I Think: Media and law enforcement need each other

Nisha Narayanan, content marketing specialist, Bangalore

Photo courtesy: Nisha Narayanan

I am a Keralite but I’ve lived all over India, as well as in the USA and Japan. I have been a news junkie all my life, but I’ve started noticing more stories on sexual violence relatively recently, possibly after the Nirbhaya gang-rape and murder case.

One thing I noticed in India was that many publications still use the word ‘victim’ rather than ‘survivor’. That’s one thing that struck me after reading stuff in the US. The Hindu seems to have changed its policy though. Also, ‘rape’ is used more often than ‘sexual assault’, unlike the US.

In the USA, you don’t see the kind of imagery that goes into news here. Most publications, except The Hindu, generally tend to show a cowering girl in a corner with an aggressive-looking guy in the shadows in the front. The focus is always on the survivor when it should be on the perpetrator. You should make the perpetrator look bad, show him looking predatory. Or don’t have a photo at all. It almost looks like titillation to me. I personally think you can skip them unless it’s a photo of a guy arrested.

What’s similar in the Indian and American coverage is that rape is about what a woman has had done to her rather than about the man who did it. The framing of stories can change: rather than saying, “X was raped”, you can say, “Y raped X”. Even if they’re anonymous and the details are the same, the tone is different.

When I was growing up, there was the occasional news about sexual assault, but the Nirbhaya incident is what brought the issue to the spotlight. I don’t know if it’s because it is getting a lot of coverage but the situation seems pretty bad. I understand why parents make little girls wear tights underneath their skirts. In my time, people were more confident. I definitely feel that parents feel less safe in sending their kids out to play, even in a gated community.

I think society should, in general, be less patriarchal. I also think law and order is a big problem. If people didn’t think they could get away with it, I think less of this would happen. It would definitely be a deterrent. I absolutely don’t think that the punishment should be more severe. Instead, punishment must be sure. If someone has done something wrong, there must be an assurance that he or she will be punished. The quantum or severity of the punishment does not matter.

In terms of the right messages, the media can help create awareness. Already, the ideas that I have mentioned here — the media put them in my head. Of late, I’m seeing a lot of articles urging people to do a better job of bringing up their sons, or calling out ministers when they say something wrong. So yes, it does have an impact. There’s a lot of scope for a lot of positive messaging. Society and the media are inter-dependent on each other.

But I think journalists can do more. The newspapers that I subscribe to — The Hindu and The Business Standard — are fine but there are many others that aren’t doing such a good job. Vernacular media, especially, tends to lack the sensitivity required. Sometimes they end up revealing the victim’s identity or insinuating things about her character or suggesting that she was partly responsible.

When a case is reported, it helps people come forward. For example, when the Shakti Mills gang-rape case made news, other victims of the gang reported what had happened to them. You see that in #MeToo as well. At some level, it encourages more people to report these crimes because they see that it’s going on somewhere and something is coming out of it.

Public attention focused on sexual assault could energise the authorities to act. Law and order and the media need each other; the media is the watchman here, they can put pressure on the police. That’s happening a lot more of late.

This is one in a series of articles that NewsTracker published from 25 November to 10 December as part of the #16Days activism, aligned with the UN’s International Day for Ending Violence Against Women. This piece appeared on Day 16.