Brutality of crime, class bias decide rape coverage in Indian newspapers: Study

The study analysed reports on rape in 10 newspapers in six languages, and interviewed 257 print, broadcast and digital journalists working across 14 languages.
A person holding the newspaper
A person holding the newspaper
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A study done by Media Action Against Rape (MAAR), a research and capacity-building project led by Bournemouth University and UNESCO, New Delhi, has found that a majority of newspapers analysed continue to give preference to covering rape in urban areas over rural areas. Of the newspapers surveyed, 49% gave preference to rape in urban areas, compared to 22% that were about incidents in rural areas.

The report also found a bias towards reporting on sexual violence involving ‘people like us’ or people from ‘our’ cities, excluding or having lower preference for victims and survivors from lower socio-economic strata. There is also a propensity towards reporting ‘unusual’ cases — meaning that gang rapes, particularly violent, ‘high-profile’ cases get more coverage.

The report, titled ‘Sexual Violence and the News Media’, is authored by Dr Chidu Sreedharan and Professor Einar Thorsen, both of whom work at Bournemouth University. The study undertook comparative analysis of 10 newspapers in six languages (two Hindi, one each in Gujarati, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, and four English) with a readership range of 0.94 million to 68 million, and semi-structured interviews with 257 journalists, from online, print and broadcast media, reporting across 14 languages. It also claims to be the first study “to analyse a multilingual dataset from across India with a cross-section of regional languages.” The study looked at 1,635 stories about rape and sexual violence reported in the newspapers over three months (June 1 to August 31, 2018). It looks at various aspects of how sexual violence is covered by Indian newspapers, what are the motivations and sources to cover a story, how the story is placed, the language used and so on.

Which stories get reported and how they are placed

Only 8.4% of the rape stories analysed in the study were found to be placed on the front page. An exception to this were The Hindu and Hindustan Dainik where two out of every 10 stories were found to be on the front page. Meanwhile, Dainik Jagran, which was one of the two newspapers with the highest number of rape stories reported overall, places only 3.9% (16) of them on the front page. Meanwhile, “regional newspapers published a low number of stories on the frontpage, ranging from just below 4% to just above 8% (Gujarati, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, and English in Assam).”

Gang rape accounted for over 20% of the news reports, and was the single largest category of sexual violence reported. However, only three newspapers — Dainik Jagran, Hindustan Times, and Vijaya Karnataka — had gang rape reports as the largest category of sexual violence reported in terms of volume, meaning, that there was notable variance across newspapers of different languages. Meanwhile, partner or marital rape made up only 0.6% of the news reports; same-sex rape made up 1.1%, and acquaintance/date rape, only 5.5%. Notably, same-sex assault was often euphemistically referred to as “forced unnatural sex” or “sodomy”. Out of the sample, 2.2% newspapers overtly victim-blamed in their reports.

The only exception to the trend of newspapers giving preference to rapes reported in urban areas was Hindustan Dainik — 53.6% of rape stories reported in it took place in rural areas.

Interestingly, 22.2% of the journalists interviewed were of the belief that all rape stories they come to know of get reported. “Next in order of prominence are cases that are described as ‘high-profile’, where 20.6% (n=53) of respondents said the status or fame of the people involved in a case increased its newsworthiness. This was followed by law-and-order responses at 16.7% (n=43), ‘gravity’ at 14% (n=36), locality at 13.2% (n=34), and editor’s decision at 7% (n=18).” Particularly in the responses from south India, law and order responses featured above 20% in relation to the story identification process.

That the ‘gravity’ of the crime was a deciding factor for 14% of the respondents to report the story points to a distressing aspect of how we view sexual violence. Sexual violence that is more brutal, unusual grabs more eyeballs, pointing to a certain desensitisation towards sexual violence and the consumerism and voyeurism which prefer stories that are more harrowing that ‘routine’. Some journalists interviewed acknowledged “that they feel 'desensitised' due to the sheer number of stories they come across every day, and do not see rape alone as newsworthy, resulting in a preference in coverage for extremely brutal or ‘high-profile’ cases.”

In some cases, editorial gatekeeping and self-censorship also prevented stories from being reported. Editors were found to drop pitches if the FIR was not filed in the case, the nature of sensitivity of a case and other reasons. Self-censorship was found to be a result of various things such as the story taking a psychological toll on the reporter, and the potential impact of media coverage on the survivor and their family, among others.

Sources and lack of representation

While a significant percentage of the news reports on rape – 39% – were found to focus on details of the attack, including what led up to it, only 9% of the reports framed sexual violence as a social problem. A majority of the reports were simply ‘spot’ stories, which reported a crime without further details. Solutions were suggested in only 7% of the reports, and these too were mostly around the discussion on the use of death penalty as a punishment for rape.

The above – combined with the fact that rape reported in the news is disproportionately about ‘unusual’ cases like those involving brutal assault, multiple perpetrators, under-age victims or stranger assaults – paints a misleading picture of sexual violence in India. An overwhelming majority of sexual violence across the world is inflicted by people known to the victims, and happens in places familiar to them, such as at home. India is no exception, with around 94% of sexual assault cases being perpetrated by known persons, as per the national crime data. However, news reports do not reflect the same.

Further, police are the largest source for news gathering, journalists interviewed said, quoted directly in more than 15% of the stories and paraphrased in almost 21%. The study points out that the heavy reliance on police sources shows that rape and sexual violence are treated as ‘crime beat’ – a reductive view compared to seeing sexual violence as a socially entrenched problem. While more men than women were crime reporters – a beat that is mostly male dominated – the study also found that many women journalists who report on sexual violence treated their stories as more than ‘crime beat’, and would also source their stories differently, sometimes bypassing the police and instead reaching out to the complainant, lawyers, and others who the survivor might have confided in to corroborate the story.


Forty-one percent of the journalists interviewed said that they had “editorial guidelines in terms of verbal guidance” from their chief reporters or senior colleagues when reporting on sexual violence. This was generally of ad hoc nature, and the study found a lack of comprehensive resources to report on sexual violence responsibly. “Many respondents (38.2%, n=39) emphasised “sensitivity”, followed by factual accuracy (12.7%, n=13), and avoiding sensationalism (9.8%, n=10). A small number of respondents, all men (5%, n=5), said their personal principles did not play any part in their reporting. Being sensitive was most highlighted, with women reporters (54.3%, n=19) giving it considerably greater importance than men (29.9%, n=20),” the study said.

Among the recommendations of the study is establishing a national charter for news reporting of rape and sexual violence which would include a pledge that news outlets would have to sign, embodying “a commitment to the best practices outlined below in terms of the reporting and representation of sexual violence, and, importantly, a commitment to addressing sexual harassment and violence towards their own news personnel.” It also suggests that peer-support networks be established for journalists experiencing personal trauma – from reporting on sexual violence, and also experiencing or witnessing it personally.

Further recommendations include having an institutional approach to language associated with rape and sexual violence, developing scientific educational interventions for media and journalism students and general ones for young adults on media literacy, committing to reporting on rape and sexual violence regardless of the victim’s ‘newsworthiness’, among others.

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