Chennai’s Tambaram railway station, one of the busiest junctions in Tamil Nadu, was in the news recently after a youngster stabbed a college girl to death on September 23. During the initial investigation, the police said the assailant, G Ramachandran, became acquainted with the victim, M Swetha, while commuting on a suburban train three years ago.
Ramachandran and Swetha continued to keep in touch over the phone, the police said. After they had “fallen out”, , they met up to “sort things out”. “While Ramachandran was keen on a patch-up,” the report said, “Shwetha preferred to break up with him as she was upset that he was suspicious about her (sic).”
When asked about Ramachandran’s motive, Ram Prasad, the head constable at Selaiyur police station, told Newslaundry, “Swetha did not respond to his calls; she also stopped meeting him.”
Even before the police completed their investigation, some Tamil news channels decided to analyse the ins and outs of the crime.
Polimer News used heart graphics, scare music, and reenactments to explain the “romantic relationship” between the two. The , which has over 4.4 lakh views, also ended with a moral: “This disaster is an example of what happens to girls if they don’t choose their partners carefully.”
While the editor of Polimer News, Dinesh Kumar, could not be reached for comment, a reporter with the channel said there is a “perpetual need to sensationalise news” in Polimer’s newsroom. “Reporters on the field are asked to get visuals of the dead and of wailing family members,” the reporter added.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite campaigns by activists against sensationalising cases of violence against women, Tamil news channels and newspapers tend to go in that direction, often at the cost of basic principles of reporting.
Two years ago, for instance, a woman journalist and her friend were sexually assaulted by three men at Chennai’s Marina beach. Tamil newspaper Dinamalar identified the two women, though they did not want their identities revealed.
“I was shocked to see my name, age and place of residence in the paper,” the journalist told Newslaundry. “We put on a brave face and dealt with the aftermath of the assault without shedding a tear. But the article ripped our honour by stating that we were sobbing on the beach.” The Chennai chapter of the Network of Women in Media, India, or NWMI, sent a letter to Dinamalar’s editorial department and the newspaper later apologised.
The vernacular media also often broadcasts gory visuals of crimes accompanied by moral policing and sensationalism. Phrases like kalla kadhal (a derogatory term for an “illicit” relationship) and sabala budhi, which loosely means a mind that’s easily prone to temptation, are commonly used.
Reports on crimes against children follow the same pattern. In the 2017 rape and murder of a seven-year-old child in Chennai’s Mugalivakkam, Tamil media houses like Thanthi TV, Vikatan TV and Dinathanthi identified the child – as did English newspapers like the New Indian Express and Times of India – in complete violation of the . The act clearly states: “No reports in any media shall disclose the identity of a child including his name, address, photograph, family details, school, neighbourhood or any other particulars which may lead to disclosure of identity of the child.”
Channels like Polimer and others even blamed the child’s mother for being “irresponsible”.
“The media plays a role in shaping the perspective of citizens,” the child’s father told Newslaundry. “So, when most Tamil channels blamed my wife for being irresponsible, a lot of our acquaintances agreed with the notion.”
In the , where a 11-year-old girl was gangraped by 17 men over six months, some channels revealed the child’s place of residence and criticised her mother for not finding out about the incident earlier.
“The portrayal affected the family so much,” said V Kannadasan, a senior advocate who represented the child. “Neighbours no longer let their kids play with the survivor. The mother was in depression.”
Four days after the Delhi gangrape in December 2012, a 13-year-old girl from Thoothukudi district was raped and murdered. Yet again, regional news channels broadcast the name of the child. As , news channels even published images of the victim “as a dead body with her tattered clothes on”.
The editor-in-chief of a leading Tamil news channel said the “general public’s interest” in such coverage is a “significant reason for news organisations to play up these incidents for higher TRPs”. But, the editor added, “the media being the fourth estate should resort to responsible reporting”.
But few cases, if any, are registered against media channels in Tamil Nadu for breaking the law and disclosing identities, or for defaming victims and survivors. “The lack of awareness among the families of victims is one reason,” said Kannadasan. “Secondly, they find it financially and emotionally draining to fight two legal battles.”
Fighting back tears, the child’s father in the Mugalivakkam case told Newslaundry, “The media’s false accusations didn’t matter much to me when compared to the loss of my child.”
The ideal way
Instead of focusing on salacious details and victim blaming – what was a rape victim wearing, why didn’t the victim’s mother do more, why did the victim choose the wrong man – media organisations need to spotlight systemic issues. Organisations like the National Human Rights Commission and the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre also have and for reporting on cases.
“Reportage should focus on systemic issues such as the plight of survivors, access to legal help, and assess their social ecosystem. Responsible reporting should shed light on underreporting of cases and root causes of fake cases,” said Tara Krishnaswamy, the cofounder of Shakti, a group of nonpartisan women dedicated to electing more women to state assemblies and Parliament. Krishnaswamy also worked with the Justice Verma committee for amendments to India’s rape law.
The news channel’s editor-in-chief emphasised the need to educate journalists. “A clear understanding of the issue on the ground and an unbiased perspective is important for journalists,” they said. “But it is a huge expectation from an amateur reporter working with no training on gender sensitivity.”
More women in newsrooms will contribute to better reporting on violence against women. Krishnaswamy also recommended quarterly workshops on “sensitive and responsible reporting of violence against women and children”.
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