Two days ago, Hindustan Times Mumbai carried twin reports of alleged incestuous rapes on its front page as the lead story for the day. This followed several days of news about the Mira Road rape case, where a father allegedly raped his daughter repeatedly over several years.
“The front page (on Friday) was very disturbing,” wrote one HT reader, Gita Chadha, a sociologist. “Why so much of this stuff?”
She felt our reports lacked a larger context and we did not do much to say what it all added up to. She also wondered whetherHTwas blindly taking its cue from the European press, which had been carrying gruesome details about Josef Fritzl, an Austrianwhowas sentenced for life for imprisoning his daughter in the cellar of his home and repeatedly raping her.
. . . .
Crime reports form a substantial part of most newspapers because they offer readers several things.
First, a crime story is usually new, in the sense that fewpeople knowabout it until it is reported, as an article on the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ (ASNE) website points out.
Agood crime story also containsmany elements of a gripping narrative: conflict, drama, good and evil, the website further notes. If reported and written well, it makes a good read.
Further, reading crime news can be a “ritual moral exercise”, as Jack Katz, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, argued in a 1987 article in the journal Media, Culture and Society.
“In other words,” explains the ASNE article, “readers know the material will depress them and frighten them, but not reading it will in some way be more distressing… We read crime because it allows us to work through our own moral issues, to experience emotions vicariously and to feel superior without requiring us to actually do anything.”
Apart from being of interest to individual readers for all these reasons, crime coverage also serves a larger social function.
It provides information that individuals can use to protect themselves or that might spur the government to take remedial measures.
Moreover, besides just chroniclingwhat happened, crime coverage, over a period of time,might uncover social trends that the government, non-profit groups and civil society can interpret and act upon.
So what about the crime stories that repulsed the HT reader? “It was a startling (if stomach-churning) story,” admittedSoumya Bhattacharya,HTMumbai’s editor, explaining why we had played it up on the front page.
“Given the Mira Road case, it was a talking point thing in Bombay,” he said.
“It was also a reflection of how, because of the Mira Road case, other victims had felt emboldened to speak out. Despite it being so ghastly, it was touched by redemptive hope.”
It is always much easier to say in retrospectwhat should have been, but since that is partly what a Readers’ Editor is meant to do, I will say that while I would have put the reports on the front page, I would not have made it the lead story.
Doing so made the story a tad too sensational and suggested that the problem was widespread although there was no data to support this view.
There is also the issue of connecting the dots. HasHTdone enough to explore the many implicit themes that have emerged out of the Mira Road case?
If we take the basic facts of the case to be accurate, we see the shocking hold of superstition on people’s lives, the vulnerability of young women and perhaps the high degree of sexual repression in our society and its grotesque outcome.
These are themes we do need to explore in far greater depth. These are themes we do need to explore in far greater depth.
Fortunately, (or is it unfortunately?), it is not too late.