Sources & exclusives

THIS ISN’T according to sources.

Source, the Oxford Dictionary says, is a place, person or thing from which something originates, or spring or fountainhead from which a river or stream issues, or a person who provides information.

The lords of the lexicon probably didn’t have the right sources. Or they would have added another line – ‘the lifeline for any scribe piecing the other words in this dictionary together to tell a story’. More for his or her editor than the readers.

Sources, for a reporter, are godsend. They are reliable, highly placed, knowledgeable, informed, or just plain un-prefixed.

They ought to be. Have you ever read a newspaper report citing an ‘unreliable source’? Or one that relies on ‘lowly placed sources’, or ‘ignorant sources’, or those grossly ‘uninformed’?

Wouldn’t it be fun to let lowly placed sources feed a scoop from the White House? Or have an unreliable source give inside info on manipulations in the stock market? I often itch to key a story quoting highly ignorant sources.

Sources lead us to another media pet – exclusive. More often than not, exclusives in English dailies across India are sourced from vernacular newspapers and developed upon. Poor packaging or underplay of reports by the latter usually increase the exclusivity of these exclusives.

Even if the exclusives are original, can they be really exclusive? Don’t the sources that supply them already know? And also those in their coterie? You can’t expect an elephant not to know its habitat has shrunk without tagging a bold ‘exclusive’ to a report on the plight of its herd.

There’s this classic case of a major English news channel airing an exclusive on militant outfits of Northeast India receiving guerrilla training in Yunan province of southern China. That ‘exclusive’ had come out as a truncated clip in another major news channel less than a fortnight earlier. Almost simultaneously, a Bengali daily from Guwahati carried the same report with more details as did a BBC correspondent on his blog.

There’s also this case of the correspondent of a Bangalore-based daily winning the PUCL award for reporting on human rights violation by the Indian army at Mokokchung town in Nagaland in December 2004. The entire report, albeit less smart-packaged, had come out a week earlier in a Jorhat (central Assam)-based English daily.

I am not one of those who haven’t been ‘inspired’ by reports in localized vernaculars. But I have also filed reports that didn’t come out anywhere else. Those could very well have been exclusives but for my belief that someone somewhere across the globe had done, is doing or will do a similar kind of story.

The world is too big, too wired for any piece of information to remain exclusive.

Unless you are the only one in Antarctica reporting on penguins fighting with AK-47s dumped by gun-runners on the run. Or deep down in the Mariana Trench following a fishy sexual escapade.

Readers – viewers too – are smart and educated enough to know what is exclusive or breaking news and what is not. But we would rather think we are smarter and more knowledgeable.

We are their sources, after all. A lowly placed, ignorant, uninformed and unreliable source said so.


About rahconteur

A mid-career journalist who's worked horizontally across India - from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat
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8 Responses to Sources & exclusives

  1. Ashraf Engineer says:

    This is important: “Readers – viewers too – are smart and educated enough to know what is exclusive or breaking news and what is not. But we would rather think we are smarter and more knowledgeable.”
    About time journos credited readers with some intelligence.

  2. Leon says:

    Mr Rahul,
    This could be a good write up to read but far away from the real facts. When a reporter uses the word “sources”, he is putting his own credibility at stake…implying that reporter was taking the “credit or discredit” whatever be of the story.
    Even ur interpretation of word “exclusive” is also not correct… may be correct in some specific references but exclusive stories are always exclusive and readers understand it…i think u r gripped with the feeling frustration by reading exclusive stories of others…people do have the habit of picking up the stories from language media…one can not help to those who are in habit of translating stories so you should refrain from generalising the references…..there r journalists who runs from pillar to post every day to generate a story in the evening….there r journalists who file many stories just by searching googles.
    Keep writing but with certain responsibility….
    Good luck
    Guess who I m

    • rahconteur says:

      I am not a good guesser, and since you claim you are Leon, I accept it.
      You have basically missed the point: you don’t need to add adjectives to your sources; they are obviously reliable and knowledgeable, or you wouldn’t be using their information. And the information can’t logically be exclusive if the informant already knows it.
      It’s not only the language media I have credited with being the first with the news. Mention of a Jorhat-based English daily makes that obvious. You just cannot beat their network
      This is my 21st year in the profession, and having gone through the grind of local reporting – sometimes up to five in a day besides translating press notes in Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat – you realize you don’t really need to run from pillar to post. Just tap the right sources and you get it, your time and energy managed adequately. Maybe you won’t believe this, just as I didn’t my predecessors in the profession.
      And yes, I don’t get frustrated by other peoples’ exclusives. I don’t count mine because I don’t regard them so, and I don’t expect others to get frustrated by them. Finally, give credit to the reader or viewers’ intellect; they don’t need to be told a piece of news is exclusive or breaking news. The discerning ones get to know sooner than you think. Just ask some knowledgeable reader or viewer.
      Exclusives are like a policeman who boasts of ‘good work’ after catching a petty thief; it’s his job after all.
      But you are welcome to your opinion. Feels nice to know people do take time off to read blogs.

  3. ranjib says:

    kudos for calling the spade a spade…
    you have rightly mentioned that most of the so called exclusives or breaking news are lifted from one or the other vernaculars, but its nice that someone from the english media has shown the guts to admit the bitter fact.
    i know there are exceptions in english media too who don’t depend (only) on vernaculars, but frankly speaking they are few in numbers.
    one must agree that language media is the most ‘reliable source’ for the majority. probably no one minds it, thats why a comment on your post conciously or unconciously says….
    ‘people do have the habit of picking up the stories from language media…’
    just a HABIT??? or BAD HABIT???

    • rahconteur says:

      Habit or bad habit, you have to look at the bigger picture sometimes. The manpower resource that vernaculars have at the grassroot level – all of them usually very poorly paid – enable them to break news. But I have hardly ever seen them use the EXCLUSIVE tag. In a region like the Northeast, when one person has to cover seven-eight states, developing on news emanating from vernaculars or local English dailies cannot be helped. Even one-man bureaus of vernaculars published from metros do it. I don’t see any harm in it; if a story has to be told, it has to be told, and to the average reader/viewer it does not really matter who’s told it first. It’s basically how you tell it, and to what effect. In Lucknow, Varanasi and Vadodra – places that were alien to me – I did quite a few stories that didn’t figure in the vernaculars. So what? At the end of the day, you are nobody without the masthead/logo of your daily/weekly/monthly/channel on your forehead.

  4. Dear Rahul,
    I have taken liberty to post a link to your blog in my blog. That’s my way of saying that I liked it.
    It is meaningless and futile to argue whether you are wrong or right; people who know media in Northeast will understand what you wrote.
    I am bothered about another aspect of news reporting (not only in Northeast but elsewhere too) – the indiscriminate use of “source” in news reports (specially in vernacular media) where it was seemingly possible and harmless to identify the source. Journalist generally use the word “source” when he/she has to add credibility to the story and at the same time has to protect the source. The use of colourful adjectives perhaps betray the insecurity of a journalist resulting from the knowledge that his/her story lacks credibility.
    I remember reading a story in the Delhi edition of Hindustan Times (a local crime beat story) recently where the reporter said the information was provided by a source in the police who was not authorised to speak. A policeman “not authorised to speak” must be someone likely to have no information at all. Readers can easily make out that it was either the opinion or the imagination of the reporter that has been tried to be made creditable.

    • rahconteur says:

      That’s exactly what I meant. You cannot fool readers/viewers, not in this educated age where everyone has space – print or virtual – to air opinions. If you still think you do, you fool yourself.

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