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News Reporting of Sexual Violence Is Propagating Rape Culture

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Jun 23, 2019

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For at least 20 minutes on June 6, I was sitting in silence and darkness in my room, consumed with the breaking news of the brutal rape, torture, and murder of a two-year-old girl in Aligarh, India. The news and celebrities, journalists, media houses and armchair activists on social media painted a vivid picture: Two Muslim men raped the Hindu girl, gouged her eyes out, mutilated her body, threw acid on her and then murdered and discarded her in a garbage dump. Turns out, most of that never happened.

Two men, who happened to be Muslim, kidnapped, beat up and murdered the girl because of an altercation over money with her parents. Unverified sensationalization and unnecessary communalization aside, the minor victim’s name was aggressively published and shared in headlines across the board; her photos, and a video of her before the incident went viral and was used extensively — all this when the media thought it was a rape case. When police reports came out inconclusive about the sexual assault and denied any acid being poured on her or her eyes being gouged out, most publications silently changed the narrative without issuing public clarifications or removing past inaccuracies.

A random search for recent reports of crimes against women in India further underlines the problem: Indian media’s reporting on sexual violence is worryingly problematic, sensationalist, inaccurate, dependent on religion, class, and caste, and rich with stereotypes about the causes of the incident.

Characteristics of the coverage

One significant takeaway from my cursory assessment of reporting on five recent cases of sexual violence is that the media is unwittingly propagating the idea that rape is a woman’s fault. This is done by repeated use of the passive voice, taking away the severity of blame which needs to be accorded to the accused solely. “Gujarat woman raped by ‘naval officer‘,” reads the headline of one Times of India article, when instead it should read “‘Naval officer’ Allegedly Rapes Woman in Gujarat.” “Homeless nine-year-old girl raped in Hyderabad,” “Minor Raped Inside Army’s Eastern Command in Kolkata,” “Nine-month-old girl raped and murdered in Telangana’s Warangal” and “Three women gang-raped at Noida farmhouse, seven arrested” all convey the same message: they reduce stress on the rapist who committed the act, and alludes that the survivors and victims had it happen to them, as if it wasn’t one hundred percent the fault of the accused or convicted rapists. The Wire‘s reporting of a member of the Army raping a minor in Kolkata highlights this misplacing of blame the best. The lead of the story reads: “A girl was raped inside the Fort William, Indian Army’s Eastern Command headquarter, and the accused was arrested, police said on Wednesday.” There has to be a better arrangement of subject-verb-object in our reporting to place the blame squarely where it lies and assert the urgency and violence of rape.

Three of five headlines completely failed to even mention a perpetrator in the headline, as if the rape happened in a vacuum, as a one-time glitch, and not that it was yet another unfortunate manifestation of a deep-rooted sense of misogyny and violence toward women and girls in our country.

In other words, the ‘why’ of the story was missing. Instead, the reports gave the incidents routine treatment with the ‘what,’ ‘who,’ ‘when,’ ‘where’ and ‘how’ of it. Prachi Bhagwat writes for The Hoot, a media-watchdog organization: “What is especially flawed with the act of circumventing [the ‘why’] is not that the answer is simply lost but that the absence of the why of rape implies that rape simply happens out of the blue and that we, as individuals, ought to find a way to deal with it.” She explains how this discourse leads to increased restrictions on women’s movements and bodies in the name of their safety. This is a key element of victim-blaming after the event, which in turn is an integral component of all-pervasive rape culture in our country.

The amplified and negative impact of such reporting on rape is not just conjecture. According to a 2018 study published in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science, where there is more rape culture in the press — that is if “the tone of the coverage and word choices can be interpreted as showing empathy for the accused and blame for victims” — there are more incidents of rape reported in those communities.

Details irrelevant to the rape, to the ‘why’ of it and to solutions at a structural level needed to solve the problem of rape, seemed to make the bulk of the reporting. A report of a man raping a nine-year-old girl in Hyderabad in The New Indian Express, the headline, and the story, go on to highlight the low socio-economic class of the survivor by stressing on the fact that she was the daughter of migrant workers “from [a] rural area” and that she was homeless at the time of the rape. Another Times of India report went on to say the victim of rape was preparing for her UPSC exams, that she agreed to meet him at a hotel room, knowingly or unknowingly leaning on a hurtful stereotype of ‘loose women’ in our society and the notion that some rapes are more deserving than others depending on the victim or survivor.

“A news report may not be able to get into structural reasons each time but perhaps a quote from an expert on sexual violence may bring a focus on the larger issue at hand rather than concentrating on detail that simply generates fear” suggests Bhagwat. “If not a quote, a history of the incidents of sexual violence in the area where the crime has taken place may bring forth a pattern that needs to be taken into account in order to deal with the problem.”

India Today reported a story of nine men allegedly gangraping three women in Noida but chose to frame it as follows: “9 men rape three Delhi sex workers at Noida farmhouse, 7 held.” The story goes on to say that three “sex workers waiting for a client” were “picked up” after which a “deal was struck.” The publication even chose to quote a police source giving details of the amount of money promised to the women. It isn’t until much later in the article that it is cursorily mentioned that the victims had also reported physical assault along with rape. Hindustan Times reported the same story, and the contrast between the two demonstrates the power of language in constructing the right or wrong narrative of sexual violence. The lead simply states: “Seven men were arrested on charges of gang-raping three women at a farmhouse in Sector 135 on Tuesday night. Two of their accomplices are on the run.” There is no mention of “sex workers” looking for clients on the road at night because that fact is completely irrelevant to the matter at hand, strengthening a pre-existing and problematically negative outlook toward sex work and stereotypes of the people who engage in it.

What the law says

Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code and the Press Council of India‘s code attempt to provide guidance on the dos and don’ts of reporting sexual violence, but significantly only prohibit the revealing of the name of the victim or any information that may be used to identify them. While this is necessary, there remains missing a larger conversation of the representation of rape and rape victims. However, there do exist resources on the internet for journalists reporting on sexual violence: The Hoot has guidelines and reports specific to Indian media; the Dart Center has a section for the topic on its site; and organizations like the Women’s Media Center and Femifesto provide similar guidelines.

But with more stress on speed and eyeball-gathering than on accuracy and sensitivity in reporting in the average Indian newsroom, it is unlikely that studying these resources will be made compulsory training for all journalists lifting the burden of constructing the correct narrative of existing power structures and sexual violence in our society. Because if the media is not a part of the solution, it’s a part of the problem.

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Written By Pallavi Prasad

Pallavi Prasad is The Swaddle’s Features Editor. When she isn’t fighting for gender justice and being righteous, you can find her dabbling in street and sports photography, reading philosophy, drowning in green tea, and procrastinating on doing the dishes.

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