Bangladesh journalist learn about short-term marriage in Investigative journalism

We gathered in a lush garden retreat away from the relentless noise and traffic of central Dhaka to concentrate on the thorny problem of journalists trying to hold government and business to account in Bangladesh. The country is both a journalist’s heaven and hell. There is a story everywhere you look but there are hurdles at every turn. I was asked to work with 16 Dhaka journalists from television and print to find ways around the hurdles. Over the course of five days we dived deep into verifying sources and their information, finding documents to support a story when there is little on line, and paper sources are withheld or disorganized. And how to store and organize the material to keep focused on the goal, to make writing and fact checking easier for the greatest impact at publication or broadcast.

It is common in Bangladesh to use anonymous sources in stories. It is the way to get around the difficulty in getting information from official sources. But these human sources want to be paid for their information. And they often bring their information to more than one media organization at the same time. We had a heated discussion about providing anonymity to a source – a source who is making himself known to several journalists – a source who appears to have a small business selling information to journalists.

We talked about the pros and cons of paying sources – of not identifying the source in any way and whether the audience should be told that the source is being paid for his information. Does it matter if the audience knows? Would it make a difference in how they evaluated the story? Is there a way to provide some description or information about an anonymous source to enhance the credibility of the information and the story? We also tackled a big question – is it possible to stop paying sources when your competition pays?

I suggested collaboration as a way around some of the reporting difficulties in Bangladesh. For journalists who have been told since the beginning of their career that the highest value is a story no one else has; ‘getting a scoop’; collaboration is an alien concept. My suggestion was met with chuckles, headshaking and a quick chorus of reasons why it would not work. But there were nods around the table when I pointed out that we all live in an interconnected world and not just through the internet. Companies do business all over the world. Drugs made in one country are sold in another. People move their money from country to country. The only way journalists can hope to report on all of this is to collaborate, within their country with their competitors, with journalists in neighbour countries or journalists on the other side of the world.

I walked them through the pros and cons of collaboration; having a bigger team means more brains to work on the problems and more resources to get what is needed to complete the investigation. Instead of just one media organization exposing wrong doing there are two or three or more shining a very bright spotlight on the issue. The ‘radical sharing’ of sources and documents in one place where everyone in the team can access everything can be hard. It is a scary moment the first time to share information you have gathered to a journalist at another organization. Collaborations can only be successful if partners are in sync about what they are doing and how they will do it. It is important to choose a partner with the relationship in mind. I called it a short-term marriage – you must agree to be faithful, honest and open to make the relationship work.

By Sandra Bartlett
Dhaka, September 2018