Sexual violence and the news media: Issues, challenges, and guidelines for journalists in India
This report – released on July 29, 2021 – is part of Media Action Against Rape (MAAR), a research project led by Bournemouth University, United Kingdom, and UNESCO, New Delhi. It was written by Dr. Chindu Sreedharan and Professor Einar Thorsen of Bournemouth University.
To study the way sexual violence is reported in India, the report analysed 10 Indian newspapers across six languages – the Times of India, Hindustan Times, the Hindu, the Assam Tribune (English); Dainik Jagran, Hindustan Dainik (Hindi); Gujarat Samachar (Gujarati), Eanadu (Telugu), Vijaya Karnataka (Kannada) and Dina Thanthi (Tamil). The research for the report also included interviews with 257 journalists who worked across 14 languages and different mediums. A total of 33,575 newspaper pages and around 1,635 stories on rape and sexual violence – published between June 1 and August 31, 2018 – were studied for this report.
The report records common patterns found in the coverage of sexual violence by news media. It also notes the various challenges faced by journalists – especially female journalists – while covering such stories. The report mentions the notable lack, in newsrooms, of formal guidelines and training for covering stories of rape. With the aim of remedying this, it compiles a set of guidelines to aid journalists in reporting sexual violence.The report consists of six sections: Patterns in daily news (Section 1); Challenges of reporting on sexual violence (Section 2); Narrating sexual violence (Section 3); Rules, codes, and personal principles (Section 4); Recommendations (Section 5); and Guidelines (Section 6).
As per a 2021 study by the World Health Organization that analyses data from 154 countries and areas, almost one in three women have experienced sexual and/or physical violence at least once in their lifetime. Likewise, data from the National Crime Records Bureau’s Crime in India 2019: Volume-I says that as many as 32,033 cases of rape were reported in India that year. This translates into approximately one rape every 16 minutes.
Of the stories dealing with rape and sexual violence, only 8.4 per cent were published on the front pages of the selected newspapers, the report states. While Dainik Jagran published the highest number of such stories, only 3.9 per cent made it to the front page. The Hindu and Hindustan Dainik carried the highest percentage of rape-related stories on the front page – 22.1 per cent and 20 per cent respectively. Newspapers in Indian languages generally published a lower number of stories related to sexual violence on the front page.
The report notes that coverage tends to lean towards ‘outlier’ cases. Illustrating this, it states that gang-rape constituted the largest single kind of sexual violence reported (over 20 per cent) in the surveyed newspapers. On the other hand, rapes committed by the victim’s or survivor’s acquaintance – incidence of which is much higher – accounted for only 5.5 per cent of the coverage.
A regional bias in reporting was noted as well. Around half (49 per cent) of the stories were from urban areas and 22 per cent from rural areas. The remaining were either from overseas or had an unclear location. However, of the stories covered in Hindustan Dainik, 53.6 per cent were from rural areas.
Of the 1,635 articles reviewed, 38.84 per cent provided details of the attack. Around 2.2 per cent suggested that the victim was at fault and 7.34 per cent ‘politicised’ the attack.
The report also investigates which stories on sexual assault get covered by news media. About 20.6 per cent respondents reported that a ‘high-profile’ of either the victim or perpetrator is often a factor in deciding whether a case gets covered. Another key reason is the registration of the case with police authorities, as per 16.7 per cent respondents. The brutality of the crime is another deciding factor, reported 14 per cent of respondents.
Reporters also faced several challenges in the process of gathering news on sexual violence. Around 35 per cent noted that their inability to reach the survivors was a hurdle while reporting. Further, 27 per cent respondents cited the police as the biggest hurdle to their reporting, followed by 20 per cent respondents who noted facing psychological challenges. Among those who dealt with psychological challenges, the number of female reporters was higher than male reporters – 29.5 per cent and 12.5 per cent respectively. Some reporters found it “emotionally exhausting” and others were left “traumatised and shaken” by the stories they covered. One of the journalists interviewed said that covering stories of rape and child abuse distressed her and that she had to seek counselling.
Journalists reporting on sexual violence also experienced such violence themselves, the report states. As high as 55 per cent of women journalists interviewed said that they had either experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at their workplaces. In many instances, it was perpetrated by a person ranking higher in the workplace hierarchy. Women journalists also faced harassment on field from “politicians, public officials, senior civil servants, and celebrities.”
Of 121 respondent reporters, over 74 per cent stated that beyond undertaking verification checks, they did not conduct in-depth investigations for stories concerning rape or sexual violence.
Questioned on follow-ups to stories of rape and sexual violence, around 47 per cent (of 257 journalists) said that they followed up in selective cases, whereas 39 per cent stated that they usually did conduct follow-ups.
For more than 50 per cent of the reporters, police officials and reports were the primary source for their story. Notably, male reporters (54.6 per cent) relied more on police sources than female reporters (43.8 per cent).
While 13.2 per cent of the reporters interviewed stated having access to written editorial guidelines while reporting, 14 per cent said they did not have any guidelines at all. About 41.2 per cent of the journalists had verbal guidance from the chief reporter or senior colleagues and 14.8 per cent said they were guided by experience.
Focus and Factoids by Sheetal Bhopal.
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Chindu Sreedharan and Einar Thorsen
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), New Delhi
29 Jul, 2021