Media walks a fine line while reporting on crimes like rape, sexual assault | delhi news | Hindustan Times
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Media walks a fine line while reporting on crimes like rape, sexual assault

There is a common consensus that in the past few years, there has been an increase in the media coverage of rape. The peak, most people agree, came with the brutal gang rape on December 16, 2012.

delhi Updated: Dec 16, 2017 15:27 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
VK Anand, defence lawyer for one of the four men found guilty in the December 16 Delhi gang-rape case, speaks with the media after the verdict.
VK Anand, defence lawyer for one of the four men found guilty in the December 16 Delhi gang-rape case, speaks with the media after the verdict. (Reuters File Photo)

A 21-year-old woman who was gangraped in Chandigarh last month, has requested the court that she be kept away from the media glare.

Journalists have often been termed vultures and other kinds of scavengers for trying to get a story out of death, disaster, and situations that have brought pain to those associated with it. It’s a fine line that the journalist has to tread, between collecting and dispensing news of the incident, however unpleasant, and not coming across as too pushy or insensitive while at it.

It’s the same challenge while covering rape, perhaps more so – because the Press is legally bound not to disclose or compromise the identity of the survivor at any point – and yet must not lose focus of the incident, and let’s admit it, stay ahead of the competition posed by other media groups. “Once an incident of rape is reported, one of the most common requests that we get from journalists is for the survivor’s or her family’s contact details. Often, journalists ask us to share the information with them informally (or unofficially). But the law says that we cannot disclose the identity of a sexual assault victim,” says Madhur Verma, deputy commissioner of police, PRO, Delhi Police. Verma says that often the police have to keep a close watch at the hospital where the victim is being treated to ensure that details are not disclosed from the hospital records. “And if by chance the identity is somehow leaked, you will find OB vans parked in the victim’s neighbourhood. I am not of the view that a rape victim has lost her honour, but why unnecessarily inform the neighbours of the incident. It is a violation of her right to privacy. Some journalists even go to the extent of interviewing the neighbours about the incident,” he says.

The “media hounding” doesn’t stop there. Advocate Vrinda Grover, who has represented many victims of sexual assault admits that once the case is filed in court, journalists reach her as well, requesting for interviews with her clients. “The requests come with the usual assurances of not disclosing the identity of the victim and being sensitive in the coverage. But I don’t entertain any such requests. My client’s right to privacy is of paramount importance to me,” she says. Once the chargesheet is filed by the police, and the journalists get a copy of it, there is at times, an attempt to interview witnesses, or their names get mentioned in a news story, which Verma says may harm investigation and the case.

IN FOCUS

Neither Grover, nor Verma, nor for that matter most activists fighting for the cause of women’s safety, however, would like to blame the media for its relentless focus on incidents of sexual assault on women in the past few years. “The media attention has helped. At a time when the police, the bureaucracy and the government have all failed us in creating a safe space for women, the media has been the only platform through which we have been able to highlight the lack of women’s safety in the country,” says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre For Social Research.

There is a common consensus that in the past few years, there has been an increase in the media coverage of rape. The peak, most people agree, came with the brutal gang rape, resulting in death, of Jyoti Singh in Delhi on December 16, 2012. BBC journalist Joanna Jolly captures this trend in a research paper titled Rape Culture in India: The Role of the English-Language Press, which she had done for the Shorenstein Center of Harvard University. Jolly compares the number of times the word rape or gang rape appeared in some of India’s biggest English dailies between September 2009 and March 2016. While the words appeared only 332 times between November 15, 2012 to December 15, 2012, it shot up to 3,859 times between December 15, 2012 and January 15, 2012. It continued to get a frequent mention the following month – January 15,2013 to February 15, 2013, a total of 2,061 times.

Cut to 2017, and just in the past one month, there have been reports of rape in Bhopal, Raipur, Bihar’s Kaimur, Uttar Pradesh, Chandigarh, Jamshedpur, Assam, Pune and Hisar – to name a few. “The consistent media focus on sexual violence against women is a good thing because it helps to show that the problem is widespread,” says Grover. The increased awareness created by the media focus has also resulted in more women reporting cases of assault, feels Verma. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures, the number of rape cases reported in 2016 was 12.4 per cent more than that reported in 2015. But the problem, many feel, is that not all incidents of rape get the same media focus.

Who’s The Victim?

The crime reporter coming to news meetings with stories of rape is unfortunately routine. Then starts the debate over the space the news should be allotted – brief, inside page story, or page one? – is a question that the edition will often ask the reporter or the section head to gauge the gravity of the incident. “It is the profile of the victim that decides the extent of coverage,” says Verma. “If the profile of the victim matches their readers, they will cover it more and there is a difference between readers of English and vernacular newspapers. So if the victim is urban, middle class, educated, English educated, then chances of the incident getting covered in English media is more than in vernacular media.” Also, as special commissioner of police (Traffic) and chief spokesperson Delhi Police, Dependra Pathak rightly concludes, it also depends on what else is happening around the country at the time. If there are no other big news to compete for space, the rape incident may continue to be in focus for longer.

The inequal media attention means that often very grave incidents of violation fail to excite media outrage, simply because the victim does not make the cut. “Look at incidents of rape of Dalit women, for example. While a section of the print media may still give it some coverage, because there are a few committed print journalists, the electronic media largely ignores these stories,” points out Grover.

Watch Your Words

A bigger problem in the opinion of many is the language of reporting. “I wouldn’t paint all media in the same brush. But often the language of reporting in local media is very suggestive, and further adds to the patriarchal discourse by showing the extent of male control over female body. Such gruesome details, as given to report the gang rape and murder of a six year old in Hisar (the child was found with a stick inserted into her private parts), is not needed. Not everyone reading the news is of the same character, and giving such details may give ideas to other potential abusers,” she says.

Grover also requests for reporters to be educated in the provisions of law. While the consensus is that the past few years have seen better and more sensitive coverage of rape, including the language of reporting - with journalists avoiding terming rape as “a crime of passion” and presenting it as a case of violence – Grover says that a knowledge of legal proceedings is still often missing. There should also be thought given on how the media is shaping the discourse around rape. There is too much concentration on “looking at only punitive death penalty and for juvenile accused in rape cases to be tried as adults,” she says, “while the state is not being held accountable. The administration and the police are being let off easily and no one is trying to explore why so many rape cases result in acquittals. A major cause is the shoddy investigation,” she says. (According to National Crime Records Bureau’s Crime In India 2015, only 29.4 per cent of rape cases ended in convictions).

The media trial of the accused – that leads to the demand for punitive death penalty – also creates other problems, often for the lawyers. “One common question media asks lawyers defending a rape accused is how could you defend the accused. What they forget is that under law, every accused is entitled to be defended in court and the lawyer is honour-bound to fight the case in all sincerity. That can’t be made to reflect on the lawyer’s character,” says senior advocate Sanjay Hegde. The intense media focus and coverage, and the demand for harsh punishment also creates a rush to judgment, he feels.

But the biggest problem, according to Verma, is when the media, in its attempt to focus on the need for increased safety for women, end up making reality darker than it is. “Look at the tag of ‘rape capital’ that’s been given to Delhi. It might create an unwanted fear in women.” Pathak agrees. “As of today out of all rapes reported in Delhi, 96.5 per cent rapes are perpetrated by known people. Only 3.5 per cent are perpetrated by unknown. But in 2001, rape by unknown was 13.12 per cent. In 2010 it was 3.94 per cent. So instances of women being accosted by unknown assailants in public spaces, has gone down, he says.

Jolly ends her paper with certain recommendations to the media. These include, “More consideration should be given to non-PLU (people like us) cases, such as rape in rural areas, rape within the home and rape in conflict areas”, “Sexual violence should not only be reported in the crime pages, but should be examined in depth as a gender issue in the social, economic and political pages of the paper” and “Newsrooms should appoint specially-focused gender reporters to ensure rape is not covered as a one-off event, but is reported within the social context that it occurs”.

The very public outcry against the gang rape of Jyoti Singh on December 16, 2012, has made sexual violence against women a subject of consistent coverage and discourse in the media. It has successfully managed to evolve as a sensitive pressure group, drawing the attention of the system and society to the need for better safety for women. In doing so, if it has gone overboard at times, or not managed to extend its focus equally to all deserving cases of violence yet, it can be expected to find its balance in the years to come. Practice, as they say, makes things perfect.