the manner in which the Rizwanur case was attempted to be unearthed by several major media houses of the city that prompted the state government to deal with the matter on a more serious note.

Naheed Ali, M.D., divides his time as a medical correspondent and a political columnist. He makes his home in Atlanta, Georgia.

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