Reporting as if gender matters

IN Media Practice | 27/07/2010
The Hoot excerpts a passage from Kalpana Sharma’s edited volume Missing: Half the Story: Journalism as if Gender Matters.
and introduced by SUBARNO CHATTARJI

Interpreting Media

July 2010

As part of The Hoot’s continuing commitment toward creating greater media awareness and fostering debates related to media issues we are excerpting a passage from Kalpana Sharma’s edited volume Missing: Half the Story: Journalism as if Gender Matters. New extracts will be posted on the site every month and readers are invited to send in comments, book recommendations, and reviews.

Missing is a collection of articles by journalists which focuses on news and its representations through a ‘gendered lens’. In her Introduction Kalpana Sharma argues that the ‘"genderisation" of journalism applies to reporting, editing and feature writing.’ A ‘gendered lens’ allows for additional and deeper insights into all aspects of journalism because gender issues are germane to politics, policies, business, sport, natural disasters and they ‘impact men and women differently.’ The book highlights the ways in which women are either rendered invisible in virtually every realm or sensationalised and the consequences of these media choices. The excerpt from Sameera Khan’s article on crime against women is an acute analysis of gender biases in media representations. It highlights the intersections of gender, class, caste that often determine the ways in which victims of sexual assault are projected. Missing is a volume that foregrounds gender not to ghettoise it as a politically correct issue that journalists must consider but to show the ways in which gender and its implications are embedded in all aspects of sensitive journalistic practice.

Kalpana Sharma, edited. Missing: Half the Story: Journalism as if Gender Matters. New Delhi: Zubaan, 2010.

Missing: Half the Story: Journalism as if Gender Matters. New Delhi: Zubaan, 2010. Edited Kalpana Sharma. 296 pages/Paper: Rs. 395 (978 81 89884 83 3) Excerpted courtesy Zubaan.

When Survivors Become Victims

Sameera Khan



On several occasions, print and television have tenaciously followed a crime/legal story and stood by survivors in their quest for justice. In the Ruchika Girhotra case (December 2009), when the courts meted out a ridiculously easy sentence to a former cop for molesting a teenager (and then harassing her family till she finally committed suicide), the media joined the public outcry and demanded fairer justice. For almost two weeks after the court verdict, newspapers across the country played up the story and television channels gave the case optimum prime time coverage. By building on the national outrage in the Ruchika Girhotra case, the media led the campaign for changes in the criminal justice and law enforcement system. Within days, the government swiftly announced changes in the Criminal Procedure Code so that complainants can now appeal against court orders acquitting an accused or convicting the accused of a lesser offence, the setting up of special courts to hear cases of sexual offences, and even a move towards making molestation a non-bailable offence.


Similarly, by relentlessly focusing on the murder of Priyadarshini Mattoo, a law student, the killing of Jessica Lal, a model, and the brutal murder of a young business executive, Nitish Katara, the media’s long-term supportive role and crusading zeal to ensure justice helped the cases remain alive in the public mind. It also helped exert pressure on investigative agencies and the legal system.


But it is these same cases that demonstrate the failing of the Indian media in covering violent crime. Clearly, the media today has an urban, middle and upper class bias and this is also noticed in their coverage of crime and legal stories. So Ruchika Girhotra will become a poster girl and dominate the news pages for a few weeks but the un-named minor Dalit girl who was allegedly gang-raped by a Gujarat MLA’s relative and a friend in a village near Vadodara in 1998 will make it just twice to those same pages. The tribal woman from Rajasthan’s Dausa district who was abducted and raped by an Indian Police Service officer 13 years ago suffered the same fate and has still to get justice and adequate consideration from the media. Tribal women in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region will risk their lives testifying to rape by government-appointed special police officers and Salwa Judum members but only a handful of stories on them will make it to the national press. (It is interesting to note, however, that as the Ruchika case got national prominence, one quick-thinking reporter took the opportunity to re-report the story of these raped tribal women and their harrowing quest for justice under the ingenious headline "The Tribal ‘Ruchikas’ of Dantewada"13).


Overall, the media is attracted to the "people like us" stories, where the main survivors or the main perpetrators are middle or upper class, and preferably urban. Perhaps this is based on the belief that these stories will touch a chord with their educated middle-class readers, viewers and advertisers more than the crime story that is rural or tribal, or peopled with "poor" or low-caste characters. Thus, even a truly violent story such as the brutal lynching-style murders of four-members of a Dalit family in Khairlanji in September 2006 received little attention in Mumbai’s English-language press. Even though Khairlanji is in Maharashtra, we know less about it than we know about the Tamarind Court murder, the restaurant where Jessica Lal was shot. The media reported extensively on Ruchika Girhotra but Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange, who were stripped naked, dragged from their hut to the village chaupal, publicly raped and then hacked to death along with two male members of their family in Khairlanji are barely remembered. "Why this silence over such savagery? The mother-daughter’s face and name should have become as much part of our consciousness as Jessica Lal’s and Priyadarshini Mattoo’s. The sole survivor, the father Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, should have been on page 1 for days," writes journalist Jyoti Punwani in an article on the media website, The Hoot:

Instead, only one story in the Mumbai edition of The Times of India and The Indian Express carried the incident in its outline – that too, more than a month after it took place. The Times’ report itself made mocking references to the press ignoring the story, but didn’t forget to mention more than once, the ‘allegation’ put forward by the aggressors – that the mother was having an affair with her cousin, the Police Patil, which had angered the rest of the village. The entire sequence of events – the dispute over land, the attack on the Police Patil, the fact that the Bhotmanges had given statements against the attackers, the latter’s public declaration that they would teach the former a lesson – all this came to light much later, when the Inspector General’s (IG’s) investigation into the incident was reported. That was front-paged by the Express because it was a handout from the police, just as most of the coverage on Khairlanji was in the English press. Speculations by the Home Minister and the police on the hidden hand behind the Dalit protests made more headlines than the incident itself. Even while the protests were on, there was no detailed interview with Dalit intellectuals, protestors or leaders, except to get their response to the allegations by policemen.14


Hindustan Times columnist, Vir Sanghvi, makes a similar argument:


The reason we are so angry about the Ruchika case is because we can see her father on TV and hear his story. But let’s not forget that each year there are thousands of Ruchikas. India’s policemen, officials and politician mistreat, torture, molest, rob and rape poor people all the time. Because the victims are not middle-class, we never get to hear of these cases…And as for us, in the middle class and media… we need to go beyond our class and our interests. Millions of Indians face injustice that is even worse. It is our duty to fight for them, as well.15


The other drawback in our crime coverage is the inordinate focus we give to dramatic events and individuals rather than to processes. As a result, there is little consistency or depth in our crime and violence news stories and more of reactive spot-coverage. Context and analysis is rarely provided and follow-ups are usually a result of active civil society groups pushing them on the agenda. Too often, "the media present crime with a baffling lack of sophistication", says

American journalist David Krajicek. According to him, "the bulk of crime coverage amounts to drive-by journalism – a ton of anecdote and graphic detail about individual cases… but not an ounce of leavening context to help frame and explain crime."16


This is a quite a shame since studies have shown that the media’s representation of crime and violence plays a significant role in shaping people’s attitude towards crime and criminal acts. In fact, research has also shown that the way the media covers violence in relation to marginalised groups such as religious minorities, lower castes, the poor and women helps to promote specific political and social stances towards them.17 So if most of the reported stories on Muslims, for instance, are in relation to acts of terror, then the general public’s attitude to them will be suspicious and mistrustful. Similarly, if the media usually portrays the poor as petty criminals and assaulters, then the general public will look upon any poor person as guilty even before charged.





In India, police records show that a woman is molested every 26 minutes; a rape occurs every 34 minutes; sexual harassment takes place every 42 minutes; a woman is kidnapped every 43 minutes; and every 93 minutes, a woman is killed.18 In its report Crime in India 2007’ NCRB (which reported in 1998 that the growth rate of crimes against women would be higher than the population growth rate by 2010)19 shows that crimes against women increased by 31.8 per cent between 2003–2007.20


Of course these figures do not reflect the whole truth as they refer only to the reported cases of crime. Many crime cases are not reported by survivors for reasons ranging from family and police pressures to the unduly long process of gaining justice. Similarly the ICVS showed that while victims across the globe consistently held violence against women and sexual harassment as the most serious types of crime, the reporting rates for violence against women in particular are lower all across the world than those for property crimes. Globally, 39 per cent of assaults on men are reported. The reporting rate of violence against women is lower with less than one in three instances of violence against women (non-sexual assaults and sexual assaults combined) being brought to the attention of the police (30 per cent).21


Violence against women surfaced as a significant issue in India in the early 1980s when the women’s movement first took up the campaign against custodial rape. It was the regressive Supreme Court judgment in the Mathura rape case22 in 1979–80 that sparked off a whole new national movement demanding reform in the understanding of rape in the law.23 At the same time, in the late 1970s, women’s groups also began to highlight the fact that there was nothing "accidental" about the astounding number of young women dying as a result of kitchen accidents like bursting gas cylinders as was being increasingly reported by many newspapers. These were in fact suicides or murders of young married women within the marital home and as women’s activists took to the streets to protest these deaths, the press went on to investigate them further and found that dowry demands were the cause of most of these deaths.24


The press was an important participant in those early struggles focusing on violence against women and the pursuit for legal reform. In the wake of public fury about Mathura and rising cases of "bride-burning", the press actively reported on incidents of rape and "dowry deaths" across the country as well as on some of the rallies, protest marches and anti-violence campaigns launched by women’s groups. As sociologist Shilpa Phadke notes:


One of the distinguishing features of the struggles mounted in the 1970s was the support received from the media, and one cannot overestimate its role in arousing public opinion in support of the women’s movement at this point in its history. It was instrumental in bringing to a wider audience the realities of women’s lives, especially around issues of violence…25


It was no coincidence that this was also the time many young women (and men) who were keenly involved in women’s issues and other social change movements joined the press as reporters and sub-editors and played a substantive role in bringing visibility to the issue of gender violence in the media.


The impact of the women’s movement on the media at this time cannot be underestimated. According to Ammu Joseph and Kalpana Sharma, who did an in-depth study of the Indian press in the 1980s,26 there was a noticeable quantitative and qualitative improvement in several newspapers on the coverage of dowry and rape coinciding with the anti-dowry and anti-rape campaigns organised by women’s groups. "Without this, it is entirely possible that dowry deaths would have continued to appear as two-line items under crime briefs on the city page of most newspapers," they argue. Similarly, rape coverage increased considerably though it was "the editorial and features pages that were more responsive to the issue than the news sections".


The agitation by women’s groups around the issue of violence eventually led to several new laws and amendments dealing with crimes against women.27 At critical junctures, the press helped publicise many of these legal changes and examine the complex issues surrounding them.





13. Javed Iqbal (2010) "The Tribal ‘Ruchikas’ of Dantewada" in The New Indian Express, Chennai, January 8 (http://moonchasing.wordpress. com/2010/01/14/the-tribal-ruchikas-of-dantewada/).

14. Jyoti Punwani (2006) "Khairlanji and the English Press" The Hoot, December 11 ( php?sid=2414&bg=1).

15. "Rathore isn’t the only guilty man around", by Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan

Times, December 26, 2009 ( News-Feed/virsanghvi/Rathore-isn-t-the-only-guilty-man-aroun Article1-491010.aspx).

16. On a typical day, crime news in America accounts for one-third of the content of a daily newspaper and up to half of many local TV news broadcasts, says David J. Krajicek (1998) in Scooped: Media Miss Real Story on Crime While Chasing Sex, Sleaze, and Celebrities. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 7.

17. In a series of studies, UCLA sociologist Frank Gilliam developed for the California Wellness Foundation’s Violence Prevention Initiative in 1997, the focus was how local television audiences in Los Angeles react to crime coverage. The study found that almost 30 per cent of local news time is devoted to crime, and that violent crime reports were the top story over half the time. As a percentage of the total number of crimes, crimes committed by African–Americans were disproportionately reported and so ingrained was the public’s notion of a "race script" – their expectations about what they would see in a crime report – that even when people were shown no suspect, half an hour later, over a quarter of them reported seeing a Black suspect. When they were shown a White suspect, it barely registered with the viewers but when a Black suspect was shown, almost all remembered this. This in turn influenced the public’s view of Black people as well as the social policies they then chose to support. (in Abramsky

"Instant Feedback", op.cit.)

18. Menon-Sen, Kalyani and A.K. Shiva Kumar (2001) "Women in India: How Free? How Equal?" an independent report commissioned by the Office of the Resident UN Coordinator in India (

19. ibid.


21. van Dijk, J.M. Jan, "The experience of crime and justice" op.cit.

22. Mathura was a tribal girl from Chandrapur in Maharashtra who was raped by two police constables on duty in the premises of a police station in 1972. Though the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court sentenced the two accused to one and five years of rigorous imprisonment respectively, the Supreme Court acquitted the accused policemen on the ground that there were no visible signs of injury on her person, indicating that she must have consented to intercourse. ( htm#_ftn6)

23. Kumar, Radha (1993) The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of

Movements for Women’s Rights and Feminism in India, 1800–1990. New

Delhi: Kali for Women.

24. Whose News? The Media and Women’s Issues. Kalpana Sharma and Ammu

Joseph explain in detail how media attention was drawn to "dowry deaths" in 1978–79. "Although the first of the deaths recognised as a case of bride-burning occurred as early as 17 March 1979 (when Kanchan Sashi Bala, a 24-year-old pregnant woman, died a hideous death from burns sustained in her marital home in Delhi), the first case to reach the media was the death of Tarvinder Kaur of Model Town, Delhi, on 17 May of the same year." Women’s groups demonstrated outside the house of Tarvinder’s in-laws and reading about that in the press helped Kanchan’s mother track down women’s groups and take her daughter’s story to the press. "These incidents marked the beginning of a change in media coverage of this issue which till then had consisted of small items routinely reporting these deaths on the city page." Joseph, Ammu and Kalpana Sharma (eds.) (1994/2006) Whose News? The Media and Women’s Issues, New Delhi: Sage Publications.

25. Phadke, Shilpa (2003) "Thirty Years On: Women’s Studies Reflects on

the Women’s Movement" in Economic and Political Weekly October 25,


26. See footnote 24.

27. The rape law was amended in 1983 when the Criminal Law Amendment Act substantially changed Sections 375, 376 of the Indian Penal Code (the Rape law) by adding a number of new sections with a view to stop sexual abuse of women in custody and care of various official and governmental persons. Only much later, in 2003, was the Indian Evidence (Amendment) Bill passed making the past sexual history of a rape survivor irrelevant in court proceedings. In 1983, Section 498A was inserted into the IPC making cruelty against woman, including the demanding of dowry, a non-bailable, non-compoundable and cognizable crime. In 1986, an amendment was made to Section 304B of the IPC which defined a "dowry death" as any death of a woman in suspicious circumstances, such as burns, within seven years of marriage. Since the 1990s, several more women-centric guidelines, amendments and laws related to violence have been formulated. In 1997, the Supreme Court issued guidelines on sexual harassment of women at the workplace and other institutions. These will soon become a full-fledged new law under the Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Bill 2007. To protect women from all forms of abuse in their homes, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was passed in 2005. To widen the scope of violence to include female foeticide and acknowledge that discrimination and abuse of women actually starts at the womb, and sometimes even before, the Pre-Conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 2003, was implemented. This law prohibits determination and disclosure of the sex of the foetus as well as advertisements on preconceptual and prenatal determination of sex. These are victories born of hard struggle, facilitated mainly by the women’s movement, and at critical times partnered with the media.

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