Indian News Media Needs to Change How It Reports Violence Against Women

(Trigger Warning: discussion of sexual violence against women, rape, and sexual abuse.)

We turn to news media to stay informed of current events, but knowingly or not, we are also shaping our opinions on key issues. The kind of content we consume can say a lot about our worldviews and what we believe is morally right or wrong.

Gender-based violence (GBV) is prevalent in India. News media plays a significant role in influencing the public perceptions of such crimes and gender roles. But what happens when the media is biased in its reporting, carries its socio-political agenda, and is targeted towards a specific market, just as any other business?

Source: Sajjad Hussain — Getty Images

Gender Inequality in Indian Media

The following report is a Media Rumble initiative, done in partnership with UN Women.

Gender composition by number of articles on gender issues in English & Hindi newspapers.
Gender composition of panels debating on gender issues in Indian TV news.
Gender composition of panels debating on gender issues in TV news.
Gender composition by number of articles on gender issues in digital media.

These are jarring statistics that shape the views of many Indians across the country and over the world. For our parents who grew up on television and print media, they are shown the perspective of a particular set of people. We, who grew up on online media, get our news from online news sources. Online platforms allowed marginalised individuals to voice their opinions, and therefore, we get a more diverse perspective on a situation.

When it comes to gender-related issues, news reporting has mostly focused on stories of sexual violence. When was the last time you saw a primetime news debate or a national news channel discuss gender-related issues that had nothing to do with a high-profile rape case? Even in those discussions, the reporting is extremely problematic and overly sensationalised.

Media Coverage of the 2012 Delhi Case

A study examined the media coverage of the 2012 Delhi gang rape case. Results showed that:

  • 56% of the reporting applauded the victim’s bravery.
  • 40% of it showed the visuals of the public outrage and protests.
  • 11% discussed the problems of victim-blaming.
  • Rest included the victim’s health, public testimonies, politician’s reactions, etc.

Yet none of them reported on why it happened. None of them tackled rape culture and the broader societal biases and discrimination towards women.

Because it was never about that. It was about selling a story to a target audience. It all comes down to… Who owns the media? Who are the editors-in-chief and journalists? Who are their readers? What is the current political landscape of where the readers are residing?

Let’s take a similar case. Between 5 May 2017 (the date of the verdict for the 2012 case) and 25 May 2017, a group of men raped and murdered a Dalit woman in the same month. India’s four leading English-language newspapers, The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Indian Express, had reported it but quickly moved on. The following factors stood out that could have caused the stark difference in their reporting:

  1. In one case, the victim was a student. The other was a divorcee (which was constantly mentioned by the newspapers).
  2. One was an upper-middle- or middle-class woman who spoke English. The other was a Dalit from a lower economic status.
  3. In one case, the victim was blameless. It was a stranger-rape. In the other, the victim had previously known the perpetrator.

Former TOI reporter, Smriti Singh said that there was a term called ‘people like us’, which determines whose story gets to be told. In this scenario, one case is clearly more compelling for the newspaper’s urban, wealthy, English-speaking readers. Despite the statistic that 95% of rape victims know their perpetrators, it is easier for readers and viewers to accept and digest stranger rape. All these factors meant that one story could be championed by the press.

Problematic Themes in Gender-Based Violence News Reports

It is absolutely disgusting to sensationalise a case and include provocative headlines and gory details only to increase the number of viewers. It is disrespectful to the victim/survivor, triggering for other sexual abuse survivors, and is just plain unnecessary.

Sensationalisation of a rape case by Indian Media.
Sensationalisation of a rape case by Indian Media.
Source: Hindustan Times, 19 July 2017

The same goes for when headlines call the perpetrator a ‘monster’. It reinforces the concept of ‘stranger danger’ and that the perpetrators look or behave a certain way. It sets a dangerous precedent that men from ‘respectable’ families cannot commit such crimes and that all men are ‘monsters’, incapable of controlling their ‘urges’.

Details of the victim or survivor’s actions before the event, what they were wearing, their relationship status, etc., are unnecessary. Personal details including, the name, photograph, place of work and residence, are illegal in India.

Look out for terms like ‘alleged’, ‘confesses being raped’, ‘sex scandal’, ‘sex with minor’, ‘jilted lover’, ‘domestic dispute’, etc., that blatantly trivialise the issue and contribute to rape culture.

In the Brock Allen Turner sexual abuse case, the constant referral to the perpetrator as the ‘Stanford Swimmer’ was problematic. However, it should be noted that almost all of the reputed media channels focused their reporting on him. They listed his name, his photograph, and his sexual assault charges. They referred to the survivor as ‘the 23-year-old’ and only mentioned that ‘she was not enrolled at Stanford and was visiting the campus for a party’.

I recalled a personal incident when a man had sexually abused someone, and his wife said, “He is not a villain. He couldn’t sleep for weeks. I heard him cry by himself last night.”

Ok, and?

As much as we’d like to think we’re liberal, when our close ones are accused of a crime, how willing are we to accept it?

The mindset is not born in a day. It’s the years of conditioning to believe the damaging idea that sexual abuse is a ‘grey area’ and is the fault of all the people involved. It’s simple details as such; the perpetrators’ feelings, their background story, their achievements or societal status, or the complete avoidance of them in the news headline. If you come across such details, think again. What is this information that is irrelevant to the case trying to convey?

When I conducted a poll on my Instagram last week, I received the following response to the statement. Granted that my audience is very small, but it reflects how we perceive sexual abuse victims and the crime itself.

Instagram poll on whether the news media statement was right or wrong according to the readers.
Instagram poll on whether the news media statement was right or wrong according to the readers.
Instagram poll on whether the news media statement was right or wrong according to the readers.

I came across this statement last year and felt incredibly disturbed. I strongly hate every term and phrase that is used to insinuate that the lives of sexual abuse survivors are over. Often, the aftermath of the sexual abuse is just as traumatic, or more so, than the event itself. They are trying their hardest to rebuild their mental health and their lives. When you pity sexual abuse survivors, it only pushes the narrative that they are helpless, broken people.

Suzette Jordan was referred to as the ‘Park Street victim’ by the media. She was constantly victim-blamed while also treated as a ‘naive rape victim’ by the public.

“I am tired of hiding my real identity. I am tired of this society’s rules and regulations. I am tired of being made to feel ashamed. I am tired of feeling scared because I have been raped. Enough is enough!” — Suzette Jordan

So, no. They are not ‘zinda lashes’ (living corpses). They are not living empty lives. They are resilient, brave survivors who are very much alive and can perfectly live happy, free and fulfilling lives from thereon.

As news channels increasingly fight for the audience attention, it’s important to keep questioning these subtle tropes in their reporting. (More important to not share it!) When we grow up in a largely patriarchal society, it is difficult to recognise the signs of internalised misogyny and sexism. But it is on us to keep unlearning and learning to stay better informed and to become more empathetic individuals.

(I recommend catching up on The Swaddle’s podcast and checking out Feminism India’s guide to sensitive reporting of GBV for more information.)

Creative Writer | Sex Talk Sunday Series | Film Enthusiast

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