Sensational stories, rare follow ups: Media coverage of child sexual abuse needs change

Our perceptions rely heavily on how the media describes these acts. So what happens when these accounts are riddled with glaring loopholes?
Sensational stories, rare follow ups: Media coverage of child sexual abuse needs change
Sensational stories, rare follow ups: Media coverage of child sexual abuse needs change

This is the third in TNM Delve series, 'Scars of Abuse'. The three-part series explores the aftermath of child sexual abuse for survivors and their families. Read our first two stories here and here.

Early this year, Chennai witnessed a shocking crime. Seven-year-old Hasini was sexually assaulted and murdered, allegedly by a man who lived in the same colony as her family. Dhasvanth, a techie, is also accused of burning her body.

Much to the distress of her father Rajesh*, Dhasvanth was granted bail on September 12.

When the news of the crime broke in February, Hasini’s name and smiling face were splashed across newspapers, digital news outlets and television news. Some even played the visuals of her charred body.

Even as the family struggled to deal with the fate of their little girl, there were varied reports about where Hasini’s parents were when she was lured, and subsequently sexually assaulted, by Dhasvanth. The traumatised family left Chennai, and relocated with Hasini’s younger brother to Rajesh's native village in Andhra Pradesh.

When TNM's Priyanka Thirumurthy met Rajesh in July, he was in Chennai for some work. His voice bore the weight of grief of his daughter's absence.

"Some media reports suggested that we had gone shopping, leaving Hasini alone," he recalls softly. "We had actually left her in the care of some neighbours there, who also have children. She said she wanted to play with them while we went to get vegetables nearby. He (Dhasvanth) lured her away with a dog he had got recently…" Rajesh’s voice trails off.

"Do you know that I would sit behind her till 1am in the night to make sure that mosquitoes didn't bite her?" he asks. "My wife sacrificed her career to be at home with the kids. And yet, the media wrote we went shopping, we went for a movie and left her!" he adds, bitterly.

How the media covers child sexual abuse

"The media plays a major role in defining what is 'normal' and what is 'deviant' in a society. It thus contributes to definitions of what is, and what is not considered abuse," observes Bengaluru-based Babu KV of Enfold, an NGO which assists survivors of child sexual abuse and their families.

Indeed, many of us read about child sexual abuse the first time when it is published in the newspapers or broadcast on television channels. Our perceptions about this insidious problem rely heavily on how the media describes these acts. So what happens when these accounts are riddled with glaring loopholes and tend to perpetuate myths and stereotypes?

Over the course of the 'Scars of Abuse' series, TNM spoke to a number of families of child sexual abuse survivors and non-governmental organisations which help them. In a world where media is consumed continuously, and violence is used as a plot point for consumption, it is not possible to ignore how the reportage affects survivors, their families, and the society.

Lack of nuanced reporting

Social workers note that when it comes to child sexual abuse, there is little nuance that goes into reporting beyond the case and its legal developments.

"There is very little effort to create awareness around child sexual abuse beyond reporting the crime itself," says Kushi of Enfold. Taking the example of Suja Jones' case, she points out the different aspects could have explored in the wake of the alleged crime.

Suja Jones accused her husband and French diplomat Pascal Mazurier of sexually abusing their daughter in 2012. While Pascal was acquitted by a Bengaluru court in April this year, what drew significant criticism was the court judgment that scrutinised Suja’s character and even said that she used her child as a 'weapon'.

Back in 2015, when the case was still sub-judice in a Bengaluru court, the media quickly became polarized. TNM reported then, that while it initially painted Pascal as the 'monster father', the narrative changed to seeing him as 'a sorry husband wronged by wife'.

Kushi says that there was plenty for the media to do without taking sides.

"The reportage could have been about how widespread incestuous child sexual abuse cases are; how the child was made to undergo medical examination more than once; what happens to women who speak up against an abuser in the family; what happens to her and her family afterwards; what happens to the child in cases of incestuous abuse… There were so many aspects which the media could have educated the readers on without incriminating or favouring either party," she argues.

The lack of this nuance is also why some feel that no good comes out of media reportage on these cases. A Bengaluru-based lawyer who has worked across courts, including civil, family and High Court, and has worked with survivors of sexual assault, believes that no good comes out a story which goes, 'Teacher arrested for sexually assaulting 5-year-old'.

Wishing to remain unnamed, she says, "I don't think a 150-word report about this makes sense. You know that an FIR has been lodged and that you can’'t name the victim, so you carry the story. What after it?"

"A detailed analysis of how victims are treated across cases, what the accused and victims go through in adjudication – this is an extremely complex, research driven type of journalism. If that is the kind of journalism one is engaging in – fantastic. I rarely see intelligent reportage, except in some magazines sometimes, that goes beyond the story to educate," she adds.

Dramatisation and language

A pervasive problem with how child sexual abuse cases are reported in the media, social workers point out, is the language used when describing the crime.

"Reporters often use their own crude terminology to describe the crime. It is dramatic, and brings the attention to the victim rather than the perpetrator," says Nancy, an advocacy officer with Tulir, a Chennai-based NGO working against child sexual abuse. "Reports often resort to blame game. They don't talk about prevention, or how parents or guardians can keep children safe," she adds.

Another issue is that terms are used interchangeably when they shouldn't be. Sexual abuse, for instance, is different from sexual assault. Molestation and inappropriate behavior are not the same as sexual assault either.

Vidya Reddy, also of Tulir, shows how these phrases and words are used interchangeably often in the same report. From a folder of newspaper clippings, she takes out one at random. This one is about a child who was sexually assaulted by a door-to-door salesman when she was alone at home. The words 'sexually abused' and 'misbehaved' are used interchangeably in the story, when it is a case of sexual assault.

"Many reports lack all emotion and the reportage completely takes away the human interest angle from the incident. Here, (the above example), why does the report not question the security of the locality? How did the salesperson get into the house? The story is lost in a simplistic or inaccurate headline, and this kind of reporting only spreads panic without really educating people," Vidya says.

Arun Ram, Resident Editor (Chennai), The Times of India, states that there still needs to be clarity on the usage of politically correct terms while covering sensitive issues such as child sexual abuse.

"For instance, usage of the word paedophile is debatable," he states. Paedophile literally translates to a 'child lover' but is used to describe a person who is sexually attracted to children. There have been arguments against labelling child sexual abusers as paedophiles since the word lets the former hide behind the garb of an 'illness'.

"There is also the question of using the term 'survivor’ over victim," Arun adds. While most publications prefer to use the word 'survivor' to address sufferers today, some believe that the term masks the victimhood that a person experiences due to rape or assault.

Biases in reporting

People who have worked in the media agree that more often than not, there is a certain kind of case that will get more coverage over the others, if at all. Various factors like access, nature of the crime and the background arguably affect this.

"There is an inherent bias in the cases we highlight and profile," says Ranjitha Gunasekaran, Assistant Resident Editor, The New Indian Express (Telangana).

"The whole 'people like us' sentiment comes into play. Since the readers are mostly middle class or upper middle class, those cases get more attention," she admits.

Ranjitha argues however that despite biases, the coverage is important. "Ideally we should treat all cases the same but we don't. And it's a whole different conversation why. But within the realm of our biases, it is worth highlighting the system and processes. Take the Aarushi case for instance. If you see how the investigation and media both messed up, even though the Talwars were privileged with contacts and money, it is not hard to imagine what would happen to those without resources," she notes.

Arun Ram of TOI, however, does not see the issue only through the prism of economic status of survivors and their families.

"The economic status of a child is not always the criterion for getting reported in the media, but the awareness about POCSO helps. There are several underlying reasons that contribute to cases from remote regions, or where survivors hail from poor families, going under reported," he states.

He adds that "It is not a matter of playing it up or down. Several things, such as whether or not victims have filed a complaint, if they have the support, say of an NGO, to pursue the case, matter. Plus, journalists also have resource limitations."

The need to protect survivors' identities

The law, under section 228A of the IPC, mandates that identities of victims of sexual assault, including minors, be withheld in the media. Under section 23(2) of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act (POCSO), 2012, as well, the media is barred from disclosing details like the child’s name, address, photographs, family details, school, neighbourhood or any other particulars that may lead to the disclosure of the identity of the child.

BT Venkatesh, a former Public Prosecutor in the High Court of Karnataka and a senior advocate who handles POCSO cases, states that while the English media maintains some degree of sensitivity, the regional media often tends to sensationalise such cases.

"They are not always compliant with procedures, including tabloids and TV channels. They may not disclose the name of the child, but they could show the school's name or the parents photographs. People can identify such things and this is one troubling aspect," he says.

When it comes to protecting the identities of the victims, Ranjitha says that the police also needs to be sensitised. "They give the details to the reporter and leave the decision of excluding it up to them. Now, even if a reporter's intentions are good but she/he is not aware, the identity and other personal details of the survivor and their family might go out in the public domain. And especially in the age of the internet, once it's out there, it's out there forever," she says.

In Hasini's case, given that the child victim was dead, the discretion to not reveal the victim's identity was not exercised. It is not difficult to find instances in the media where a victim of sexual assault is named in cases where the crime has proven fatal.

But how justified is it to do so without consent from the parents in case of minors?

"They flashed her photo everywhere," Hasini's father Rajesh says. "Every parent, every father wants to see his daughter's photo in the papers… for having done something good. I was very hurt when I watched her photos appear like this. It wasn't what I had dreamed for her," he adds.

But these things do not matter to Rajesh anymore, simply because Hasini is gone forever. "I don't worry about all those things now. Let them talk. My daughter will not come back no matter what," he says flatly.

The irreversibility of social media

An important aspect of how news is dispensed these days is through social media. It is a platform where one does not need to be a newscaster to make news. It is also a platform where people mobilise easily.

News often comes to us in the form of a viral social media post and WhatsApp forwards, accompanied by a picture and graphic details. Child sexual abuse cases are often no different. And while the intent may be good, to mobilise people against the crime, sensitive details like identity of the child and the family, once on the internet, can never be completely erased.

A photo of Hasini's body was widely shared on social media. So were pictures of the body of a minor Dalit girl in Ariyalur, who was gangraped and then murdered. There have also been instances where photographs of survivors of abuse have made it to newspapers.

In December 2009, Madhavi* was rescued from the house of her employers, a young married couple, in Bengaluru. A minor then, Madhavi was a domestic worker for the couple and also lived with them. She told her rescuers not only about the horrific abuse she was subjected to, but that she had also been molested by the man.

Soon after she was rescued, several publications ran her story along with pictures of her bruised face and burnt back. Speaking to TNM earlier this year, she said she never wants to see those pictures ever again, for they remind of her of a time she has desperately been trying to forget.

In the age of Google however, is it possible to completely delete information from the internet?

Lapses in regional media reportage on child sexual abuse

Social workers point out that while all media has been guilty of these lapses at some point, it seems to happen more in regional media.

An analysis of print media reporting on child sexual abuse by Tulir, for the period from May 2007 to July 2007, reveals some pertinent issues. The study focused on four Tamil daily newspapers and three Tamil weekly magazines. They analysed the reportage on several criteria – ethics and legalities observed, facts, presentation, terminology, language, objectivity, topical information and follow up.

The analysis revealed that in a majority of the reports, there was "complete non-observance with regard to protecting the identity of the victim". The reports were found to mention not only the survivor's name and age but also other identifiers such as school details. Some even carried the child's photo.

In cases of incest, some reports identified non-offending family members too, thereby making the identification of the survivor easier. "There is a lack of understanding that such reporting often adds to the social stigma such as shame/secondary victimization of the non-offending family members and is the very often the sole reason for many victims not reporting abuse," says the report.

The analysis also showed that the reportage didn't present "the progression or repetitiveness of the abuse" and instead reported about it as an isolated incident or a momentary act of violence. This, Ranjitha says, remains a problem with mainstream English media as well. "The cases which are highlighted in the media most often tend to be ones where strangers are perpetrators. But more often than not, the abusers are known to the victims, and can even be from the same family," she says.

Tulir’s analysis also points out how stereotypes are perpetuated, for instance, in cases where boys are victims and the abuser is often called 'homosexual'. Most media reports also focus only on rape cases, which adds to the perception that it is the only form of sexual violence.

The study also found the newspapers guilty of using melodrama and a sensationalist style of presentation. "For instance, the opening line of an article read, 'a 51-year-old youngster with a grandson and granddaughter abused an 8-year-old girl'," the report says. "Another report states that the abuser was 'carried away by the beauty of the girl and therefore wanted to have sex with her'."

The tone also turned moralistic in some case. "Usage of terms like 'karpazhippu', 'poonthalirai naasamakia seerkulaitha' etc., which mean damage to virginity/chastity, add to the social stigma attached to the victim; this usually reinforces the denial of such crimes by the victim/family/society, allowing the abuser to continue abuse of other vulnerable children," the study argues.

Like mainstream media, follow ups also tended to be rare in regional media, the study observed.

Babu, who follows Kannada media in Bengaluru also pointed to similar patterns. "For instance, two months ago a four-year-old girl was sexually abused by her neighbours. Because of the way the media covered the case, the family faced many problems. They eventually shifted to another village because of the stigma," he says.

Arun Ram however, states that the larger problem is not of language but of ignorance. Over the last decade, several organisations have worked to come up with proper guidelines for journalists covering child sexual abuse cases, he says.

"We'll have to look into reasons why the awareness has not reached vernacular journalists as much as it has reached English journalists, though the latter too have lots to learn," he says.

Lack of follow up stories

As TNM highlighted in its second Scars of Abuse story, there is a shortage of sustained follow up stories when it comes to child sexual abuse.

When the Pascal Mazurier story broke in 2012 after Suja filed an official complaint, the media lapped it up, presumably because of the high profile nature of the case. However, once Pascal was out on bail the same year, Suja said their interest in the story dwindled. A few alternate media portals reached out to her. But most mainstream publications she spoke to were unwilling to carry any story. The media however, she alleges, "seemed eager to put out Pascal's version."

Kushi points out how the media's interest in a case dies down once the hype subsides. "When an incident happens, there is incessant hounding of the police as well as the family of the survivor. But give it some time, and suddenly when there's an actual need to do a follow up, there is silence," she says.

A case in point that of Nisha*, who was sexually assaulted by a neighbour, who was also a colleague of her father's in 2013. She and her family are based in Bengaluru, and her parents, Bhavya* and Arun* are migrants from Sikkim. The low income family has been through hell trying to fight the case and at the same time, put food on the table.

When the incident happened, most major English newspapers carried a small column. "Neighbour rapes 9-year-old" read one of the headlines. But that was it. When TNM met Bhavya in August, she told us, "Maybe it would have helped if the media followed up on the case. Things could have moved a little faster. Lakshman (the accused) would have been punished for his crime, and perhaps we wouldn’t have had to go through this over and over again."

"The mainstream English media generally focuses on the crime and then if there's a legal development like a conviction or acquittal," Ranjitha agrees.

In Suja's case too, though she had no say in her name being published, she feels it ultimately was a "good thing". Suja alleges that the French Consulate tried to protect Pascal, but due to the media coverage, he was finally arrested.

"I still think media coverage is important because people need to know what happens," she said in an interview in July, adding that it needs to be done responsibly. "Some people can take it. Some can't. Sometimes when I read bad stuff in the media (about me) it does get to me."

Ranjitha stresses on the need to document processes to highlight how the system is faulty and often causes more trauma to the survivors and their families. "The police frequently delay filing the chargesheet. The victims are often harassed by the accused, especially in cases when the accused is known to the victim. There are many aspects which fall through and don't get covered unless something horrific happens. This allows non-compliant people in the system to get away because no one is looking at them," she explains.

Sensitive and sustained reportage

Media coverage is undeniably an indispensable part of the fight to prevent child sexual abuse.

There continue to be several complex aspects that need to addressed, such as a focus on issues intersecting with child sexual abuse, treading the thin line between journalism and activism, and covering stories in a way that can impact public policy.

As Arun Ram points out, we are still "evolving" and have a long way to go. "The thumb rule is that anything we write should be in the best interest of the child," he says.

As for better quality of coverage of child sexual abuse cases, he states, "The solution is to train journalists with a genuine interest in the field. If you look at the landscape of journalism on child sexual abuse, it has been written by people who have an inherent interest in writing about it. It's true for any other field. As a reporter if you are not interested in the field, you may not report about it or do a follow up. It boils down to the reporters.

*Names changed

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