Reporting the Delhi gang rape

IN Books | 15/02/2013
Saturation coverage of the Delhi gangrape case allowed the public to mourn and women's safety to get adequate airing.
MELWYN PINTO reviews two English dailies’ treatment of the case for 25 days

In this research article, an attempt is made to analyse the content of the coverage of the Delhi rape case by two English dailies. 

Kim, Scheufeele, and Shanhan (2002) through their research found out that a newspaper’s prominent coverage of a particular issue increased the importance of that issue among its readers. The study is on similar lines of Agenda Setting theory. McCombs and Shaw (1972) through their study of the 1968 Presidential campaign in the United States found out that there was indeed a correlation between the issues given prominence by the media and the perception of readers, who considered those issues as important. Further, a study by Dayan and Katz (1992) discovered that in certain cases (especially sad cases) media event could also help in giving expression to public grief, mourning and reconciliation. In our review of newspaper coverage of the rape case, one could see a combination of all these factors at work. On the one hand, the incident itself was indeed a grave one and hence called for wider coverage. On the other hand, the public outcry over the event also was unprecedented and media rightly took notice of this. However, questions have been raised if the coverage would be as wide if a similar incident were to happen in a smaller town and to a person from a subaltern community. 

For this study, two English dailies were selected – Deccan Herald and The Hindu. Both have multiple editions in Karnataka as well an edition each in Delhi. Both are widely accepted as credible and objective. 

The study period is from December 18 to January 11 (25 days), when there was.front-page coverage on most days. Four categories of items were selected for the study – reports, editorials, articles and letters to the editor. After the scrutiny of text and pictures, a review was done to see if the newspapers have indeed made the issue prominent through their coverage. 

Deccan Herald

The reportage of the Delhi gang-rape case in Deccan Herald was wide and intensive. In the period under study, there were in all 134 reports, besides five editorials and 15 analytical articles.

On most days, there was at least one front-page report till January 9. The coverage began on December 18 with a factual and objective report. On subsequent days, there were follow-up stories on the status of the victim in hospital, including her being taken to Singapore and her eventual death there. 

Table 1

 
REPORTS/PICS
EDITORI-ALS
ARTICLES
LETTERS TO EDITOR
TOTAL
(TEXT ITEMS/PICS)
FRONT PAGE
INNER PAGES
DECCAN HERALD
31 (11)
103 (45)
5
15
23
177 (56)
THE HINDU
31 (11)
99 (27)
7
26
145
260 (38)
 
REPORTS/PICS
EDITORI-ALS
ARTICLES
LETTERS TO EDITOR
TOTAL
(TEXT ITEMS/PICS)
FRONT PAGE
INNER PAGES
DECCAN HERALD
31 (11)
103 (45)
5
15
23
177 (56)
THE HINDU
31 (11)
99 (27)
7
26
145
260 (38)
 
REPORTS/PICS
EDITORI-ALS
ARTICLES
LETTERS TO EDITOR
TOTAL
(TEXT ITEMS/PICS)
FRONT PAGE
INNER PAGES
DECCAN HERALD
31 (11)
103 (45)
5
15
23
177 (56)
THE HINDU
31 (11)
99 (27)
7
26
145
260 (38)

  Table 2

DATES
DECCAN HERALD
THE HINDU
 
REPORTS/PICS
EDIT-ORIALS
ARTI-CLES
LETTERS TO EDITOR
REPORTS/PICS
EDIT-ORIALS
ARTI-CLES
LETTERS TO EDITOR
FRONT PAGE
INNER PAGES
FRONT PAGE
INNER PAGES
DEC 18-22
5 (3)
11 (3)
2
1
4
4 (2)
11 (3)
1
2
19
DEC 23-27
7 (5)
26 (15)
1
4
11
8 (4)
27 (10)
1
10
32
DEC 28-JAN 1
10 (2)
33 (15)
2
3
4
9 (5)
33 (8)
2
8
30
JAN 2- 6
6 (1)
25 (13)
0
5
2
6 (0)
16 (4)
2
5
21
JAN 7-11
3
8(3)
0
2
2
4
12 (2)
1
1
42
TOTAL
31 (11)
103 (49)
5
15
23
31 (11)
99 (27)
7
26
145

 
The five editorials that the paper carried displayed the position of the paper as regards crimes against women, the police system, the role of the government and what needs to be done urgently. The first editorial that appeared on December 19 condemned the Delhi rape as a ‘barbaric crime’, quoting National Crime Records Bureau that as many as 414 rapes were committed in Delhi in 2010, the highest in the city. It also said that 50 per cent of rapes went unreported. It demanded that the police and the government must take responsibility to act.

The editorials discussed possible solutions to such crimes (‘Not the solution’, Dec 22), the flaws in the law and order situation (‘End costly drift, Dec 26), the attitudes of men in power (‘Misogynist mindset’, Dec 29); and the need for radical reforms in the legal system (‘Galvanise reforms’, Jan 10). The editorials in general emphasised the need for reform of the legal as well as police system in the country and the need for more women-friendly laws. Above all, the paper reiterated the need for a change in the mindset of men who need to consider women as equal rather than subordinate.
 
As many as 15 articles put the blame on the failure of the police as well as the justice system, demanding immediate reforms (D V Guruprasad, ‘Police need to be gender sensitive’, Dec 20; Prasenjiit Chaudhury, ‘Shadowy elements’, Dec 24; Kuldip Nayar, ‘Failure of justice system’, Dec 28; Sudhanshu Ranjan, ‘Onus on judiciary’, Jan 1;). One article blamed the deep-rooted social system for such brutal crimes (Lina Krishnan, ‘Violence against women in India’, Dec 24).

An article by Olinda Timms (‘Covert violence against women’, Jan 1), discussed the larger silent crimes against women, especially sex selection and female foeticide. The article referred to the falling sex ratio in India (914 for 1,000 males).

Overall, the articles emphasised long-term solutions to crimes against women. Among other things, several articles spoke of encouraging young men to participate in women’s advocacy and equality issues.

There were in all 23 letters to the editor related to the incident. Considering the limited space that Deccan Herald gives to letters, this was quite adequate. On average, there was at least one letter every day of the study period.

Most letters condemned the Delhi rape as ‘barbaric’ and ‘highly disturbing’. There were demands for more ‘proactive leaders’. Some letters also opined that the ‘government had not done enough to curb rapes’. Several others said that ‘men need to change their attitudes’ against women. A couple of letters demanded that the perpetrators of the crime must be given ‘maximum punishments’. 

The Hindu

The Hindu had front-page reports on almost all days of the duration of this study, barring Dec 21, Jan 9, 10 and 11. On December 21, major part of the front page was dedicated to election results of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. The coverage started fading after January 9. Hence the paper did not carry front-page news from January 9-11.

Of 31 news reports on the front page of The Hindu, most were by staff correspondents and reporters of the daily based in New Delhi. On the whole, they were objective and factual. Initially, the reports covered the incident and the status of the 23-year-old girl in the hospital, as she battled for life. Later, the paper carried out extensive coverage of the protests that unfolded in the capital. It gave a firsthand report of the protests as they gathered momentum, the death of a cop, the apathy on the part of the government to meet the protesters and the death of the victim. In a rare gesture, the paper published a front-page editorial about the death of the girl and published as many as 15 different reports and five pictures, besides three obituary pieces.

The Hindu gave ample space for letters to the editor, publishing, in all, 145 letters. They expressed shock and condemnation and suggested ways to tackle the issue. Some debated the viability of castration as a solution, with quite a number of the letters supporting it, as against only a few opposing it. There were also voices on death penalty for the rapists, with opinions both for and against. A number of letters were reactions to various articles (25) and editorials (7).

There were seven editorials on varied issues, from questioning the safety of women in India (‘Time to be ashamed’, Dec 19), to stating that government must implement the Verma Committee Report (‘The rage after rape’, Dec 24) to the need for security on campus (‘Making campuses safer’, Jan 5) and taking strong exceptions to the insensitive comments made by several leaders (‘Retrograde torrent’, Jan 8). The front-page editorial on Dec 31 (‘No turning back’) mourned the death of the 23-year-old and demanded that police and legal systems must be made stronger and accountable to implement the laws that deal with atrocities against women. It also emphasised the need for passing the Women’s Reservation Bill.

In most of the 25 articles published, the one underlying argument was that rape is about subjugation. As Anup Surendranath stated (‘Castration is not the right legal response’, Dec 24, p.8.): “Rape is not about sex; rape is about power, violence, intimidation and humiliation. Attempts to reduce the incidence of rape by controlling the sexual urges of men are bound to be ineffective because they invoke a very shallow and inadequate understanding of rape.”

Several articles opined that death penalty or castration of rapists is not a long-term solution. In fact, according to the articles, history does not show that the death penalty has been a deterrent against crime in any way. Crimes have not reduced despite death penalty being in place in India for so long. According to the National Crimes Records Bureau, 90 per cent of the perpetrators were men closely related to or known to the victims (Urvashi Butalia, ‘Let’s ask how we contribute to rape,’ Dec 25). 

Several articles also suggested that the police and the judiciary need to be reformed, as the delay in registering cases and convicting the perpetrators has only complicated the matter. (Butalia; Radhika Santhanam and Dhrub Jyoti, ‘Policing and legal process are hardly unimportant in tackling rape,’ Dec 26). However, Praveen Swami (‘The danger to women lurks within us’, Dec 27) opined that policing is ‘small part of the problem and also small part of the solution’. According to him, ‘our culture shares rapists’ values’. The rapes that are reported are just the tip of the iceberg. Quoting a study he said, ‘Fifty-three percent of 12,000 children polled in a 2007 government survey said they had encountered ‘one or more forms of sexual abuse’. The solution he suggested was that a culture of masculinity has to be created that does not involve subjugation.

In tune with the editorial that called for the immediate passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill (‘No turning back’, Dec 30), Ramachandra Guha in his article ‘Parliament and Patriarchy’ (Dec 31) held that electing more women to Parliament can indeed give a tremendous boost to issues related to women as they will have a greater voice. He demanded that Parliament must shed its patriarchal garb and take up the Women’s Reservation Bill seriously.

Most articles received very positive response from readers. However, Harish Khare’s article (‘The temptation of anarchy’, Dec 26) was highly criticised. While conceding the protests were legitimate, the author questioned the mode, terming them as bordering anarchy. Reader reaction was quite strong: as many as eight letters criticised the article, stating that it is through street protests that justice is done in most cases.

Healthy debate was provoked by the article by Anup Surendranath (‘Castration is not the right legal response’, Dec 24), suggesting that chemical castration can give rise to other problems. There were seven letters reacting to the article. And surprisingly, all letters disagreed with the author and said castration was needed to ‘shame’ the rapists.

In all this, it has to be noted that The Hindu gave generous space for readers to voice their opinion, including dissenting voices. The newspaper has thus helped in discussing various facets of the issue and brought out a wide range of opinion, even as it held to its own opinion in editorials. This seems a very healthy sign of journalistic tradition. 

In conclusion, it can be said that though it is out of the scope of this study to analyse empirically if the coverage of Delhi rape case by these two dailies indeed increased the importance of the event, from the letters that the papers received, especially The Hindu, it is quite apparent that the readers did give importance to the incident. Through front-page coverage on almost all days of the period under study, the papers were able to raise people’s perception of the event. Also, the articles in The Hindu received quite a good response with readers voicing strong opinions, suggesting that they closely followed the developments and were seriously thinking on the issue. 

The coverage by both papers also served as a forum for grief and mourning on behalf of the readers. This was clear from the wide coverage and mournful reports and articles that both papers carried on the day following the death of the girl. This is in line with what Dayan and Katz (1992) hold in their study. The tapering off of the coverage was in tandem with the fading of protests on the streets of Delhi. By then, most issues regarding violence against women and possible remedies had been discussed threadbare.

Both Deccan Herald as well as The Hindu are highly respected papers and are known for their fair and objective journalistic tradition. Both papers gave unprecedented coverage to the Delhi rape case. However, there could also be a view that the weight given to the incident on successive days seemed far too much, and made the whole development larger than what it was. Then there is the question of how much impact such coverage had on the government. A month later, by mid-February, it has become clear that the street protests and wide coverage did not really stir the government out of its apathy, and the state apparatus was not actually galvanised into action. Although an ordinance was promulgated, the Justice JS Verma Committee report suggestions were largely not incorporated. The Women’s Reservation Bill is no nearer being tabled. Police reform doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. Politicians’ security has not been pared down to free up policemen for citizens’ safety.

Of course, the media remains committed to the cause of justice for the rape victim and a more gender-sensitive society that it espoused so strongly for 25 days. Rapes that are taking place continue to be reported in these and other newspapers with more prominence than was the case before the incident, even though they do not always get front-page coverage. At least, one can rest assured that the gangrape incident will continue to be a touchstone when covering issues related to women’s safety.

References

Dayan, D. & Katz, E. (1992). Media events: The live broadcasting of history. Cambridge M A: Harvard University Press.

Kim, S. & Scheufele, D. & Shanahan, J. (2002). Think about it this way: Attribute agenda-setting function of the press and publics’ evaluation of a local issue. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 79 (1), 7-23.

McCombs, M. & Shaw, D. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 36 (2), 176-187.
 
Sachdev, R (2013, January 18). When rape claims prime time. http://thehoot.org/web/ Whenrapeclaimsprimetime/6552-1-1-9-true.html (accessed on February 4, 2013).
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