The uncertain act of building trust with sources

March 03, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 01:38 am IST

Items of a shop set on fire in Delhi’s Kardam Puri in February 2000.

Items of a shop set on fire in Delhi’s Kardam Puri in February 2000. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

From marginalised students trying to open up about discrimination at top government institutes, to Muslim families defending their homes from mobs, to government sources putting their jobs and families on the line, nearly everyone who decides to speak to journalists takes a leap of faith. It is faith that their decision to trust us will not come back to haunt them.

So, how do we as journalists win this trust? How often are we required to place our trust in the subject in exchange for it? And is it reasonable to expect that this trust can be earned at all times, for all stories and from all subjects?

In February 2020, when Delhi was seeing its worst riots in decades, I was in Kardam Puri between two mobs. One comprised Hindu residents, extremists, and uniformed law enforcement officers. The other consisted of Muslim residents who were desperately trying their best to defend their neighbourhoods and lanes.

After spending an hour in the midst of the first mob, I walked towards the Muslim homes. The men and boys on the streets, who had no reason to trust me, began to warm up to me after half an hour of questioning. I had to trust them in exchange. As bullets and stones flew around us, a Muslim man, who was around my age, placed his helmet on my head and said, “I’ll take you in. Say your name is Rehan if anyone asks.” He was risking his life by bringing an outsider into the bylanes of Kardam Puri, where eyes narrowed with suspicion, and dread of strangers filled the air, and I was too, by going along. On the other hand, no matter what I said or did, no person who was part of the Hindu mob would trust me enough to let me record them.

While I would like to think that the Muslim men trusted me because I trusted them to protect me during the riots, I cannot help but wonder if they trusted me, a journalist, because they couldn’t trust anyone else. Regardless, their trust is the reason I could do my job that day.

However, in situations where the conflict is not as immediate or threatening for us as it is for the subjects, such as a government source, eliciting trust is like walking a tightrope. We journalists want the subject to trust us without letting them in on our own thinking process and the source wants to let us in on the condition that the origin of the information is obfuscated. Sometimes we are afraid that our opinion might discourage subjects from speaking; at other times, we are scared that the outcome of one fruitful conversation might lead to sources closing off altogether. Both these experiences are far too common for any journalist reporting on the government. Yet this is the tightrope on which the journalist and the source must dance, hoping that a trampoline lies beneath in case of a fall. Ethically, the only way to begin this dance is to ensure that the trampoline exists and hope that the source will once again get onto the tightrope.

There are also times when it does not matter whether the trampoline exists. When Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi students spoke to me about their experience of casteism at the IITs, what stood out was that they were exercising their agency in telling me their stories. All I could do was to ensure that the subjects had full control over the exact circumstances in which they shared their stories. For instance, some wanted a friend to be on conference call as they spoke, while most sought an assurance that they would remain anonymous in the story.

But sometimes, even when the fail-safe exists, even when we trust the subject with bits of our own lives, and even if we belong to a well-known and reliable organisation, earning trust can still be an uncertain exercise. This is unnerving, but it is an uncertainty that we have to make our peace with, for the subject’s decision has nothing to do with the journalist.

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