Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know"; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

— Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer, Vintage Books, 1990

In her pitiless analysis of a reporter’s behaviour, Malcolm is on to something when she talks of the detachment so essential for the profession: to gain the trust of a source, and then betray the source without remorse.

Malcolm was writing about the reporter Joe McGinniss, who betrayed a convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald while writing about him. McGinniss’ conduct wasn’t exemplary—he was at the opposite end of Bob Woodward, who steadfastly protected his source, Deep Throat, during the Watergate scandal.

McGinniss didn’t care what happened to the doomed MacDonald, so long as he got his story. Woodward waited nearly three decades for W. Mark Felt to reveal himself as the source for Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who as young reporters of The Washington Post broke the Watergate story, which eventually led to Richard Nixon’s resignation as the US president, a story they recount in All the President’s Men. Woodward published The Secret Man, his book about Felt, only after Felt talked about it himself.

Where does a reporter sit between these extremes—the discreet Woodward, or the careless McGinniss? This question becomes urgent in the context of the astonishing saga of Niira Radia, the formidable lobbyist, and her leaked conversations with industrialist Ratan Tata, former CII chief Tarun Das, Rajya Sabha member N.K. Singh and leading journalists—NDTV’s Barkha Dutt, the former advisory editorial director of Hindustan Times Vir Sanghvi and others.

The outcry isn’t restricted to the Internet. Journalists are outraged too; many are stunned by the erosion of the profession’s standing because of the conduct of a few. Some consider themselves lucky that their conversations are not yet public and young aspiring journalists may feel dismayed, unable to distinguish between journalism and public relations, and think of more meaningful careers.

A journalist’s primary asset is her credibility; the main currency, curiosity; and her sole driving force is the desire to tell. True, a journalist must meet many people, her Rolodex should bulge, and her connections in real and virtual worlds would run into thousands. Access is one privilege, but it is not to be confused with power. Foreign correspondents are trained to keep that distance, which may seem callous. Edward Behr titled his autobiography Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? He refers to the reporter who comes to a refugee camp and nonchalantly asks that question. He knows rape is traumatic; he will feign empathy, get the details, and then leave for the next disaster. Recall how the reporter Guy Hamilton walks on the tarmac, boarding the last plane leaving chaotic Jakarta in Christopher Koch’s novel about the Sukarno era, The Year of Living Dangerously. Hamilton’s assistant Billy Kwan ends his life—when you are writing about your own country, the situation is more complex than how the foreign correspondent sees it; you end up being part of the story.

Even the macho heart melts. The fictional cynical correspondent Charlie Johnson, veteran of many wars, finds his emotions hopelessly entangled in Kosovo, in Michael Ignatieff’s novel, Charlie Johnson in the Flames. The detached reporter succumbs in that human drama. Compared to such dilemmas, what Indian journalists have faced in recent weeks is almost trivial. Should an editor help a lobbyist develop the legal strategy for her client? Should a leading broadcaster agree to carry messages between political parties trying to form a coalition? Should the broadcaster ignore the story when a lobbyist representing two of India’s biggest business groups, and close to a political party, is so keen to see a particular politician get a specific cabinet post? And should a leading columnist be willing to rehearse a TV interview with a businessman who doesn’t want any uncomfortable questions?

The answer, in each case, should be a resounding no. And yet, the mighty fell.

Fundamentally, the journalist’s job is to reveal, not to conceal. An equity research analyst, a diplomat and an academic do what a journalist does: seek information, analyse data, connect dots and draw certain conclusions. But their roles differ. The equity researcher writes for his firm’s clients. What he tells stock market reporters is often guided by his firm’s interest in playing up, or down, a specific stock. The diplomat writes for his political and bureaucratic masters. He is paid to remain silent; he cannot reveal his thinking publicly. And while the academic researcher publishes her thesis, the methodology often requires her to show preliminary drafts to her interlocutors, and she publishes her findings only after their approval. The journalist writes for everyone; she is paid to reveal; and she should not show any draft to her interviewees before publication. It is her story, and she earns readers’ trust by building her credibility through unbiased writing.

That independent detachment seems to have disappeared. Sources become friends with whom reporters routinely socialize.

Chronicler: In The Brass Check, Upton Sinclair provided a seminal account of American journalism. Lucien Aigner/Pix Inc./Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

When I asked Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the journalism school at Columbia University, about the Indian case, he suggested I look at the seminal account of American journalism t the turn of the century—Upton Sinclair’s The Brass Check. In that candid critique, Sinclair wrote: “American journalism is a class institution, serving the rich and spurning the poor." The title referred to the chit issued to the patrons of urban brothels, and Sinclair said journalists were beholden to the agenda of the moneyed class. With meticulous detail he attacked the Associated Press and others for looking down on socialism and trade unions, extolling the interests of the oligopolies that published newspapers. In the century since, American journalism has hugely improved, seeking to occupy the centre, keeping facts separate from opinions, with professional journalism schools reinforcing the idea of transparency and conflicts of interest, nurturing the virtue of being objective, and reminding reporters to go only as far as facts take them. Keep certain sources always confidential; identify all newsmakers by name; never accept gifts; and keep distance with sources. Sinclair remained unimpressed, but it is a better world for those changes.

Inspired classics: Sinclair and Behr have different takes on the role of a journalist.

But challenges remain. I also asked Steven Strasser, former editor at Newsweek who now teaches at the City University of New York, about the Radia tapes.

He told me: “The Indian case looks very familiar from the US perspective. Our journalism has become so chummy with politics that journalists now are contributing (financially) to political candidates," referring to the liberal journalist Keith Olbermann contributing to Democratic campaigns and conservative Fox News anchors contributing to Republican campaigns without disclosing their financial contributions.

Strasser added: “Little off-the-record, back-rubbing exercises take place all day, every day in Washington. Journalists always have to walk that line between cultivating sources and doing their real job, which is serving news consumers. Journalists want something from sources, and sources want something from journalists. And everybody does favours: To get a good story, a journalist often will do a favour of some sort for the source who provides the key details. To minimize the ethical damage, all a reporter can do is minimize the favours handed out and maximize the transparency of his or her reporting—telling readers as much as possible about who provided the information and in what circumstances. It’s always going to be a messy business, and news consumers can only hope that the process, in the end, produces more information than it covers up. In the end, I think it does."

With the Radia episode, that churning has begun, and it should force us to look at the mirror, identify the blemishes, remove them, and rediscover the basics, serving the sole interest that matters: the readers.

Salil Tripathi writes a fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.

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