How to report rape, and how not to report it as well

Sameera Khan, journalist, communications teacher and Friend of Prajnya, has written this piece for the TV show ‘Satyameva Jayate’ on how to report rape. We copy and paste it here for wider access, but the original is posted here.  Do visit this infographic for an illustration on how not to report–it’s very good. And you can watch Sameera here.


How to sensitively report rape and sexual assault

What journalists write and broadcast in the media impacts the general public’s understanding of rape and sexual assault. Therefore, it is crucial that the reportage be done in a manner that protects the identity of the survivor, gives out accurate facts, and treats the incident with sensitivity. Here are a few guidelines that we have prepared in consultation with journalist and writer Sameera Khan.

Choose your words carefully

  • The use of ‘survivor of sexual assault’ is favoured over ‘victim’.
  • Don’t make the act seem less grave by using ‘had sex with’ instead of ‘raped’, or ‘fondled’ instead of ‘molested’.
  • Don’t lead the reader towards making assumptions about the survivor by using adjectives like ‘pitiful’ and ‘helpless’.
  • Get the facts of the case right—don’t refer to the ‘accused’ as the ‘convicted’ or vice-versa. This could affect the case adversely.

Choose your writing style carefully

  • Reporting on rape and sexual assault calls for the use of the active voice.
  • Say that ‘XYZ raped her’ or ‘XYZ assaulted her’ instead of saying ‘She was raped’ or ‘She was assaulted’.
  • Shift the focus to the accused instead of the survivor.

Choose your tone carefully

  • Do not speak to the survivor, her family or the general public in a moralizing tone.
  • Do not use lines such as ‘Women should only wear saris, says a city official’ and ‘Women should not go out after 8 pm, says a local politician’ matter-of-factly. Views such as these must be questioned.
  • Journalists should abstain from providing an opinion about the survivor based on where the incident took place (for e.g., a bar), what the survivor was wearing at the time, or what time of the day it was.

Choose the details you need to disclose

  • The survivor’s name, address and details about her family should never be disclosed.
  • No indirect mention should be made that might reveal the identity of the survivor. The colour of her hair, the places she frequents, the area she lives in, the vehicle she rides, the number of siblings she has, whether she has a boyfriend or not—all of these are just a few examples and such details in a report are absolutely irrelevant and unnecessary.
  • No details about the family of the accused should be shared if they are not relevant to the investigation.

Choose and treat your sources with caution and quote them carefully

  • Do not write a story from the perspective of a single source.
  • When looking for quotes, speak only with those experts who are qualified to comment on the subject.
  • Ask the police to substantiate the charges against the accused instead of quoting lines from a conversation with a police officer.
  • Do not assume what your sources feel or would want to say. Do not carry lines such as ‘We can assume the police are in a tight spot’ or ‘It can be said the doctors need some more time to comment on the incident’.

Choose the focus of your story

  • A few days after the incident, focus on the bigger picture with follow-up stories, though with due sensitivity.
  • If an incident happens in the morning or the afternoon, comment on how sexual violence is not limited to a particular time instead of commenting on what the survivor or accused was doing at that time.
  • If an incident happens in a public place, comment on increasing the safety of citizens in public places instead of commenting on what the survivor was doing there.
  • Do not feed public fears and myths. Instead, provide the general public a lens with which it can see the larger picture and the seriousness of the crime.

Understand the need for confidentiality and privacy

  • Disclosing only necessary details helps protect the survivor’s, witnesses’ and their family’s identity.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, harass the survivor, witness or their families with repeated phone calls or visits to their homes without their consent.
  • If a journalist discloses the identity of the survivor in any manner, he or she can be jailed for a period of 2 years and fined.
  • The Press Council of India or News Broadcasters Association can also take action against the journalist.

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“..treat your sources like humans…” and other tips for reporting sexual violence carries a post linking to two others that discuss how to report gender violence.

Jessica Valenti, How to Write About Rape: Rules for Journalists, The Nation, October 25, 2013.

“—When an adult is charged with assaulting a minor or someone is someone is accused of assaulting an unconscious person, don’t refer to the crime as “sex with a child” or “sex with an unconscious person.” Call it rape—because that’s what it is . . .

—If you find yourself writing or editing a sentence that describes what a rape victim wore, the kind of makeup she had on or that she acted “older than her age” (I’m looking at you, New York Times)—stop it . . .

—If the victim you are reporting about comes from a marginalized community—if they are queer, trans, poor, disabled, an immigrant, a person of color or a sex worker—take extra care that the pernicious stereotypes that surround that community do not impact your piece . . .

—If you run a story exploring the reasons why rape happens, focus on the perpetrator, not the victim’s behavior. Because despite what Emily Yoffe writes, the common denominator in most rapes is not young women drinking, the common denominator is rapists.”

Annie Clark, “Did Your Blood Splatter or Pour?” and Other Media Mistakes: Interviewing a Survivor of Sexual Assault, Huff Post College, September 26, 2013.

“First piece of advice: If you want to report on human-interest stories, at least can treat your sources like humans…

1. Do your homework…

2. If you get past those initial 30 seconds (congrats!), make your source comfortable by stating that the individual can share as much or as little information the individual wants…

3. Use some old-fashioned common sense…

4. Do not blame the victim. Ever. Period. If you don’t know what victim blaming is, please see #1.

5. With phone interviews, do not call any survivor ten, hell three, times or more in an hour. Ditto with Facebooking, texting, tweeting and emailing. That’s called cyber-stalking.

6. With live or in-person interviews, please be respectful of the fact that your sources are people (and often they are students) first…

7. Be respectful and knowledgeable of the time zone in which your source is located…

8. Pay attention to the story the survivor wants told and take that framing into consideration…  at the end of the day while these are your articles, these are our stories. (emphasis added).

9. Do not over-sensationalize…

10. Do not expect people to cry or to be a “poor victim.””

I’ve posted extracts because I think this information is really important. Please link to and read the original posts if your Internet connection permits.

Post-script: Another useful resource, this time related to video interviews by Conducting Safe, Effective and Ethical Interviews with Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. This is based on two decades of training on best practices.

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NWMI on sensitising media professionals to gender issues

The Network of Women in Media, India, has identified areas of concern and challenges faced by journalists covering sensitive issues.

NWMI submission to Press Council committee inquiring into the rape of woman journalist

 “NWM, Mumbai, facilitated a discussion amongst women journalists as well as male and female photojournalists in Mumbai on August 24, 2013. The meeting discussed issues related to the safety of journalists, the difficulties faced by journalists, especially freelancers, in access and permissions for stories and assignments, the ethical transgressions in coverage of sensitive issues and the need for greater gender sensitisation and training of media professionals on gender-sensitive reporting. The meeting identified specific issues that cause particular concern.”

The issues include:

  1. Media coverage of gender issues, in particular sexual assault/rape
  2. Safety on the job: The need for training modules for journalists/photographers
  3. Harassment by policemen and private security personnel
  4. Gender sensitisation within media organisations
  5. Voluntary mentorship programme

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Media debate: Should the identity of rape victims be revealed?

On September 2, 2013, Bachi Karkaria wrote:

“My suggestion, offered with the utmost sensitivity, is this: reveal your identity and help cast aside the veil of misplaced disgrace. Follow the example of the spunky Shakti Mills girl who walked out of hospital with her face uncovered, though her family had taken the precaution of ensuring that the media was informed of her discharge a day later…

The purdah of anonymity is the accessory of disgrace. Jyoti Singh Pandey`s family went public with her real name after she passed away, thus restoring to `Nirbhaya` her identity as much as the admiration which a shamed country had bestowed on her. Our plucky Shakti Mills girl had declared from hospital itself that ‘rape is not the end of life’. We should help her grab hers back openly — not push her into a space more abandoned than the venue of her violation.”

Bachi Karkaria, Don’t make her lose her face, Times of India, September 2, 2013.

In response, Laxmi Murty has written in The Hoot:

In June this year, Suzette Jordan, 38, shed the title “Park Street case” and courageously claimed her identity as a woman who had been raped but was not willing to remain a victim. This process of “coming out” took place almost a year and a half after she had been gang-raped in a moving car in Park Street, Kolkata. She joins the ranks of feisty women like Bhanwari Devi, Suman Rani, Bilkis Banu and Soni Sori, who have been subjected to rape and sexual violence but are determined to break the silence and fight back. With the support of the women’s movement and civil rights activists who have stuck by them, these women chose to challenge the stigma of rape and have gone on to become the “face” of campaigns to end sexual violence against women.

In her disingenuous editorial page comment in the Times of India on 3 September, “Don’t make her lose face” Bachi Karkaria exhorts women who have been raped: “reveal your identity and help cast aside the veil of misplaced disgrace.” Ms Karkaria adds to the victim blaming by declaring: “It’s time the raped woman stopped allowing us to add insult to her physical and mental injury by doubly burdening her with shame.” It is cruel to even suggest that a raped woman has a choice in being further burdened with shame, when shame and stigma are societal burdens thrust upon her without her consent. The veil of shame around rape and other forms of sexual violence were not created by women, but by a culture that valorises sexual purity and celebrates violent masculinity as the norm.
A victim is “one who is harmed or injured”, and all women who have been subjected to sexual violence are victims of crime. However, it is on the strength of their tenacity and grit; with the continued support of family and friends and women’s organisations; with legal redress and access to justice that many victims are able to become survivors. Transformation cannot occur with replacing a term as Ms Karkaria seems to suggest – there needs to be not only a change in mind-sets, but in support structures for victims to challenge impunity. Merely by employing the term ‘survivor’ instead of ‘victim’, while encouraging reporters to go forth and rake in lascivious details of the acts of sexual violence, extent of injuries or medication being prescribed, the media is not doing a public service or furthering the ends of justice for the victim. Ms Karkaria’s post-facto justification of the TOI’s deplorable coverage by conveniently employing feminist metaphors rings rather hollow. In fact, it is the “card carrying feminists” she derides who have been consistently spearheading campaigns to end sexual violence, through street protests, advocacy and law reform, and ending stigma around rape has been one of the fulcrums of these campaigns.
Undoubtedly, the strictures – both legal and in media ethics – against revealing the name or any identifying details of those who have been subjected to rape or other forms of sexual violence emanate from notions of honour and shame not only of the individual woman but also of the family and community. Stigma is also linked with the loss of virginity and the high premium in Indian society placed on this tiny membrane. However, they also emanate, it must be remembered, from notions of privacy and confidentiality and the creation of a space to heal with dignity, free from the label of “rape victim”. Victims of violent crimes deserve to be allowed to recuperate in every way possible – medical, emotional, psychological and at their workplace. They need to be left in peace, to recover from trauma – both of the rape itself, and the difficult journey to give evidence and stand witness. This is simply not possible with a prying media trying to lap up any tiny detail that would give a new angle to their stories. The media must also be alert to instances where their zeal to outwit their competitors and publish details, such as photographs and statements, or broadcast on-camera testimonies could in fact prejudice the legal case.
Cases of child victims require all the more sensitive handling, as they are in no position to intervene in matters of the media or the criminal justice system. Some issues have special implications when it comes to children. For example, in cases of incest, naming the alleged perpetrator almost directly reveals the identity of the child. While saying that the perpetrators must be named and shamed, in these cases, women’s organisations have had to review their strategies of public pressure on high-profile child abusers, as the publicity could back-fire on the abused child, severely impeding her or his road to recovery and rehabilitation.
Currently, there is a well-defined legal position on the question of disclosing the identity of victims of sexual crimes. According to Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, “Whoever prints or publishes the name or any matter which may make known the identity of any person against whom an offence under section 376, section 376A, section 376B, section 376C or section 376D is alleged or found to have been committed (hereafter in this section referred to as the victim) shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years and shall also be liable to fine.” Thus, the IPC prohibits the disclosure, not only of the victim’s name, but also of facts that could lead to the identification of the victim, such as the place of residence, identifying or naming the victim’s family or friends, university, or work details. This covers dead, minor victims and those with unstable minds. Even if the name is to be disclosed for welfare or legal reasons, this must be done in writing, only to the appropriate government authority, which does not include the media. The only exceptions are when identities are revealed to the police, or by, or with the authorisation in writing of, the victim; or where the victim is dead or minor or of unsound mind, by, or with the authorisation in writing of, the next- of- kin of the victim. One newspaper, The Hindu, desisted from publishing the name of the young woman who was gang-raped in Delhi in December, even though other publications had begun publishing her name after her father revealed her identity and also expressed the family’s desire to have the new law on sexual offences to be named after her. They did not have the written permission from her next-of-kin, said a statement by the editor.
Court proceedings also fall under the protection of the law in terms of identity disclosure. The same section says, “Whoever prints or publishes any matter in relation to any proceeding before a court with respect to an offence referred to in sub- section (1) [i.e. sexual crimes] without the previous permission of such court shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years and shall also be liable to fine.”  The printing or publication of the judgment of any High Court or the Supreme Court however does not amount to an offence within the meaning of this section.
Clearly, several publications have violated the law of the land by publishing identifying markers of the survivor of the Shakti Mills incident, and it is equally evident that these details did not drop into their laps by chance. Reporters were let loose to aggressively seek out anyone willing (or even not so willing) to talk and extract information in desperate attempts at one-upmanship. Why else would reporters swoop down on the locality where the young woman lives and speak to her neighbours or security guards? Why else would they climb on to the window of her hospital room? The larger back-drop of the race for TRPs and the market-driven news industry cannot be ignored while commenting on the flouting of law or lack of media ethics, since the Norms of Journalistic Conduct issued by the Press Council of India (2010) are also unequivocal on the issue of revealing identity. With such clear laws and guidelines in place, media houses must be held accountable for any violations, no matter what their purported motive.
Names are emotive, and undoubtedly laden with potential for compassion and action. It is not surprising that the unknown physio-therapy student, whose rape and murder in Delhi last December prompted large-scale agitations, soon was given names – even the pseudonyms ‘Nirbhaya’ and ‘Damini’ became symbols of protest. Yet, the process of privacy and disclosure is complex and must not be reduced to a binary of brave vs cowardly. Often, the drive for justice obviates concerns of privacy, especially in rural settings or close communities where privacy is at premium. Bhanwari Devi for example, has continued to live in the village where she was gang-raped by upper caste men more than 20 years ago. She does not have the luxury of confidentiality, as she was boycotted by her own community for daring to fight the case, and even single trip she made for a court hearing was open knowledge and the subject of taunting.
When and how a woman chooses to reveal her identity is a product of complex factors. Revealing her own identity can be an empowering process and one that contributes to furthering justice and ending impunity of perpetrators. It takes immense courage to stand up and fight, but the decision must remain hers, not the media’s.
Laxmi Murthy, Rape victim’s identity: Disclosure for whom? The Hoot, September 4, 2013.
(The article is copy-posted here as a “mirror” and not a way to take away credit from The Hoot. This blog is intended to be a resource for journalists covering sexual and gender-based violence.)

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“Foot-in-mouth” rape reportage, Mumbai, August 2013

Kalpana Sharma critiques reportage on the Mumbai gang-rape case, listing several “don’ts” that have been “done”:

“…you only have to look at the coverage of the gang-rape in Mumbai’s English newspapers. On day one, that is August 23, all papers carried front-page stories about the incident. Of the papers this writer surveyed, none gave out the name of the publication for which the journalist worked, but all mentioned “photojournalist” or “photography intern”, thereby narrowing the field. TOI mentioned “lifestyle magazine”, narrowing the field even further. Two newspapers, Afternoon and Dispatch Courier and Free Press Journal, gave out the name of the publication for which the journalist worked. (However, when alerted to this, both editors responded speedily and removed the name of the publication from their web editions)

Why is any of this relevant? Because when covering rape and sexual assault, it is incumbent that the media ensures that no personal details of the survivor are made public unless she chooses to reveal them. Hints such as the name or type of publication in this instance, or the organisation with which a survivor works, or where she lives, or the names of her parents, her siblings, her best friends etc are exactly the kind of details that ought not to be in the public realm.”

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NWMI statement on reporting of West Bengal gang-rape, June 14, 2013

(This Network of Women in Media statement analyses the problems with the reporting in detail, and as such offers a lesson in what to do and what not to do. It is therefore, being cross-posted here.)

NWMI condemns insensitive media coverage of gang rape victim in West Bengal, June 14, 2013

The Network of Women in Media, India, an independent forum of media professionals across the country, condemns the recent insensitive media representation of the 20-year-old college student at Barasat, West Bengal, who was recently gang-raped and violently murdered. In papers such as The Telegraph, Protidin and several other newspapers/channels, the victim’s name and her family’s have been freely used. More shockingly, Bangla newspaper Aajkaal  printed not only the victim’s name but also her photo on its front page.

The victim, a 20-year-old college girl, was gangraped and murdered on her way home from college on Friday, June 7, 2013 around 2 pm. Aajkaal printed her photo with related news on June 9.

Publishing her name is a clear violation of the Supreme Court’s order that the identity of a rape victim cannot be disclosed. Such disclosure is prohibited under Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, as well as the Norms of Journalistic Conduct issued by the Press Council of India (2010). Under the IPC, revealing the identity of a rape victim is punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years and shall also be liable to fine.

Section 228 (A to D) of the Indian Penal Code prohibits the disclosure not only of the victim’s name but also of facts that could lead to the identification of the victim, such as the victim’s place of residence, family or friends, university, or work details. This covers victims who are dead, minors and or have “unstable minds”. Even if the name is to be disclosed for welfare or legal reasons, this must be done in writing, only to the appropriate government authority, which does not include the media.

The reasoning for not disclosing the name of a rape victim is that such disclosure would invade the privacy of the victim and may render her open to further harassment and/or indignity. Revealing the identity of a rape victim could also make her (or her family in case she has not survived) vulnerable to pressure to drop the case.

In a context where the incidence of violence against women in West Bengal (and elsewhere) is rising, it is of grave concern that the media is flouting the law of the land as well as norms of ethics laid down by the PCI.

We demand:

1. Immediate pixellation and removal of all identifiers of the rape victim on online portals and the newspapers’ websites.
2. Issuance of a written apology in the newspapers, including their websites.
3. Institution of mechanisms for ensuring increased gender sensitivity while reporting cases of sexual violence. These measures could include, among others: on-the-job training, workshops, and evolving in-house norms for covering gender-based violence.


Manjira Majumdar, Kolkata
Rajashri Dasgupta, Kolkata
Ranjita Biswas, Kolkata
Anju Munshi, Kolkata
Rina Mukherji, Kolkata
Ammu Joseph, Bangalore
Laxmi Murthy, Bangalore
Gita Aravamudan, Bangalore
Kavin Malar, Chennai
Kavitha Muralidharan, Chennai
Nithila Kanagasabai, Chennai
Jency Samuel, Chennai
R Akhileshwari, Hyderabad
Sandhya Srinivasan, Mumbai
Jyoti Punwani, Mumbai
Geeta Seshu, Mumbai
Kamayani Bali Mahabal, Mumbai
Kalpana Sharma, Mumbai
Sandhya Taksale, Pune
Linda Chhakchhuak, Shillong
[On behalf of the Network of Women in Media, India]

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On reporting rape

On Dec 4, a partially visually impaired nine-year-old girl was allegedly raped by a former neighbour. Hindustan Times carried a detailed report about how it happened, the filing of the police complaint and the subsequent arrest of the neighbour —

In the Times of India report, a single column story, the headline was: Blind girl ‘raped’  —

The report goes on to give the same details as the HT story. Why then has the word rape in the headline been put in single quotes? There seems to be no doubt about the case, at least in the way it was reported: the victim identified the perpetrator, he was arrested and a case registered. TOI doesn’t make a practice of this — on Dec 6, they carried a story of a Rwandan woman raped with the headline: Rwandan woman gang-raped near DU.

The use of single quotes here, feels like the report is calling into question the veracity of the crime, and perhaps making it seem like less than it was.

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Cop shot dead trying to protect daughter

On December 5, Hindustan Times carried a report about a Punjabi sub-inspector of police who was shot dead by three men when he confronted them about harassing his daughter. The report in the paper — talks about how no help arrived despite his daughter, who also sustained injuries, as well as locals raising an alarm and calling the police.

In a commendable series of stories following the incident, HT followed this up the next day, with a front page report on the arrest of three men, including an Akali Dal general secretary. The report also mentioned the suspension of the local station house officer —

On the same day, the paper carried an editorial, ‘No country for women’ ( which talks about how ‘eve-teasing’ is a euphemism for public sexual harassment, and is often considered a ‘soft crime’ and brushed under the carpet.

The editorial ties in very well with another report on the same day (, that said the local police had not taken any action on the sexual harassment complaint the girl had lodged with them. Not just that, they had not turned up despite repeated calls by frantic locals, giving the men a chance to come back again with a rifle and shoot the police officer in the chest. The report quotes locals as well as the girl and her mother. The last quote by the daughter, where she says she wants to shoot her father’s killer however, could have been avoided.

The online version of the first report though (, consistently uses the word ‘tease’ rather than ‘harass’ (she was stalked and several lewd comments were passed over the course of several days), which detracts from the serious nature of the crime.

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Looking beyond an acid attack

On November 30, 2012 The New Indian Express carried a story “Acid attack victim may never see light” about Vinodhini, the young woman who had been attacked by a stalker in Karaikudi. Times of India reported the same story that day, but as it has done throughout its reporting on this case, used Vinodhini’s condition as a peg to explore other issues. In this case, “Rehabilitation often eludes victims of acid attacks” explored the long-term effects of such attacks, the way it scars the victim’s lives in more ways than one and raises the important issue of rehabilitation for the victims of such attacks. This is commendable as while updating the readers on Vinodhini’s case is important, it is equally important to report on as many aspects of such a case as possible.

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Sexual abuse means what?

This December 5 report from the Times of India (“Sodomized, boy attempts to kill himself“) is a perfect example of the media not being sure of how to describe sexual abuse. This single column story describes what happened to the boy as sodomy (only in the headline), sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse (“They used to take him to the school bathroom to sexually abuse him…”). The problem with using the last three phrases interchangeably is that they all lose their meaning. In assuming they all mean the same thing, we have ensured they mean nothing. Sodomy is the closest thing we have to a description of what actually happened to the child. Unless we use the exact words describing what exactly happened to a child being sexually abused, we will never adequately express the horror and trauma of child sexual abuse.

A report that appeared on December 4, 2012 in The New Indian Express has a similar problem. In “3 hostel workers axed for torturing girls“, the phrase used is “torture. However, in this case, the report goes on to explain that the children were “tortured” by being asked to “remove their dresses”.

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