Media's reluctance and inability to question police versions affect reporting, finds survey

A report commissioned by Population First, UNFPA and the Royal Norwegian Embassy comment on the Indian media's skewed coverage of rape cases and the trend to sensationalise

Representative image
Representative image

Santoshee Gulabkali Mishra

An ignorance of the newer laws and developments in forensic medicine continue to mark Indian media’s coverage of rape, reveals a report released in Mumbai in May.

The report, commissioned by Population First, UNFPA and the Royal Norwegian Embassy was conducted by Dr. Sweta Singh Assistant Professor, Guru Govind Singh, Indraprastha University, and Sameera Khan, a journalist from Mumbai. The report, ‘Gender Sensitivity and Coverage of Rape in Indian Media- Ten Years After Nirbhaya’ monitored 200 reports in 41 publications, of which 117 were in English and 83 in regional languages.

Five cases were studied in detail, namely Shakti Mills case (2013), Jisha case (2016), Kushmandi case (2018), Hathras case (2020) and the IIT-G case (2021). Three additional cases – Kokrajhar (2015), Sakinaka (2021) and Kopardi (2016) – were also studied in order to collect a wider perspective.

Eight parameters viz. language, sources, legal/medical/ forensic information, privacy, morality, sensationalism, intersectionality and gender justice were taken into consideration while analysing the reports.

One of the key findings was the reluctance of journalists to question the police. In the Hathras case the police denied the charge of rape on the basis of a medical/forensic examination conducted after the lapse of several days. Neither the delay nor the new law which does not require medico-forensic examination alone to corroborate rape were questioned by most of the reports.

Another finding suggested that more brutal the rape and the more visible the physical injuries of the victim, wider was the coverage.

While the language in reporting rape has improved and become more gender sensitive, the study found use of stereotypes, breaches of privacy, inadequate references and a singular lack of diversity in sourcing information. Inability to cross question the police and critiquing the police version was apparently glaring.

Both Sameera Khan and Shweta Singh recommended that reporting rape required continued training, sensitisation and skill upgradation of journalists and editors in covering gender-based violence.

The study noted that the regional media often reflected deeply entrenched patriarchal and upper-caste biases. The study recommends developing an updated guide to help journalists navigate the complexities of covering rape and sexual assault.

“The Nirbhaya case in 2012 took the country by storm. A huge public furore followed the reportage of the case in the media. Guidelines were put in place by various authorities to ensure greater sensitivity while reporting on sexual assault cases,” noted Dr. A.L. Sharada, Director, Population First while explaining why the Nirbhaya case was taken as a benchmark.

“Given media’s reach and influence, they have the potential to be a strong ally in amplifying the voices of women and girls, and support them in upholding their rights, while challenging gender stereotypes,” asserted Andrea Wojnar, Country Representative of UNFPA in India.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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