Back in 2012, during the gruesome rape and murder of Nirbhaya, the one thing that stood out—apart from the delay in her getting justice— was the lack of responsible reporting around the crime. The narrative, for the larger part, wasn’t around the crime, rather on a girl being outside her home, late at night, with a male friend. The victim-blaming was not so evident this time, but there was an underlying hint of whether it was her fault? It took us a while to focus on the crime—to call the men what they were: rapists.
The reporting around women who face violence has always been a sore point in the country and the world at large. For example, in 2017, while covering a rape story in Hauz Khas, Delhi, leading newspapers in the country added their own opinions to the crime report. Everything from the lady’s ethnicity to her neighbourhood’s name to where she works and even the fact that she ‘had gone pub-hopping’ was part of the stories. These details were irrelevant to the crime but added to the narrative of victim-shaming or the more popular, ‘she was asking for it’ mentality. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated or an India-only incident. In 2015, the much-publicised case of People vs Turner refused to give Brock Allen Turner a fitting punishment for sexually assaulting a 22-year-old. Why? Because he was a national level swimmer. Globally leading publications choose to focus on Turner’s bright future vs the actual crime. The reportage eventually played a part—however small—towards him getting a mere six-month sentence. The victim’s statement rightly summed up everything that was wrong with the trial and reporting: “How fast Brock swims does not lessen the severity of what happened to me.”
Studies on global media reporting on violence point to the fact that due to the nature of reporting, one in six reports place the blame on the victim. Which begs the question: does the media contribute to distorting our understanding of crime against women and the reason it’s on a rise? Anushka Shah’s research paper highlights this very answer. A researcher with the MIT Media Lab and the Harvard Berkman Klein Centre, Anushka tracked and analysed millions of stories published online in India to understand how media approaches violence against women.
The results show that they are primarily two lenses through which those issues are discussed in the media. One is a blame game driven response to the problems and an indirect approach towards the reporting. The second approach focuses on the crime. In addition to these two lenses, media reporting, especially online news, tends to fall into the trap of descriptive reporting, aka click-baits. Such reporting fails to draw attention to the structural faults in society that lead to such crimes and instead focuses on dramatising the issue and moving on as soon as a new issue comes up. We fail to provide readers with the need to introspect and ask themselves if they are a part of the problem or if they can contribute to the solution.
Jane Gilmore, journalist, feminist and activist, believes that the way ahead is to ‘fix’ the news, especially how we write headlines. She urges the readers to look at the language of reporting critically. Jackson Katz’ TED talk on violence against women also perfectly demonstrates the problem with media reporting.
Read these four sentences:
Mary was beaten by John
Mary was beaten
Mary is a victim
Mary is a battered woman
The focus of all four sentences is Mary, but apart from the first sentence, the remaining three shift the focus of the crime from John to Mary. A focus on the victim often makes the criminal invisible, leading to the victim carrying the blame solely on their shoulders.
Recently a feminist organisation in the UK called Level UP came up with five fundamental guidelines to improve crime reporting against women. Simple things like swapping the words’ tragedy’ or ‘horror’ with the name of the crime, eg domestic violence, avoiding sensationalising or trivialising language, or using images that reinforce the myth that domestic violence is only a physical crime, would go a long way.
In India, there are laws that require the media to maintain the anonymity of rape victims and their families. However, the lack of standardised media guidelines leaves the reporter and the media organisation responsible for informative reporting. And perhaps the reader who needs to start being more critical of the way news stories are reported.
Lead Image: Kractivist.org