Every day there occurs an undetermined number of incidents of rape and sexual violence across India. But only a small proportion of these are reported to the police, and of these, not every incident makes it into the newspapers.
How do we decide which incident should receive news coverage, and how much? Why is that most of the rape and sexual violence reported in the news media end up as one-off stories, not moving beyond the ‘breaking news’ stage?
The Kathua and Unnao cases have made me a more diligent newspaper reader. The above train of thought began because in the last few weeks, I have been flipping through multiple newspapers to know more about those cases. In the process, I have been noticing — perhaps because of the significant coverage provided to these two cases — the many other rape and sexual violence incidents that are tucked away on inside pages.
That some rape cases receive a great deal of attention while some do not is no secret. But to what extent does this happen?
Curious, I began looking at the back issues of two newspapers, the Dainik Jagran and The Indian Express. I looked at 30 days of coverage, from 10 April to 9 May 2018, and here’s what I found:
More than 80 per cent of the rape and sexual offence cases in both newspapers were one-off reports, with no follow-ups. None.
In the 30 days I looked at, Dainik Jagran reported 64 sexual offences. Out of these, 56 incidents (87.5%) were reported just once — on the day the story broke. In the same period, The Indian Express covered 59 rape cases, of which 49 stories were reported only once.
The one-off stories mostly appeared on the third, fourth or ninth page of The Indian Express and on the fourth, fifth or sixth page of Dainik Jagran. They were reported from various states: Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu & Kashmir. There were a significant number of offences involving minors, including one about sexual assault of an eight-year-old boy.
Mostly, such one-off reporters were short. Single-column stories, 4–6 sentences, which informed the reader of the bare facts: a crime was committed, arrest or arrests were made (or not). The few cases that did make two-column stories carried a little more details, mostly pertaining to how the victim and accused knew each other, how the crime was committed, etc.
And in those five or six sentences, those incidents were wrapped up and forgotten.
On the other hand, when the national news media woke up to January’s Kathua rape-murder in April 2018, the story jumped from page nine of The Indian Express to the front page the next day. In the 30 days following the filing of chargesheet in the case, The Indian Express followed the incident with 43 headlines on various aspects. Dainik Jagran covered it 37 times.
Similarly, the Unnao rape case was covered by Dainik Jagran and The Indian Express 31 and 23 times, respectively, and the Madrasa rape case was followed up nine and six times respectively. The verdict in the rape case against one of India’s most prominent self-styled ‘Godmen’, Asaram Bapu, came about in the 30 days I was scrutinising the newspapers. Dainik Jagran reported on it nine times, while it showed up three times in The Indian Express.
I cannot say all this came as a major surprise. But one thing stood out for me: the indifference of the news media to rape.
Rape in itself is not news anymore. It is ordinary, normal, to be tucked away on Page 5 or 9, reported once, forgotten forever. Even rapes of minors — and it is worrying to note that sexual violences against children are everyday occurrences across India — are not noteworthy, unless accompanied by other factors.
Thinking about all this, I found more questions emerging than answers.
Is this news media apathy because of the sheer number of incidents occurring across the country — the normalisation of rape in our society?
Is the lack of follow-ups because of a lack of adequate reportorial resources?
Perhaps the bare-bone stories that I saw in the newspapers is a way of coping by the reporters involved — a way of keeping an objective distance and not getting close to what could be very disturbing incidents?
As a journalism student idealistic about the news media’s role in holding power to account and shedding light on social injustices, I could also not help thinking from the perspective of the victims and survivors.
Without the media bringing focussed attention to their cases, how many of them would get justice? How many cases would be closed or buried?
And, importantly, if the news media do not report on the survivors and their stories after the incident, how would others after them know that there is life after rape?
That there is hope?