TOI's foot-in-mouth rape coverage

BY KALPANA SHARMA| IN Media Practice | 25/08/2013
In its desire to give saturation coverage to such crimes, TOI led the way. But there were four oversights that ought to have been caught by alert editors.
Politically correct terminology is not enough, says KALPANA SHARMA

On Sunday, August 25, three days after the journalistic fraternity and many others in Mumbai were shaken by the gang-rape of a young journalist, the Times of India (TOI) announced that from henceforth it would use the word “survivor” instead of “victim” while reporting on rape and sexual assault.  Its competitor in Mumbai, Hindustan Times, had already beaten TOI to this by using the term in its coverage of this dastardly crime from day one.  

But TOI being what it is, made sure that its readers noted why it had decided on the change of terminology.  If its front page announcement about adopting the term “survivor” after decades of campaigns by women’s groups results in educating readers, that is all to the good.  But if it represents just a cosmetic change of using politically correct terminology, it means little. 

To understand this, you only have to look at the coverage of the gang-rape in Mumbai’s English newspapers. On day one, that is August 23, all papers carried front-page stories about the incident. Of the papers this writer surveyed, none gave out the name of the publication for which the journalist worked, but all mentioned “photojournalist” or “photography intern”, thereby narrowing the field. TOI mentioned “lifestyle magazine”, narrowing the field even further. Two newspapers  gave out the name of the publication for which the journalist worked. (However, when alerted to this, both editors responded speedily and removed the name of the publication from their web editions) 

Why is any of this relevant? Because when covering rape and sexual assault, it is incumbent that the media ensures that no personal details of the survivor are made public unless she chooses to reveal them. Hints such as the name or type of publication in this instance, or the organisation with which a survivor works, or where she lives, or the names of her parents, her siblings, her best friends etc are exactly the kind of details that ought not to be in the public realm. 

The restraint seen on August 23 remained only for a day. By the second day, August 24, given the predictable competition amongst newspapers to get an edge over their rivals, the print media went into overdrive. 

In its desire to give saturation coverage to such crimes, TOI led the way.  It devoted four full pages to the story including a substantial part of page one. At this point it was still using the term “victim” as the policy change would kick in only the next day. 

There were four oversights that ought to have been caught by alert editors. First, in a story on page two by Sumitra Deb Roy about the health of the survivor, the reporter first quoted the doctor who gave out the barest details. But then went on to state that “TOI has learnt” details about the way the survivor was raped.  And then concluded by stating, “The hospital refused to comment on this”.  She also quoted doctors repeating, “Her family wants to maintain strict privacy and does not want too many medical details to be divulged”. In other words, in the same story we know that the family does not want the public to know details, and rightly so, but TOI does us the favour by giving these out from its sources. This kind of insensitive reporting is an illustration of how merely a change in terminology makes no difference. 

On the same day, TOI sent out reporters to the building where the survivor lives.  Under the headline “Neighbours didn’t know of tragedy, friends back her up”, the story reports how the watchman did not know about the incident, nor did the neighbours. In other words, the TOI reporters informed the survivor’s neighbourhood about something that she and her family would have wanted to keep private. Is this the job of the media?  Should we be exposing survivors in our desire to get scoops? 

Third, in a story about statements of support for the survivor, TOI mentioned the religious head of one community. If a clearer hint were needed of the religious community to which the survivor belonged, you did not need a more obvious one. 

And finally, both on August 24 and 25, TOI ran the photographs of the five accused with their names underneath. Surely, the editors would have known that by doing this, they could prejudice the case, as an identity parade has not yet been held. 

In contrast, the other three papers this writer surveyed, Mumbai Mirror, Indian Express and Hindustan Times followed up on the story and gave more details about the location of the crime but none of them gave injury details other than what the doctors revealed, nor did they visit the building where the survivor lives, and they did not match the names of the accused with the sketches or photographs.  

We have to see how the coverage of this case proceeds. In this instance, because the person involved is a journalist, the coverage is being followed closely. In hundreds of other cases, no such scrutiny is maintained, either by the publications, or by those who are concerned about media coverage. 

As a result, irrespective of whether the media uses the term “survivor” or “victim”, insensitive errors in reporting at the cost of the privacy of a rape survivor continue.

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