When ‘facts’ are not enough in the journalism of sexual assault

Making a case for compassion and empathy

Tejaswini Srihari
Nov 25 · 6 min read
Reaching out to the community is a neglected part of journalism. Image is representative. Photo: Clare Black/Flickr

One thing that the Indian media cannot be accused of is neglecting the subject of sexual assault. Ever since the Delhi bus gang-rape of 2012, there has been a notable and sustained increase in the news coverage of sexual violence.

In my week-long (5–11 November) observation of two national English-language dailies, the Hindu and the Times of India, I found an average of three stories on sexual crimes every day. These reports, which most frequently appeared on the City and Nation pages, typically covered specific incidents, the victim’s actions after the crime(such as registering a case), and, less frequently, court proceedings and verdicts.

Most reports focussed on the known ‘facts’ of the cases at hand, and it was rare for the news narrative to be informed by the complainant and others in her social context. While this approach appears to be in keeping with the traditional principle of journalistic objectivity, many media reports suffer from problematic language, implicit biases, and a lack of compassion — which is a value that media thinkers are increasingly promoting as essential to good journalism.

The language of compassion

The language of evidence is vital in covering a case objectively, which is the style almost all newspapers follow. However, what is missing — to use the words of professor of journalism and author Janet Blank-Libra — is an overarching “ethic of empathy”. In an article for the Poynter Institute of media studies, she writes, “When journalists practice an ethic of empathy and compassion, they do not forfeit their objectivity. Empathy seeks to understand the other, not produce agreement with the other. For this reason, empathy compels fair treatment of all sources.” She makes a strong case for journalism education to incorporate “the study of empathy and compassion alongside its study of the objective method”.

THE MERE PRESENTATION OF THE ‘FACTS’ OF A CASE DOES NOT DO JUSTICE TO THE EXTENT OF HARM CAUSED TO THE VICTIM AND COMMUNICATES A LACK OF COMPASSION.

Empathy also comes with increased sensitivity, which is a quality that has often been criticised as missing in the Indian media’s treatment of sexual assault cases. This “insensitivity” is evident in the kinds of facts that are often chosen as relevant in reports: the specific bodily violations inflicted on survivors/victims, headlines that suggests the victim was somehow responsible for coming into harm’s way (for example, “Runaway woman from Punjab raped in Mumbai”), the use of language that minimises the nature of a crime (for example, “oral sex” instead of oral rape).

For instance, in a Times of India report dated November 11, about a teenage girl who was sexually assaulted and murdered by a “tippler”, the language used is blunt and straightforward, with little or no context given other than the man being “inebriated” and the child being attacked when she went out to “relieve herself” at 7pm. Often, the mere presentation of the ‘facts’ of a case does not do justice to the extent of harm caused to the victim, and communicates a lack of compassion.

This can change when journalists pay attention to the language they use, the type of information they include in their stories, and when they examine different ‘aspects’ of the incidents they cover, including social and cultural contexts. In an article published on the website of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Journalism Ethics, Kyle Harland notes, “Compassion can establish valuable connections with sources that can help journalists get beneath the surface of a story. It can aid in relating stories to the audience, and triggering an informed emotional response that encourages civic engagement.”

Skewed perspectives

The cases published in the first three pages of a national daily do not nearly represent all the incidents that have been reported to the police. In general, ‘high-profile’ sexual assault cases in India often share certain characteristics. According to a short exploratory study published in NewsTracker — urban and relatively privileged victims (the national media’s rural bias is well documented), the enmeshment of politics, international ramifications, and stories that concern the victimisation of children make it into the news, whereas incidents of sexual violence that do not share these particular ‘news values’ often don’t.

Some of these ‘high-profile’ stories, which are generally covered from many angles and for a sustained period of time, do lead to public outrage, such as the Kathua gang-rape and murder and the Unnao case, but there continues to be an invisiblisation of many categories of victims/survivors, including men, transgender people and rural women. Investing in building compassion, and thus mobilising public awareness and action, for these groups has in general been neglected by the Indian media. But do we have enough compassion for everybody?

The question of ‘compassion fatigue’

The frequency at which incidents of sexual violence are reported (and then shared incessantly on social media) can have the unfortunate effect of desensitising people and ‘normalising’ rape. This holds as true for journalists as it does for their audiences. The solution to this, however, does not lie in more graphic details, fear-provoking imagery, and sensational headlines to grab attention in an increasingly saturated media environment. Indeed, doing so could cause already overwhelmed readers to switch off even more.

Making a spectacle of suffering through graphic language/imagery inspires voyeurism more than it does any real engagement or action. This kind of reporting presents sexual violence as an ‘event’ rather than an issue. Sensationalised stories also lead to mistrust towards journalists (and journalism) in the wider community, which is counterproductive when the larger objective is to not just tell the news but to build awareness and understanding. Thus, in only choosing stories that have more ‘shock value’ and can more easily inspire outrage, journalists may be doing a disservice to the larger cause of fighting sexual violence.

The alternative is to frame news narratives that, through a considered use of language and facts, foster a sense of community and tell compelling stories that make it easier to identify with victims. Such narratives should not stop with mere ‘episodic’ reporting — merely chronicling the event. Instead, they should highlight systemic issues and injustices that lead to sexual violence, which affect anyone regardless of their social positioning or geographic location in India.

Translating values into practice

While there is some clarity about what journalists should not do in order to report sensitively about sexual assault, questions remain about the steps they can take to tell stories that not only reflect compassion but evoke it, even as they adhere to the journalistic principles of objectivity and balance.

For one, empathy is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy indicates an emotional response to the suffering of another, which could lead to biased reporting. In contrast, empathy indicates an ‘understanding’ of another’s feelings, beliefs and context. This is a crucial distinction, and allows for multiple truths to exist and thus be portrayed in reporting.

So, how does this translate in practice, especially with journalists in a constant battle against deadlines?

According to S Mitra Kalita, senior vice president for news, opinion and programming at CNN Digital, how journalists deal with the “arc” of a story is important — not just an event or incident (the peak of the arc), but what led to it, and what came after. This arc can be covered in a number of stories that focus on different aspects — in the case of sexual assault, this could mean stories on not just what happened, but the incidence of gender-based violence in the community and beyond, what took place in the aftermath of the assault (how was the victim impacted, what did the police do, what are the proceedings in court), and the reactions and concerns of various stakeholders. Such smaller stories can be reported over a period of time, demonstrating empathy and engagement with a community. The American Press Institute also has a list of guidelines that can help journalists and editors incorporate empathy in their work, including tips on how to interview sources and how to address public criticisms of news reports.

Of course, the responsibility cannot lie with individual journalists alone. As journalist K Kim Bui explains, “Without lasting changes in coverage, an act of empathy can become another instance of parachute journalism. This isn’t just the reporters’ job. It’s up to the whole newsroom, including senior management…”

In India, we do have some notable examples of empathetic reporting on sexual assault, particularly in the English-language digital media. This includes the Quint’s award-winning reporting of the case of infant rape survivor ‘Chhutki’, (and through the lens of this story, the systemic issues that befall many POCSO cases), and Firstpost’s multi-pronged coverage of the #MeToo movement. However this approach of in-depth and sustained reporting is the exception, and the challenge is to make it the norm.

Tejaswini Srihari

Written by

NewsTracker

A conversation on the news coverage of rape and sexual violence in India. A MAAR initiative

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