Rafael Nam on exclusive reporting prescient messages about Indian companies circulating in WhatsApp groups
Last month, an exclusive report from Reuters revealed at least 12 documented cases of prescient messages about major Indian companies being posted in private WhatsApp groups. The posts were circulated hours or days before official company statements. The story, by correspondent Rafael Nam, reported that the messages shared could involve lucky guesses or astute forecasts based on publicly available information, and not all metrics shared among the 12 cases were exactly the same as reported. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Rafael offers a behind-the-scenes look at how he landed the scoop.
Q. How did you score this exclusive?
A. I had been hearing speculation over the past few years that traders were exchanging what appeared to be leaked company results ahead of time. The chatter became more frequent starting last year as Indian markets were in the midst of a powerful rally, and that’s when we decided to take a look. We managed to get access to messages from various sources, including transcripts of WhatsApp groups, and started gathering material through the year. But we knew from the outset that the burden of showing this was happening would be high. We needed actual numbers rather than what could be construed as regular market chatter. So it was a long and painful process, and parsing through a lot of messages, but we gathered enough examples to be convinced this was indeed a widespread practice.
Q. What types of reporting/sourcing were involved?
A. Once we got the sources in place, the reporting involved a lot of number crunching as we tracked the WhatsApp messages. WhatsApp is a great reporting tool because it provides clear documentary evidence, but we still needed to compare what appeared to be leaked results with final numbers. Towards the closing stages, it involved tracking down people and finding out how to contact them by searching through LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.
Q. What was the hardest part about reporting this story?
A. Finding sources willing to share the prescient messages was the hardest part. Though this practice was widely known among traders, getting them to share messages was difficult as they knew there were potential regulatory implications. At the end of the day though – like a lot of breaks with sources you need info from – it came down to personal rapport, making that connection and hitting it off. The other difficult bit was navigating the legal and ethical minefields. I’ve never worked on a story that required so many checks and discussions about what was fair or not. I forget how many drafts we went through to be honest. But I’m glad we did. Although the editing process was intense, the story ended up being that much stronger, and I’m especially indebted to Editor Philip McClellan, Mumbai Bureau Chief Euan Rocha and South India Bureau Chief Paritosh Bansal for their guidance.
Q. Why did you think this was an important story to tell our global readers and clients?
A. We knew this was a mega story once we realized how frequently traders were brazenly sharing what appeared to be leaked results. The fact that it was happening through WhatsApp made it all the more interesting, because it showcased how hard it is to police these private chat platforms. I think the story ended up having the impact it did because it showcased what people always suspected – that market insiders were often getting what looked like an unfair advantage.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. I knew I wanted to be a reporter from early in life. I grew up obsessively reading physical newspapers – a habit I maintain to this day even as so many people now consume news online or over their phones. Guess I’m a dying breed. I still enjoy so many things about journalism, but perhaps what I enjoy most is getting to meet people, especially the newsmakers. I really like seeing how people are and trying to figure out what makes them tick.
Q. What is the focus of your job and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A. I oversee the team that covers markets, central bank and regulation in India. Being a Reuters journalist is pretty demanding, having to track and cover spot news while also working on bigger pieces. But I most enjoy is the inherently collaborative nature of journalism. Bylines alone don’t often capture all the help that was provided, or the insight and conversations that helped shape the story.
Q. What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A. All reporters enjoy having an impact, being read and having people talk about your story. It’s a validation of all the work and the effort that went into the story, so it’s a great feeling when this happens. Conversely, there is nothing more deflating to a reporter’s ego than when a story fails to have much of an impact. Getting things wrong, which happens at some point to all of us, is probably one of the hardest things for a reporter. There’s still nothing worse than that sinking feeling when you realize you’ve made a mistake. But as always, it’s important to learn from it and move on.
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A. I would love to win the lottery and not do anything. Or maybe manage a football team. Like many fans, I feel I can’t possibly do it worse than the people running the teams I follow. Also, like many reporters, I would love to do more creative writing, screenplays and the like. But since none of these are likely to happen, I go on doing what I love, while hoping one day I can take time to write a non-fiction book about a particular person or subject.