Post Nirbhaya, Let’s Rethink How the Media Reports Rape

Is it possible that a narrative of victim-blaming has seeped into the way the media reports on rape?

5 min read
Hindi Female

(This story was first published on 24 July 2016. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark the fifth anniversary of the Nirbhaya case. Five years on, we are still a long way from creating a safe space for women. A set of recent incidents involving gruesome rapes of women across the country has yet again raised several questions about the Indian society and the judiciary.)

On 17 June 2016, a 23-year old woman was gangraped in Delhi. The next day, a major newspaper reported the rape with the headline “On her way home from movie, 23-year-old gangraped in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar.” Almost every media organisation explicitly mentioned that the survivor was raped when she was returning at 3.15 am after watching a movie with her friend at a popular Delhi multiplex.

And this is not an isolated example. Every time rape is reported in the media, it is done so with details like how the survivor dozed off when she was travelling in an Uber at night or how she was at a nightclub in Kolkata late at night and in some cases, how objects were inserted in her vagina to brutalise her in Motihari.

For any journalist to write a factually sound report, the first rule of reporting is the ‘5Ws and 1H’ rule – answering what, why, who, when, where and how of the incident in question.

But, in the specific case of rape, is it possible that in the interests of factual reporting, an implicit narrative of victim blaming also seeps into the way the media reports on rape? Within the newsroom, are there specific guidelines on reporting on rape and sexual assault? How does a journalist factually report a rape, without compromising the rape survivor’s identity and casting aspersions on her character?

Is it possible that a narrative of victim-blaming has seeped into the way the media reports on rape?
A demonstrator holds a placard as she attends a candlelight vigil to mark the first anniversary of Delhi gangrape. (Photo: Reuters)

Factual Reporting or Casting Aspersions?

To me, I cannot argue that a newspaper report on rape mentioning the place of the crime or such details, is victim blaming, unless it specifically mentions the term and then illustrates the statement with instances. It is a factual statement of the circumstance, and it may be casting aspersions, but that does not mean we cannot report on the fact.
Sevanti Ninan, Founder Editor, The 

In journalism, facts are sacred.

And so, if when a rape took place, the survivor was in a nightclub – that is a fact. Which shall be reported. However uncomfortable the fact may be, and whatever implications it may have for the survivor. As a journalist, if I fact check and put out a good report responsibly, surely that is where my job ends?

Well, maybe not.

Crime reporters and those on the desk should be aware that their reportage can damage the life and fight for justice, of not just one survivor but all potential survivors as well. So we need to be careful about the image of the survivor they are portraying. Yes, she came back late at night from a pub – that may be a fact. One doesn’t have to lie about it but do you need to promote it indefinitely? Media practitioners, should be trained to allow for sensitivity in the newsroom. 
Sameera Khan, Journalist and Researcher, Former Assistant Editor at Times of India

But apart from being sacred, aren’t facts real as well? Existing in a nuanced socio-political framework with real implications for a rape survivor?

So, as a journalist how do I maintain the balance between factual reporting and responsible, sensitive reporting?

Is it possible that a narrative of victim-blaming has seeped into the way the media reports on rape?
When Suzette Jordan was raped in Kolkata, she was at a nightclub; a fact that was reported so extensively she was known as the Park Street Rape survivor till her unfortunate death. (Photo: The Quint)

Guidelines Inside (And Outside) the Newsroom

According to Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code, anyone who ‘publishes the name or any matter which may make known the identity’ of a rape survivor is liable to imprisonment of two years.

Apart from legally binding rules, ethical guidelines on how to report gender-based violence also exist. For instance, a sixteen-point guideline published in Feminism in India suggests that reporting which ‘suggests that the survivors of sexual violence encouraged the attack on themselves by something they did, wore, went, or said should be avoided.’

Guidelines on reporting rape are needed and some media organisations have the guidelines in place. But, not just reporters, even those on the desk and in television production, need to be sensitised. 
Sevanti Ninan, Founder-Editor, The

While there have been individual newsrooms who have implemented ethical guidelines or organised sensitisation workshops, a uniform guideline across newsrooms is missing.

Compulsions of the commerce lead to newspapers not being able to adopt ethical norms in the newsroom. I remember one instance where the reporter had to track down the housing society where the rape survivor lived, at the pressure of the editors in the newsroom. Every media organisation needs a continuing training program. It is, I think, a default, unthinking way in which it is done.
Kalpana Sharma, Independent Journalist, Former Deputy Editor at The Hindu
Is it possible that a narrative of victim-blaming has seeped into the way the media reports on rape?
Despite the brutality of Jisha’s rape, it took a while for mainstream media to report on it in a sustained manner. (Photo Courtesy: petition)

When Rape Doesn’t Even Merit a Headline

According to the 2014 figures provided by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 93 rapes are committed in India every day. But, only some are reported in the mainstream media (largely defined by English-language newspapers and TV channels.)

Why do some rapes get reported and spark outrage, while some don’t?

One answer is: distance.

When a newspaper is addressing an urban audience, there is bound to be greater coverage of rape committed in urban areas. But a sustained focus on how women are raped when they are outside the home, may also conform to a stereotype about women in public spaces.

Usually rapes belonging to the urban areas get reported, and that too in a sensationalist manner, without bringing attention to larger issues about violence against women in India. For instance, around 80-88% women experience violence within their homes, but in reporting there is a strange attention paid to public spaces. This implies that for a woman, venturing into public spaces is dangerous.
Kalpana Sharma, Independent Journalist, Former Deputy Editor at The Hindu

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from gender and women

Topics:  Rape   Media   Reporting 

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More