Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Essay | Reporting rape

The murder and possible rape of a young woman working in a company located in the Sipcot Information Technology Park in Siruseri, on the outskirts of Chennai, is among the latest in the unrelenting series of rapes and gang rapes reported across the country over the past year. The four accused, who were promptly arrested, have reportedly confessed to raping, murdering and robbing her.

Commenting on the evident rise in the number of crimes involving sexual violence registered in Mumbai, including rapes committed by juveniles, a psychiatrist and child rights activist recently suggested that the media hype around such cases may well lead to some youngsters viewing the rapists as heroes worthy of emulation.

I must confess that the thought of copycat crimes has crossed my mind several times, as the intensified reporting of sexual violence in the news media since December 2012 appeared to indicate a dramatic spurt in the incidence of rapes involving multiple rapists. I have wondered if the option of gang rape could embolden men and boys who may not attempt to assault a woman on their own, but could draw strength from numbers if rape became a group activity, a form of fraternal diversion to supplement and consolidate male bonding over drinks.

Critiques of media coverage of sexual violence in general and rape in particular tend to focus primarily on sins of commission. While some of these—such as sensationalism and prurience—are professionally indefensible, others are more complicated: the amount and type of detail to be included in news reports, for example.

Take the question of the right to privacy.

The Indian Penal Code, as well as the limited ethical guidelines issued by the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters’ Association, stress the need to protect the privacy of victims and survivors of sexual violence. Death does not automatically release the media from this obligation: According to the law, “the name or any matter which may make known the identity of the victim" can be published only if the next of kin authorizes it in writing.

In the case of the young woman who went missing near Chennai one mid-February night, her name, age, place of origin and employer were made public the day her body was finally discovered over a week later. Of the reports I scanned, only The Hindu persisted in referring to her as an employee of Tata Consultancy Services, providing no further details. In contrast, some media reports even included her photograph, with no attempt at morphing.

Most media outlets chose to report that the woman was raped before the results of forensic analysis, which alone could establish the nature of the crime, were available—presumably going by information provided by the police about the confession by the first two men arrested. Again, The Hindu was an exception. Some reports included several details about the likely sequence of events before, during and after the crime, obviously relying purely on police sources yet again.

Besides the overarching journalistic principles of accuracy, fairness and independence, the key precept that should inform decisions about necessary and unwarranted details is, surely, the interest of justice. Many details now routinely included in news reports on rape cases serve no constructive purpose and may, in fact, have negative consequences.

The controversy over when a legitimate and ethical, if aggressive, pursuit of truth in the interest of justice turns into an illegitimate, unprincipled trial by media that can result in miscarriage of justice raises troublesome questions which call for serious reflection even if there are no easy answers. The tragic death of social activist Khurshid Anwar, who committed suicide last December following charges of rape—possibly pushed to the edge by a television programme—underlines the grave consequences of thoughtless or irresponsible journalism, however well-intentioned.

The good news is that there is growing debate among journalists themselves on issues concerning media coverage of sexual violence in general, and rape in particular. Such welcome introspection has led to several attempts—by journalists or with their involvement—to evolve practical dos and don’ts that recognize the realities of reporting news in an ever more competitive media environment, but seek to promote ethical practice despite the undeniable, disagreeable pressures that most journalists, especially reporters, have to reckon with (see below).

However, the media’s equally critical sins of omission have yet to receive the attention they demand if coverage of sexual assault, including rape, is to serve its logical purpose: justice in general, gender justice in particular and, ultimately, the necessary decline in the prevalence of such violence.

A collaborative academic study focusing on “sexual violence journalism" in four leading English language publications before and after December 2012 concluded that, although this section of the press has made “small but important progress with respect to reporting on gender justice", the news media needs to move beyond “the incident and crime cycle", and away from the sensational aspects of such crimes, to progress towards “gender justice sensitive reporting". The study is part of a larger project between the communication and culture programme, York and Ryerson Universities, in Toronto, Canada, and the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

What would this involve? To begin with, an acknowledgement—especially by decision makers in the media—that coverage of gender-related events and issues, including sexual violence, is serious business. Those reporting and commenting on the subject need to acquaint themselves with the complexities of the subject, the history of efforts to deal with these issues, and the debates and actions that have taken place in the past (in India from at least 1980 onwards).

In the wake of the December 2012 gang rape, for example, some sections of the media spearheaded a vociferous crusade calling for capital punishment in cases of sexual assault. There is little doubt that the relentless, emotive, campaign-style coverage and impassioned, impatient television debates contributed to the apparent manufacture of consent among vocal sections of the media-consuming public about the desirability of the death penalty for rape, if only in high-profile cases. Little attention was paid to the fact that women’s organizations with long experience in tackling gender violence, as well as other groups and individuals committed to human rights, oppose the death penalty on the ground that it is not only wrong in principle but also unlikely to work in practice, especially in terms of reducing the incidence of sexual assault or increasing the conviction rate, or both.

The excessive and blinkered focus on retributive justice also obscures genuine hurdles in the path of justice of any kind: prejudice, ignorance, negligence, incompetence and worse within the investigative, legal and judicial systems. The media would serve the cause of justice better if they spent time and energy on creatively exposing these impediments instead of chasing elusive “exclusives" that are often based on unconfirmed (often incorrect), inconsequential or salacious trivia that shed no light on the matter and often violate the rights of the human beings involved.

Data on sexual crimes represents another area crying out for critical attention. Apart from the fact that undiscerning use of statistics is often misleading, it appears that National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data itself may be unintentionally deceptive, going by a report in The Hindu in October flagging a statistical flaw that could mean that even the December 2012 gang rape would not be counted in NCRB data on rape. Surprisingly, this sensational revelation, which was not denied, caused barely a ripple in the media.

Sometimes startling statistics are blandly presented when further examination is clearly required. For example, according to recent data attributed to the Delhi Police, 95% of the accused in rape cases are less than 25 years old. If this is indeed true it obviously has major implications for efforts to deal with the problem of sexual violence. If it is not, why was such incredible data released by the police? Or was police information misreported by the media?

The law is another area that requires more informed reporting. The new amendments to the law relating to rape, greeted with glee by much of the media barely a year ago, are now being widely criticized in the context of the charges recently filed against former Tehelka editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal. Both the initial reaction and the present reassessment would be more instructive and convincing if lawyers and activists with the requisite knowledge and experience were consulted.

And then, most importantly, there is the social, cultural, economic and political context in which the apparent proliferation of sexual crimes is taking place. It is significant that the most serious efforts to delve into the lives of the perpetrators of the December 2012 gang rape, exploring what could possibly have led them to commit such a brutally violent crime, appeared in two international newspapers. Articles situating rape within the larger context of gender inequality and patriarchal attitudes towards women, on the one hand, and women’s growing consciousness, confidence and mobility, on the other, have appeared in the opinion and features sections of the print media; so have explorations of the skewed concepts of masculinity that underlie such crimes. However, such essential perspectives, which could promote better understanding of such violence, its causes and consequences, and what needs to be done to tackle the scourge, have not yet permeated sufficiently into regular media practice.

There is clearly an urgent need to step up and institutionalize ongoing efforts to improve media coverage of sexual violence. In some parts of the world, media professionals have sought sensitivity training from survivors of crime and those helping them to secure justice in order to improve the accuracy of their coverage and minimize the trauma it can cause. Such initiatives could make all the difference provided media institutions are willing to do things differently in order to make a difference.



u When Survivors Become Victims by Sameera Khan in Missing Half the Story: Journalism As If Gender Matters, edited by Kalpana Sharma, Zubaan Books, 2010.

u The Hoot ( A media watch website—see the section on Media and Gender under Issues in Media.

u Report Responsibly : A platform to host conversation and generate debate about responsible reporting on sexual assault in India.

u The Blue Pencil: A media watch project to monitor reporting on gender violence.

u Press Council of India: Norms of Journalistic Conduct.

u News Broadcasters’ Association: Guidelines on Reportage of Cases of Sexual Assault

u Network of Women in Media, India:

Ammu Joseph is a journalist and author based in Bangalore.

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