Radhika Santhanam is an Assistant Editor at The Hindu, Chennai. She commissions and edits articles for the opinion pages of the newspaper. In her seven years there, she has also written on gender, caste, and literature. Her articles have appeared on the opinion pages, Sunday Magazine, Literary Review, Education Plus and Metro Plus. In 2017, she was selected as a Journalism Fellow for a three-month programme in Germany, funded by the Bosch Foundation. Besides working with the ZDF, the German public service television broadcaster, she also reported about German politics and culture for The Hindu. She holds a Masters degree in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and a diploma in Journalism from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.
Ms. Santhanam began her talk by discussing the 2012 Delhi gang rape, and the shifts that resulted in reporting on sexual violence in India. This case highlighted the deep-rooted problem of sexual violence in the country, grabbing headlines and leading to legal changes. This was a watershed moment in India. Although it was not the first time that protests took place in response to an incident of sexual violence, it showed how society had reached a breaking point, causing the media to cover the issue in some depth. Yet, in general, coverage tends to be episodic, whenever a sensational case emerges. Even these cases disappear from public view after some time, only to be replaced by the next case.
Limiting her analysis to English print media, Ms. Santhanam outlined some of the main problems that can be identified in coverage of sexual violence. Firstly, she spoke about language: what kinds of words and descriptions are deployed by the media? Are these descriptions necessary? And do they help the report or the larger cause? She mentioned the use of terms like ‘sex scandal’ when reporting on cases of sexual abuse, which sensationalises these incidents and minimises the gravity of the situation. Moreover, it implies that both survivors and perpetrators are willing participants in the act. This is also true of reports that use the terms ‘sex’ and ‘rape’ interchangeably. She also mentioned the use of terms like ‘roadside romeos’ for harassers, or the widely-used ‘eve-teasing’ for street sexual harassment, which trivialises gender violence.
The second problem in reporting is providing unnecessary sensationalising details of the crime that imply victim-blaming. She noted that politicians across the political spectrum also talk about sexual violence in these terms, with the victim’s actions being constantly questioned. These include some politicians saying ‘boys will be boys’, while others remark that rape does not occur in rural areas. She added that female politicians have also made such statements. She mentioned this to highlight that the notion that women must have ‘asked for it’ is extremely prevalent. Moreover, some media reports even identify the survivor by name, or provide identifying details such as where they work or the neighbourhood where they live. While courts have pulled up the media for this in some cases, not much has been done beyond that, since the media in India is not truly accountable to anyone. Social media intensifies the problem by making it easier to circulate identifying information, with even less oversight.
The third problem identified by Ms. Santhanam is the images used for publication with reports. She noted that editors tend to rely on images of protests, where relevant, but in the absence of protests, they choose from stock images. Many of these images reinforce harmful stereotypes about survivors. Some, for example, depict a woman sitting in a corner looking ashamed, with a man hovering menacingly over her.
Another enduring problem is the role of caste and class. Class bias in terms of which stories get reported is common, determined by what the newsroom thinks its readership will be interested in, as well as what editors themselves might be biased towards. She noted that the Kathua case was an exception because it became a political/communal issue. Reports tend to focus more on violence in urban India, which is seen as more relatable to the consumers of English language print media. Yet, even those stories get sustained coverage, they do not invite the same level of anger seen during initial reports, which results in publications ‘moving on’ to the next case without always following up on previous reports. Cases of sexual violence from a caste angle, used as a tool for oppression, are similarly not reported on enough. The newsroom, Ms. Santhanam noted, continues to be dominated by upper-caste men from middle- or upper-class backgrounds, even though the number of women has gone up considerably in recent years. She added that greater diversity in the newsroom would open up conversations and possibly allow for a more representative range of stories. She reflected that members of the newsroom are ultimately not very different from the segments of society they represent, and bring in some of the same biases.
Ms. Santhanam then spoke about the #MeToo movement and its impact on the profession. She said that it resulted in some amount of self-reflection on practices within newsrooms themselves that went beyond simply what to report. She added that a lot of media outlets do not have a ‘gender beat’, meaning that there is no real organisational push to cover gender issues. This makes following up on cases more difficult. She pointed to other systemic issues, like the training provided in journalism schools. Many schools, she noted, do not teach gender reporting as a compulsory part of the syllabus, leading to reporters having to learn on the job. She also spoke about the ways in which the media can improve its reporting. She emphasised the need to be more sensitive and empathetic, which can be challenging when the goal is to get quotes. She urged for using terms like ‘survivor’ instead of ‘victim’, with the latter serving to reinforce stereotypes about women being passive or meek. She added that the Indian media relies too much on euphemisms. She also spoke about reporting on violence against trans people and sexual minorities, highlighting the need to ask them what their preferred pronouns are and being more generally aware of the specific forms of violence they might face.
A truly progressive shift in reporting, Ms. Santhanam said, would involve moving beyond only concentrating on specific cases, and investigating systemic issues that allow sexual violence to happen. She added that this does happen to some extent, but much more can be done. She referred to a recently published book called ‘She Said’ on the Harvey Weinstein case by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, two New York Times journalists. This book, she noted, looked at how he was able to continue sexually assaulting women over so many years with impunity, providing insights into power relations at a deeper level. She urged for more reporting on laws, the criminal reporting system and the work done by the police, and other systemic issues, which might push politicians towards creating more inclusive and harassment-free spaces.
Rapporteur: S. Shakthi