In the film “Judgemental Hai Kya”, Kangana Ranaut’s character Bobby Grewal obsessively collects stories about violence against women and girls (VAWG) in the news. The number and brutality of these stories seem to drive her crazy. Watching the film, I thought of my colleague, Niharika Pandit, who scoured four newspapers – two in English and two in Hindi – for articles about VAWG, every day for two months. She managed to hold on to her sanity and collected over 1500 articles.
When we analysed these articles we were struck by the high proportion of what we call ‘episodic’ or ‘incident-based’ reporting. There was an average of six stories about violence against women appearing in each paper daily, but the overwhelming majority of these articles – 85 per cent of English articles and 94 per cent of Hindi articles – focused on individual incidents of VAWG without providing information about the social context or the underlying drivers of violence. When VAWG is represented as a series of one-off incidents, readers are unlikely to understand VAWG as both as a systemic social problem and as something that occurs over a long period of time for many victims.
Media guidelines for coverage of VAWG around the world recommend more ‘thematic reporting’ rather than incident-based reporting. Thematic articles about VAWG contextualise the story by explicitly challenging the myths surrounding VAWG (such as victim-blaming), providing statistics on the prevalence, and informing readers about factors influencing VAWG, legal and institutional contexts and help services.
Such elements were very rare in our study. The very small number of thematic articles that we did come across were focused on the case of Varnika Kundu, who was stalked by the son of a BJP politician. This implies that it is high profile cases involving famous perpetrators that are perceived as warranting a thorough analysis of the systemic, gendered nature of VAWG.
The problem of incident-based rather than thematic reporting on VAWG is closely related to whose voices journalists include in their stories. Representatives from organisations working on VAWG are more likely to comment on the problem as a social issue. Police and lawyers, on the other hand, are much more likely to focus on the specifics of the crime and the individuals involved in the violence. The vast majority of the articles in our study cited legal and criminal justice professionals and only a handful of cited representatives from organizations working on VAWG.
Although the vast majority of VAWG is perpetrated by someone known to the victim, most often a family member, there were relatively few domestic violence incidents in the articles in our study. This perpetuates the myth that women are most at risk from strangers and can be kept safe by staying at home. When violence perpetrated by family members was reported, the term domestic violence or ‘gharelu hinsa’ was almost never used. Globally, media guidelines for reporting on VAWG advise journalists to use such terms because if they are used regularly, readers will get a better sense of the extent of the problem.
Sensationalism in reporting on VAWG is used to increase the article’s ‘unusualness’ and make reports more appealing to audiences. In our study, many of the cases reported were in themselves sensationalist – involving young victims, multiple forms of violence, and particularly brutal violence. Sensationalist headlines were also an issue in eighteen per cent of English over a third of Hindi articles in our study. The most common form of sensationalism, however, was excessive detail which we found in 45 per cent of English and 57 per cent of Hindi articles.
Rather than entertaining readers with shocking details of endless, seemingly unconnected incidents, we hope that journalists will take up the broader topic of VAWG more often. This will help readers to understand not just the scale and systemic nature of the problem, but also that this is a problem whose solutions lie in tackling patriarchy rather than curtailing the freedoms of women and girls.
Full details of this research can be found in our article published in Economic & Political Weekly. You might also want to check out the toolkit that Feminism in India recently produced to help journalists improve their reporting on VAWG.