Vivid: Report rapes and tragedies with sensitivity

Use appropriate language, report factually and never sensationalise information, urges Annurag Batra of exchange4media

e4m by Annurag Batra
Updated: Dec 24, 2012 10:10 PM
Vivid: Report rapes and tragedies with sensitivity

Outrage over the brutal rape of a paramedical student in Delhi is still pouring in. Here’s one that the print media reported on Saturday from Pune. I want to include it here, more because of the way it reminds us of shock, utter anger we have all felt since we woke up to banner headlines of the brutality unleashed by five men on the 23-year-old paramedic.

Fifteen-year-old Mahicka Sharma of Delhi Public School led a candlelight rally in support of the victim of the brutal Delhi gangrape on December 17. The Class Xth student said that though the incident took place in the Capital, it was “an eye-opener to how vulnerable women really are even in big cities”.

According to her, the march not only condemned the attack on the girl and showcased the rallyists support but was to tell men how traumatising “the entire experience is for women and to tell women how to defend themselves better”.

She said, “We have decided to call the 23-year-old rape victim Damini, because of her fighting spirit that she has not given up in the wake of the odds against her. We had people from as young as 13-year-olds to older people who came. The important part of the march, for us, was to tell everyone about this very real problem and how it can be prevented.”

This story I found particularly moving, even as my heart went out for ‘Damini’. My first reaction, like all right-thinking citizens of the country, was all kinds of capital punishment against the people who did wrong unto her.

At the same time, I felt proud that I belong to a country where the media is doing a wonderful job in focussing on the story and building up public sentiments against the six ravagers of Damini. Since the news broke, news organisations have published or broadcast hundreds of stories about the horrific incident.

They have reported the rape and ravaging, Damini’s sheer grit to live despite several surgeries she suffered with the doctors having to remove her intestines, focussed on the investigation and some of the ravagers’ arrest, their remorselessness, etc. Stories have discussed the violence unleashed on the hapless 23-year-old, even applauded her sheer will to survive and her bravery, in the midst of bout of consciousness, to see her wrong-doers punished.

But still, that’s not enough.

Editors now must encourage their journalists to be on top of the news as long as it takes to write more and publish fair, accurate and investigative stories without losing sight of the crime, the impact the alleged abuse and cover-up has had on its such victims in the past, and the important role that each of us play in keeping our communities safe from such brutality.

A trend we see suddenly is there are more such stories cropping up on the sidelines of stories related to Damini – ‘Mother of four sedated and raped, two held’, ‘Toddler drugged and raped’, ‘India parties let rape accused run for office’, ‘Madrassa teacher gets 22 years for raping minor’...

Is a sexual assault season on in India? Is there some evil wind blowing that is giving rise to such crimes? On the contrary it has to do with the way the media reports such incidents and when. It has to do with the fact that with the Delhi rape case, similar cases are being seen and tagged as important case, which on other days were being relegate to an inside Nation or City page.

The media must understand that it plays an enormous role in how this information reaches the public. It would be my earnest request to each member of the media to use appropriate language and content that factually reports — and never sensationalises — this information, yet be on top of the news.

How can the media ensure that it is effectively covering such stories? For one, journalists must bring out the inhuman aspect of cases similar to Damini’s as crimes such as rapes and savagery violates the very right of the victims and leave a lasting impact on them, emotionally and physically. The media has a responsibility to never minimise the seriousness of sexual violence and its effects on victims and their families.

As any journalist who has covered rape cases would tell you, it is important – and challenging – to find the right balance between relaying details that explain the situation and relaying those that are too intimate or personal for the victim.

A consultation workshop on media ethics on reporting rape cases organised at the Manipur Press Club in November found that the ‘role of the media is not only confined to serving the people in its best capacity but the emerging trend of the media, assuming foremost importance in the society and governance’.

The workshop further found that the ‘the influence of media to play the all-pervasive and all-powerful impact on society to make or unmake any individual, institution or any agenda is paramount’.

It is imperative for media to take note of the fact that fair news stories are ones that reflect the voices of both the victim and the perpetrator, treat the victim with respect and acknowledge the seriousness of the trauma the victim has endured. Additionally, the stories, whenever possible, must provide information that portrays the broader issue of sexual assault, rather than just the circumstances surrounding the case being covered.

In a nutshell, media must inform the general public about the ways individuals react to and cope with emotional trauma and the process of recovery, avoid sensationalism and melodrama, yet portray the tragedies and evils of the society right, and acknowledge the victims’ sheer grit, bravery and instinct of wanting to survive their experience. It’s not only that they need to be made heroes for the sake of the society but also because they need the boost-up from within to come out as unmarked as possible – and the media has a very important role there.

The role of media also becomes that of a healer for the victims of sexual assault and that is a realisation that journalists must have. The Indian twist to this is peculiar, given the country’s socio-economic weave. Sometimes media has to highlight the very right of rape victims to doctors, finances, psychologists, and support from the family and friends – anything that can get the rape victims back to the mainstream. It’s not that it is not being done, it’s only that the media must understand its responsibility so that there not even an inch of a room for mistake.

As a portrayal of the gravity of the situation, I’d like to quote an interview with a rape counsellor in “A lot of girls think that they have become dirty. They tend to cover themselves with shawls for months. Some develop random mood swings and don’t feel wrong in repeatedly narrating their stories with graphic details. Others turn violent and want nothing less than death of the rapist,” said Sudha Tiwari, a rape counsellor with NGO Shakti Shalini in Delhi for over 15 years, told the online newspaper.

It’s evident that media has the responsibility of playing not only the watchdog of the society but also the restorer of the human spirit to forget such horrors in one’s life and continue living with some hope.

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