Why newsrooms need to step up their everyday reportage on child rights

Three child rights’ champions and one media scholar speak to ICFJ Fellow Biraj Swain on the current state of child rights journalism.

ByBiraj Swain
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Why newsrooms need to step up their everyday reportage on child rights
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In the final offering of #ChildhoodMatters series, we did what all such series should do i.e. take stock of journalism on child rights. We spoke to three child rights’ champions and one media scholar on their take on the current state of journalism on child rights, their “wow” and “yuck” moments, and what kind of stories journalism would like to see more of. To the media scholar, we also asked if the blind spots in child rights’ journalism are fixable.

Ms Stuti N Kacker, Chairperson, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, stated she was generally satisfied with the current state of journalism around child rights. She felt there was adherence to the ethical guidelines on reporting on children. However, she also felt that in the Kathua rape case, the court and NCPCR had to step in to remind journalists that dead children had the same rights as the ones alive and hence taking the name of the child who was the victim of a gang-rape, was a violation. Her other major challenge was to get the entertainment media to adhere to the guidelines for the children working in the entertainment industry. “These guideline needs constant updating because the media programming keeps changing and we notice something is violated, following which, we have to pull up the producer and broadcaster or update the guidelines or both”.

She still consumes and monitors most of print and television media and feels digital has an over-presence of opinions rather than reportage.

On journalism that stood out, she shared Ambika Pandit’s series on Times of India on young adults who are survivors of child sexual abuse as a must read.

Prof Zubair Meenai, Director of Jamia Millia Islamia’s Early Childhood Development Research Centre was much less appreciative. He finds the current state of journalism on children “quite sensationalist, bending towards sexual exploitation or abuse more than developmental issues. Children are portrayed as victims with no agency, no voice etc”. He found the reportage mostly episodic and crisis-oriented rather than any long-term concerted engagement. He also felt the space and time given to reporting on children’s issues was disproportionately less.

For some perspective, as per the 2011 census, India has 21.6 crore children in the 0-6 years category. That works out to 16.36% of the country’s current population of 132 crores. But the kind of time given to ECD issues —compared to Hindu-Muslim issues— (where the Muslim population is 14%), is anybody’s guess!

Meenai felt that the reporting ethics’ guidelines were adhered more in violation than in compliance. The instances where he felt journalism failed the children, were:

  • The change in age for juveniles post the Nirbhaya case
  • The change in “no detention policy” under the Right To Education law

In both the cases, the Press did not look at the issues from a child’s perspective, nor did it offer the reader different views and counter-views. As a result, there was a negligent opposition to the government’s actions.

He also felt that the reportage around low-learning levels in schools was good. Though sensationalised, the reportage forced the government and citizens to think of the quality of schools and its learning outcomes. He also liked the reportage on the changing faces of Delhi schools, although he felt that some of those might have been sponsored.

Meenai would like to see more of everyday deprivation of child rights reported—but they should be reported in the context of the society and development—and not in a stand-alone way. “Considering we have fashion reporters, crime reporters, campus reporters, it is about time we have Child Rights’ reporters too,” he explained.

Dr Rajan Sankar, Head of Nutrition at Tata Trusts, felt that the current state of journalism on children and child rights has left a lot to be desired. The reporting was mostly problem-centric and repetitive. It lacked the deep-dives on causes and solutions being implemented on malnutrition etc. There was also a lack of reportage on poverty, inequality and malnutrition, he felt.

Sankar also blamed the nutritionists who over-technicalised the sector with narrow concerns and isolated nutrition from the big questions of the society. He felt journalists had that opportunity to engage with the big questions and connect nutrition to the narrative.

This resonates with Anton Harber, Founding Editor of South Africa’s Mail and Guardian. In an earlier piece in this series, he had also cautioned against over-technicalisation of the narrative and narrow isolationist focus, and how this strips journalists and the public from engaging with an issue.

Dr Sankar felt that journalists should not give privilege to medical impact over social impact. Hence, narratives set by scientific journals, need not be the only reporting pegs. Journalists have their ears to the ground, closer to reality, and with this immense power, they can and should influence the research agenda as well as the policy and programmes, he shared.

He felt that while violent crimes’ against children were extracting the reportage and outrage in Indian journalism, the everyday deprivations, the silent killers like under-nutrition, and the challenges like cognitive under-development due to malnutrition, are still begging for attention. He would like to see more reporting on that, as well as more number of positive stories on innovations and progressive programmes in India and across the globe.

Sankar feels the #ChildhoodMatters is a case of very good journalism due to its concerted nature of engagement with the issue, and the fact that it covered almost all aspects of childhood, from policy, politics, societal, scientific, to demographics. He would like to see more of such dedicated series’, but the litmus test is, he shared, in such series, the engagement continued as regular part of a newsroom priority rather the outcome of a fellowship.

PN Vasanti, Director General of Centre for Media Studies, felt that the media had a very important role in both—the social and democratic life—but it didn’t always live up to its responsibility. She felt not just news media, but even the entertainment wing of the Indian media wasn’t treating children and child rights’ concerns fairly. The entertainment media treated children as consumers, but not as citizens, she explained.

In the past decade, CMS has done two studies: one on children in the news after analysis of 720 hours of “national news,” and the second on reportage in Andhra Pradesh’s news media. In both the cases, they found violent crimes’ reportage and dramatisation, voyeuristic reportage trumped journalism on health, nutrition, education, water sanitation, maternal healthcare etc. She explained this was because children’s issues were not a priority in newsrooms, and that policy and parenting issues relating to children were dealt in lifestyle and magazine sections rather than the “hard news” section.

Vasanti also felt that the social issues including child rights’ were not a priority in Indian newsrooms. Reporters focusing on these issues didn’t progress much in the career, unlike journalists who covered politics or economics. Hence, she felt, addressing the under-reportage/non-reportage of children’s issues was directly connected to the power structure and priorities in various newsrooms. Hence, she would like newsrooms to prioritise social issues as well.

She also shared her disappointment that after their Andhra Pradesh study and journalism awards that they constituted, the child rights’ reportage went up in many news publications, but it was few and far between. It appeared that the reporting was focused on nominating and submitting that single nomination in an effort to win awards.

She has shunned TV completely but has a lot of faith in various digital platforms, as well as the revival of long-form journalism. The Wire is her current favourite when it comes to social issues, nuanced reportage and everything related to development.

She would like to see more of regular deprivations of children and their families reported, rather than just the dramatic recreations of violent crimes against children. On her wish list are stories on hunger, malnutrition, and the Gorakhpur tragedy before it became a point of national discourse.

She would also like to see journalists reporting on social and development issues progressing in their careers in their respective news establishments. Only then would the abysmal reportage on children be addressed.

Acknowledgements: The author would like to acknowledge The India Nutrition Initiative for their support for the research through the series. The author would also like to acknowledge President of Africa Health Journalists’ Forum -Declan Okpalaeke and Tata Trusts’ Dr Rajan Sankar and Binali Suhandani for their support and guidance.

The author can be reached at biraj_swain@hotmail.com

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