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More examples of how not to cover sexual assault

The Ladies Finger has published a critical review of the reportage surrounding the sexual assault of an actor in Kerala–the same one that Dhanya Rajendran’s comment refers to. Read the full article for an explanation of exactly what has gone wrong in the way the incident has been covered. An extract is given below.

Ila Ananya, The Public Response to the Sexual Assault of a Malayali Actor Has been Batshit, The Ladies Finger, February 21, 2017. (full article)

Ever since news of a Malayalam actor being abducted and sexually assaulted on Friday, 17th February broke, there have been a flurry of news reports, each trying to outdo the other with information on the case. So far, we know the basic details of the case — that the actor was on her way home at night in Kochi after a shoot when the men got into her car and sexually assaulted her, and that they took photos of her as way of blackmail. Reportedly, one of the accused used to work as her driver (and has a criminal record). He then got her present driver, who is also accused in the case, the job. This was followed by reports stating that of the seven accused, three have been arrested, and now, the three men have sought anticipatory bail in the Kerala High Court.

Over the last four days, things have become more complicated (there have even been reports doing the rounds that people who are a part of the Kerala film industry might just have a role to play). But in a hurry to report what has become ‘sensational’ news about an actor, the media seems to have forgotten the basic rules involved in reporting cases of sexual assault. There are two aspects to the media frenzy over this case — apart from gross sensationalising of the news, first few reports only reported abduction, which is why the actor was named in these reports. Soon after, other reports began to note that the FIR has been lodged under various sections of the IPC, including 376 (rape), 366 (kidnapping) and 506 (criminal intimidation). The rules here are honestly not so hard to forget: No name, no photos, and no clues to identify the victim.

Is it because the case involves an actor that these rules have been broken time and again? Or because it’s the sense that their story is just one among a whole bunch of similar stories being published online? But four days after the incident, the rules are still being broken — if the report doesn’t have her name, this ‘missing’ piece of information is ‘balanced’ out by adding her photo to it. Others didn’t name the actor or carry her photos, but named every movie she acted in, and if they changed their headlines, the actor’s name remained in their URL.

…After so many years and so many similar incidents, the media has still not learnt to report women’s issues responsibly. Perhaps, there is a need to slow down and relook the questions we ask and discuss. As Rajendran writes, “Let’s not be a vulture for details.”

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What do we really need to know?

Dhanya Rajendran of The News Minute posted this online. With her permission, we are cross-posting most of her note, with a link to the original. She raises important questions about how much we need to know in the interests of justice, and where our interest crosses over into idle and hurtful curiosity.

Enough is enough! 

by Dhanya Rajendran

Been reading a lot of posts after the sexual assault and murder of a child in Chennai and the actor’s abduction and case of rape in Kochi…

Questions are being asked about why media splashed the actor’s name and details. I agree. Why could most of these journalists not have asked a simple question to the police: ‘What are the sections? Can we use her name?’. They would have got the answer ‘No’ from the investigators. ( But the cops did give her name away and not the IPC sections. So maybe initially some journos did not know how grave it was). To continue with mentioning her name is highly unethical.

But the same question should be asked to the public too. Over the past few weeks, I have seen many hashtags and people sharing pictures of three minor victims in Tamil Nadu. The Ariyalur gangrape victim, the 7-year-old sexually assaulted and killed by a neighbor in Chennai and now the latest victim, a 3-year old allegedly killed by a woman neighbor.

When I started out as a journalist with Times Now, I remember an air hostess had been killed by her boyfriend and he later committed suicide. My office wanted me to get her parents’ reaction, and I said no.

I was high on ethics and I refused. But soon, work compulsions made me another kind of journalist. I would compulsively dig out details of crimes. Though my intention was always to get the culprit booked, the means to achieve that goal were questionable.

After around 6 years in Times Now, I covered a big case in Bangalore. A man with considerable influence was accused of raping his daughter. Though the police knew where he was, they could not arrest him. Many of us were following the story like crazy. As we dug out detail after detail about the case, there was also an element of competition amongst reporters on who will nail the guy with ‘hard facts’.

Two prominent newspapers then got the child’s medical record, I too did. They splashed it on the front page. TV channels of course would not mention graphic stuff on their tickers, so we were a bit restrained. I called the man’s wife (the complainant) and told her that she can be relieved now as the medical report was out and there was no way her husband could escape.

Her reply is still etched in my brain.

She asked me.”What use is it of, Dhanya? Why should the world know what exactly happened to her? And there is Google.Google will never allow my child to forget that her vagina and anus were injured.”

And then it struck me. In our pursuit to assist in the case, in our pursuit to make sure culprits are caught, we forget the victim, the survivor or their family.

Why should we know the sordid details of a crime? Why should we know who did exactly what?

Does the fact that a 7 year old was sexually assaulted and killed by a neighbour not outrage you? Why should you or I know HOW he assaulted her?

Does the fact that a three-year-old was killed by a neighbour and dumped in a garbage van not outrage you? Do you need to SEE pictures of that hapless child’s dead body to make you feel real outrage?

Does the fact that a young actor whose smiles have made us all happy was taken around in a car and assaulted not outrage you? Why should we be told what EXACTLY was done to her?

Yes, some cases get more highlighted than others. It depends on the place, time and the news cycle, unfortunately.

But let’s not be vultures for details. All of us.

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A year later

We started out with good intentions and grand plans but didn’t do too much work on this blog. I’ll now be trying to correct that. And just to get things going, here’s the link to some news that got me re-started really —

In case the page refreshes, this was the text around midnight on January 25, 2012:
Gender ratio in Delhi not healthy: CM PTI | 5 hrs ago | Admitting that the skewed child sex ratio in Delhi was a matter of concern, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit today said the government has initiated a range of welfare measures to improve the gender disparity.
Nine-yr-old girl ‘gang-raped’ in Cuttack TNN | 18 hrs ago | Yet another case of alleged rape has surfaced in the state, this time the victim is a nine-year-old girl from Bhadrak.
Kidnapped girl has miraculous escape  TNN | 56 min ago | An 11-year-old girl had a miraculous escape on Tuesday when she was kidnapped by two unidentified persons, who later abandoned her near railway tracks.

Three stories relating to women/girls on the landing page when you click on the ‘City’ tab on TOI’s homepage. Would that be something the internet editor chose to hightlight? Why? One relating to policy, one a serious crime and the third another crime, though somewhat odd. Do more people read about women? Did those stories just get the attention of the person whose job it is to chose the reports to highlight?

The Sheila Dixit story is a regular policy story, reported exactly as she must have spoken of it and butressed with facts and figures that can easily be found in the census report summary. It’s straight reportage and clearly written. But the comments from readers at the end are rather interesting. They touch on everything from the need for such welfare measures and lack of safety in Delhi to dowry harassment and divorce to abortion. (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/Gender-ratio-in-Delhi-not-healthy-matter-of-concern-Sheila-Dikshit/articleshow/11617041.cms)

The next link leads to the brutal gang rape of a child. It’s a very badly written story though the horror and gravity of the crime comes through. It refers to “another” child rape but provides no information on when or where the previous case was reported. For someone happening upon just this story it’s a bit puzzling. How many other similar cases were there? The report mentions that the police were informed, but was a case filed, an investigation begun? It quotes only a doctor, not the police. It’s a story full of holes but the comments run on and on. Some, as always, are rants and arguments. (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bhubaneswar/Nine-year-old-girl-gang-raped/articleshow/11610237.cms)

The third story is fairly clear though it is rather ambigious about why the child might have been abandoned. Is it a tale made up by the child, was she really abducted, we don’t know but it’s probably been written as well as a reporter on the beat could have with the  information s/he got. Not too many comments on this one, but a reference to sex trade. (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/vadodara/Kidnapped-girl-has-miraculous-escape/articleshow/11619886.cms)

 What I found interesting about these stories is really the comments. Stories on women and girls — especially relating to violence — seem to get people riled up enough to take nasty cracks at each other, comment freely and randomly and even make some good points along the way. The nature of commenting on the internet is that you get a lot of strange as well as sensible stuff. (One could quite reasonably say that this whole post is a lot of pointless postulating, but that’s a whole other subject.) The good thing, I like to think, is there seems to be a great deal of interest on gender issues and inequality, and people have an opinion on it. Whether the interest leads to doing more research and reading, and whether the knowledge is accurate are completely different questions. Interest is a good starting point, don’t you think?

Postscript: Four hours after I’d first seen the page, done a whole lot of other reading, written this and returned to it, the top stories on that page were the same.

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