How to report on gender-based violence
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How to report on gender-based violence

Feminism In India’s toolkit addresses the need to change the language of media’s reportage on rape.

By Veena Nair

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Feminism In India (FII), which describes itself as an intersectional feminist platform, launched a Media Ethics Toolkit on Sensitive Reportage on July 4. The toolkit is based on a section of the print media’s coverage of gender-based violence in India. 

The event kicked off with Japleen Pasricha, FII’s founder-editor and supervisor for the report, and researcher Asmita Ghosh addressing the gathering. The report was written by Ghosh as part of her Women Deliver fellowship and grant, and supervised by Pasricha. The report was vetted by experts in the fields of media, advocacy and gender-based violence. Pasricha explained the need for such a report to be easily accessible. “We understand our generation, and we know research papers and literature need to be more accessible, more appealing for them to read and understand. We kept that in mind.” 

Meanwhile, Ghosh explained “intersectionality”. She said intersectionality highlights the fact that a violent act like rape or assault is not only based on one’s gender, but various other factors as well. “Class, caste, gender, physical disability, age—all have a role when a crime takes place,” she said, adding that women from marginalised sections face more atrocities than others. 

Has FII then made sure that their office has voices to represent these sections? “FII has an affirmative action employment policy and preference is given to SC, ST and OBC women. The FII team has four full-time members and one part-time member and they come from diverse backgrounds and social identities,” Pasricha told Newslaundry

How to report on gender-based violence

The Feminism In India team at the event. Photo: FII

As the evening progressed, the speakers discussed some of the problematic words used by the media over the last 10-15 years in their reportage on rape across India. The focus was on English print media.  

The discussion was based on case studies such as the 2005 Dhaula Kuan rape case. One of the examples cited included a report where the headline highlighted that the woman was wearing a mini-skirt. The coverage of the Pollachi case was also discussed. Lead researcher Ghosh said, “The dress a woman was wearing, the time she was out, the people she was hanging out with: [these] in headlines indicates the fact that she deserved it because of some fault of hers.”

Ghosh added that the coverage of the #MeToo campaign had several instances of a section of people disbelieving women or siding with the accused, which is an issue. “Usage of terms such as ‘jilted lover’, ‘roadside Romeo’ reduces the intensity of the act of violence, bringing it down to merely a spat between two people,” she said.  

In their toolkit for the media, FII divided the language media uses for coverage of such crimes into three parts: language to avoid, language to use instead, and why is it problematic.

Ghosh pointed out that words like “allegedly” raise questions and imply that the victim might be lying. She added that the word “victim” is also troublesome—the word “survivor” is a preferred alternative. Another example of problematic usage of words is “eve-teasing”. Since the word includes “teasing”, it doesn’t explain the trauma the women goes through. It should be replaced by “street sexual harassment,” Ghosh said. 

Given the interactive nature of the session, other attendees also chipped in. Tanay Sukumar, a journalist with Scroll.in, said: “The word ‘survivor’ puts the onus on the woman to feel brave even when she may not be ready to. Also, it gives the sense that you’ve come out of an experience that could have shattered your life, and this again is a problematic view of rape.” He added that the word “complainant” can be a useful alternative. 

Explaining why media professionals have to use the word “allegedly”, another member of the audience said, “Our judiciary has a system of ‘innocent until proven guilty’.”

Speaking about the media’s coverage, Ghosh stated that in a lot of cases, there are “certain voyeuristic tendencies explicitly produced by the print media”. She said: “More than necessary details of the act is not required. Another thing is, the most horrendous act [being] given more attention than others. This suggests that a crime which is less horrifying can be ignored.” 

An important point made in FII’s toolkit is the need for media organisations to avoid an “episodic approach” towards such crimes, which shows rape as a one-off isolated incident. What the media needs is a thematic approach,  where reports link to the rise in crime across India. One way of doing it is speaking to a researcher or an activist who gives a larger picture.  

Beyond news, FII plans to increase the scope of its research to movies and television shows which have their own sets of issues.

The toolkit also provides journalists with guidelines to interview a rape survivor—these include creating a comfortable and safe environment to conduct an interview, providing questions in advance, and active and non-judgemental listening.

The session ended with a reminder from Ganesh, an IIT Madras student. He said, “After the Mathura rape case, there was a reversal in the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ principle. Now, if a complainant accuses a person of such crime, it is on the accused to prove himself innocent.”

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