For many journalists, reporting based on sexual harassment allegations from an anonymous account was an ethical dilemma they faced during the course of the movement.

Apathy vs Empowerment Did Indian media fail to take Me Too stories forward
Delve Gender and sexuality Thursday, November 21, 2019 - 17:10

On the morning of October 4, 2018, AIB comedian Utsav Chakraborty took to Twitter to slam sexual harassment by Indian men. In a few minutes, Mahima Kukreja, a fellow comedian, responded with a string of screenshots of lewd messages, allegedly from Utsav. 

A few days before, on September 26, 2018, actor Tanushree Dutta had accused Nana Patekar of sexual harassment during the shoot of 2009 film, Horn 'Ok' Pleassss. That was when the Indian media sat up and realised the second wave of #MeToo movement in the country had already begun. At the time, many media houses, including newspapers and websites, reported Tanushree's statements as just another news from the world of entertainment, while a few noted it was redolent of Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein sexual assault case.

After Mahima Kukreja called out Utsav, more women started recounting their stories of sexual harassment and abuse at workplace and outing their perpetrators on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. Newspapers, websites, podcasts, television channels — national and regional — jumped on board to report these stories.

Some media outlets published these accounts as ‘she said-he said’ narratives, some investigated the sexual harassment allegations, some debated on workplace sexual harassment, while others buried the stories in the inside pages of the newspaper and also engaged in victim shaming. There were quite a few who chose not to report.

One year since the second wave, it is important to inspect if news reports were just a rehashed version of the allegations on social media, or did they really empower survivors and encourage more women to speak up?

How Indian media responded 

Ten months of investigation and interviewing 13 women ⁠— that’s what it took journalist Ronan Farrow to open the pandora's box on the sexual abuse complaints against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, when he reported the story for The New Yorker. It was the same when journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey first broke the story on The New York Times on the sexual misconduct allegation against Weinstein.

Allegations against the producer were an open secret for years, with several female actors insinuating his misconduct on public platforms. However, journalists like Ronan Farrow, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey undertook a journalistic inquiry, interviewed all the survivors and reported the stories in October 2017.

Eighty women came out accusing him of sexually assaulting or harassing them. The New York City Police Department (NYPD) and the London's Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) started an inquiry into the allegations.

Of course, there were other international journalists — like, Ken Auletta and David Carr — who had evidence against Weinstein and were almost set to publish the story until their editors decided not to publish it as the survivors were not willing to come on record.

The Indian media’s response to the Me Too movement, on the other hand, was fairly characterised by lack of vigour, and sensitivity.

“Most stories were breaking on Twitter and Facebook, and what most journalists did was to pick up the accusations from social media and send a set of questions to those accused. So, the stories were about the allegations and the response to it, with very little investigation and homework on the part of the journalists writing these stories,” says Manisha Pande, executive editor of Newslaundry.

According to Geeta Seshu, a Mumbai-based independent journalist, some media houses even trivialised the allegations of the survivors. “The media didn't actually pick up on the complaints, but the reactions to these complaints. In the process, the women who are trying to break the silence and are already at a disadvantage, were further disadvantaged. Besides, by giving space to the alleged perpetrator in their columns or not taking a stand on whether they should continue to work with them, the message sent out was that these are trivial allegations, or without substance,” she elucidates.

While it is common that international media organisations have the luxury of time to do in-depth investigative reports, most Indian media outlets claim they don't have such luxury and therefore there was no time for proper investigations. Manisha, however, disagrees.

“When the movement was picking up pace, so much was happening on social media that some journalists gave up their jobs of investigating the story and corroborating it. It’s laziness more than anything else,” she notes. She points to the example of New York Times, which held back their story on Harvey Weinstein for a whole year just to check facts and interview witnesses. “The reporting was so rigorous that it formed the basis of legal investigations against Weinstein,” she adds.

Some media organisations such as Newslaundry and Scroll investigated some cases before publishing stories based on anonymous allegations.   

On October 12, 2018, Twitter saw screenshots of sexual abuse allegations against Rahul Johri, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI), from an anonymous account. In January 2012, too, the BCCI received an anonymous email alerting the organisation of his involvement in a sexual harassment case at his previous workplace, Discovery Channel.

While Newslaundry was unable to elicit a response from the anonymous person who outed Johri, they carried out an investigation, where they spoke to multiple people who could corroborate the charge and those in his previous organisations including his previous bosses, to back the allegations. These former colleagues were either around the time of the said incident(s) or their details matched the exact same details of the allegations.

“The story took us one month,” says Manisha. “Many did not want to come on board and some had already moved to another country. But we made sure we spoke to as many people as we could. We also gave Johri ample time to respond, although he did not.”

She explains why they decided to investigate the allegation and not simply run a story on anonymous social media accounts. “By running an allegation-based story, without corroboration, I am leaving the survivor to fend for herself. A thoroughly investigated case, on the other hand, protects survivors in a way; it will not put the onus completely on the woman, who may be slapped with a defamation suit or accused of lying.”

To report or not: Journalistic dilemma over alleged accusations

Towards the end of last year, anonymous allegations and lists of men who have been called out for their sexual misconduct kept tumbling out on social media platforms.

To report a story based on such allegations from an anonymous account was an ethical dilemma as far as a journalist is concerned; and most media publications responded differently. 

At a panel discussion on the Me Too movement at the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards 2019, Meenal Baghel, Editor, Mumbai Mirror, said, “We decided not to report any anonymous allegations. I strongly felt women had to take ownership of their allegation; that deterred many from stepping forward.”

Manisha, too, admits that as an editor, there are stories that she would not run, especially those that are anonymous allegations that she cannot corroborate. “However, if I know the survivor, or have met her enough times, or if I manage to corroborate her account through other sources, I would publish it and maintain her anonymity,” she says.

Dhanya Rajendran, the Editor-in-Chief of The News Minute, notes that many women chose to remain anonymous as the due process is flawed. “Anonymity is something the internet has given them and they are entitled to it. If a journalist does a story on an allegation, the journalist needs to know the identity of the survivor and the nature of accusation. The survivor can remain anonynous to the world but not to the journalist. However, the whole journalistic notion that survivors want ‘justice’ is not what Me Too is about. Many survivors are not looking for justice; they just want to tell the world what happened to them,” she says.

Biased and unbalanced reporting

Many journalists agree that the mainstream media reported only on cases involving high-profile people, like the complaints against former Union Minister MJ Akbar and actor Alok Nath.

“There was aggressive reporting and follow-up in such cases,” notes Ritu Kapur, the CEO and founder, The Quint.

Follow-ups in cases involving perpetrators from other sectors, like theatre and education, were minimal.

Also, one cannot but note how two different news platforms ⁠— ⁠like newspaper and website — of a single media house reported on the movement in an antithetical manner.

"Numerous English newspapers chose not to report the Me Too revelations. This was primarily because the first few names taken by women were those of journalists. Most of these newsrooms have too many skeletons to safeguard and therefore they ignored the story till MJ Akbar's name was mentioned. However, Me Too had become an internet rage. So, many of these newspapers that pretended to be all ethical and didn't carry any story on print, happily churned out tens of stories every single day on their websites. Talk about hypocrisy," says Dhanya Rajendran.

How regional media participated

Among the various national news media platforms, some websites like Scroll and newspapers like The Indian Express reported on the movement with diligence, while news channels lagged behind, says Manisha of Newslaundry.

However, when it came to regional media houses, Hindi news platforms gave a relatively fair coverage on the movement, although some tried to unjustly politicise and sensationalise the matter, and even slander the survivor(s).

Other regional media houses, like Marathi, Malayalam and Tamil, stopped short of delving into it. A few Telugu television channels debated on the cause in a sensitive manner.

According to Shahina KK, a journalist in Kerala, “Some Malayalam media houses have not covered it at all. Although others reported, the reportage on the movement did not turn into a talking point, at least not with the prominence or due importance that would get one's attention.”

Singer Chinmayi, who outed Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu for sexually harassing her, continues to pay the price for speaking up (read, denied work, abusive comments online). To exacerbate her ordeals, Tamil journalists tried to engage in a media trial; so much so that in October 2018, during a press meet in Chennai, Chinmayi had to stand up and beg the media with folded hands, to be sensitive to the survivors. Tamil journalists continued to demand proof and subjected her to questions like ‘what took her so long?' and ‘how did he torture you’.

Read: 'How did he torture you?': Media apathy at Me Too presser by Tamil film industry women

The apathy of Tamil media extended when several publications continued to give space to the offender.

A few regional media outlets were exceptions, like Tamil news channel Puthiya Thalaimurai, followed a standard policy — to stand by the survivor.

“Every week, during our review meetings, we emphasised our stand to the desk editors and guided the beat reporters on how to deal with issues with utmost sensitivity," says Karthigaichelvan S, the Managing Editor of Puthiya Thalaimurai.

In Chinmayi's case, Karthigaichelvan clarifies, "We also carried Vairamuthu's side of the story, that is, his defence to the allegations, but not in a way that attacked the survivor."

What it spoke of the newsroom culture

Newsrooms predominantly have men in the top positions, who influence editorial decisions. Years of gender imbalance in the newsroom hierarchy has also reflected in the way media generally views and reports matters concerning women’s safety and gender equality.

“The mainstream media has generally not played a good role in reporting on sexual harassment complaint; some have misrepresented the complaints of women. Of course, there are articles and op-eds on sexual harassment at workplace and other related laws. It was when the movement broke the silence in corporate, academic and entertainment circles that the media was forced to report it further,” observes Geeta Seshu.

The language, including the usage of tasteless words and callous questions, used in reporting women’s issue continues to remain insensitive to the survivors and negates the cause.

“Some Malayalam media houses still use words like 'prakrathi virutham'  for unnatural and 'manabhangam' for rape, which are highly misogynistic terms,” says Shahina.

Geeta recalls how newsrooms used to have a table of non-sexist words, which were gender-neutral and not derogatory. “We need to do that exercise in the newsrooms today.”  

What has changed

The silver lining, as Ritu points out, is that new media, including news websites, have a large number of young women leading the editorial team. “This has significantly contributed to a sensitive and positive reporting, and has initiated more discussions around women's safety and gender equality,” she says.

It was also a key moment when journalism and activism merged. Some media organisations took lessons from the movement, reflected on it and implemented them.

"Organisations started relooking at the rules on sexual harassment of women at workplace. The equations in the newsroom changed, where men are aware that they can be held accountable. Some companies constituted Internal Committee (as mandated by Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act), and as a result, young women are aware of their rights," says Ritu.

A few newsrooms are taking a little more care in terms of the language used and protecting the survivor's identity.

"We have changed certain terms to indicate rape from a traditional patriarchal term to a more politically correct term. We ensure this is included in our training programmes as well," says Karthigaichelvan.

A few organisations furthered the conversation beyond the allegations, and engaged in creating awareness on the need to constitute committees to address sexual harassment at workplace, including religious organisations, and at offices that employ persons from the LGBTQI+ community.

Read other stories on Me Too: 

1 yr since 'Me Too', Karnataka garment factory workers say harassment continues

Little work, lasting costs: Chinmayi, Vinta Nanda and 3 others on Me Too aftermath

1 year of 'Me Too': From Vairamuthu to Arjun, list of new projects signed by accused men


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