ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Reporting of Violence against Women in Indian Newspapers

Amanda Gilbertson (amanda.gilbertson@unimelb) is with the University of Melbourne. Niharika Pandit (niharikapandit28@gmail.com) is with London School of Economics.

The media shapes public understanding of violence against women and girls, but until now there has been no systematic review of reporting on violence against women and girls in Indian media. This paper presents the results of analysis of over 1,500 articles from four mainstream Indian newspapers—two English and two Hindi—and measures these articles against several sets of guidelines for reporting on violence against women and girls. This analysis revealed that mainstream newspapers’ reporting on violence against women and girls is overwhelmingly incident-based, presenting this violence as a series of isolated events rather than a systemic social issue. Thematic reporting that explicitly challenges common myths about violence against women and girls, describes the difficulties survivors face in seeking justice, and provides information about support and resources for survivors, is very rare.

There is good evidence that the media shapes public understanding of violence against women and girls (VAWG) (Carlyle et al 2014; Palazzolo and Roberto 2011; Anastasio and Costa 2004). Research from several different countries has identified weaknesses of media coverage of VAWG, including individualising incidents of VAWG and failing to provide social context, sensationalism, perpetuating rape myths, and victim-blaming (Morgan and Politoff 2012; Sutherland et al 2015; Marhia 2008; Clark 1992; Mason and Monckton-Smith 2008; Bullock and Cubert 2002; Consalvo 1998). This has led to several sets of guidelines for journalists on how to report on violence against women (see Sutherland et al 2015: 28–30 for a summary). Although VAWG has been a high-profile issue in India for many years, and India’s media coverage of VAWG has been critiqued by several commentators (for example, Feminism in India 2016), very little scholarly research exists on this media coverage. Indeed, there has been more scholarly attention to the Orientalising narratives of inter­national media reporting on the Delhi gang rape of December 2012 (Durham 2015; Patil and Purkayastha 2015; Roychowdhury 2013) than there has been to reports on this incident in Indian media (Nagar 2016; Rao 2014). This paper presents the results from the first syste­matic review of newspaper reporting on VAWG in India and asks to what extent this coverage complies with guidelines for such reporting.

The research involved gathering all articles on violence against women in four newspapers, the two most widely read English newspapers—Times of India (ToI) and Hindustan Times—and the two most widely read Hindi language newspapers—Dainik Jagran and Hindustan—over two months in mid-2017. A total of 725 English articles and 804 Hindi articles were collected and analysed. We found that many common problems in reporting on VAWG in the media were not highly prevalent in our study—victim-blaming, suggesting that victims lie, and exonerating the perpetrator, for example. The most striking issues in the reporting related to a very high proportion of incident-based reporting and almost no reporting on VAWG as a systemic social problem. Some interesting observations on the reports on domestic violence are: a lack of reporting, a failure to name domestic violence when it was reported, and a tendency to provide explanations for the violence that could perpe­tuate “she asked for it” stereotypes. Differences were also evident between Hindi and English newspapers, with Hindi papers tending to use more emotive language that was at times sensationalist. In the pages that follow, we provide a little more detail about our methods before outlining the results.

Methodology

Because we were interested in which page particular articles appeared on, Pandit identified relevant stories by reading each newspaper every day during the collection period, rather than doing a keyword search online. Selection criteria in terms of perpetrators were that the violence had to be perpetrated by either males or, in cases where there was more than one perpetrator, males together with other genders. Selection criteria in terms of victims/survivors were that they should either be female or, in the case of multiple victims/survivors, at least one should be female and the violence should be gender-based. We also planned to include violence perpetrated against transgender and other genderqueer persons in our study, but only one such story appeared in the selected newspapers during our collection period. This in itself is telling of the lack of attention paid by the media to gender-based violence experienced by transgender persons.

This is obviously a very small selection of Indian media. Although other forms of media, such as television, film, radio and social media are undoubtedly also important in shaping the public perceptions of VAWG, audiences perceive newspaper reporting as more credible and trustworthy than other news providers (Berns 2017; Reese et al 2007), and studying non-print media is notoriously difficult (Blatchford 2017). Furthermore, India is one of the few countries experiencing growth in newspaper readership. According to a recent study, 39% of Indians (12+ years) read newspapers (Media Research Users Council, Nielsen, and Readership Studies Council of India 2018). Given the relatively short time frames and small budget of this project, we chose the two most widely read newspapers in each of the two languages spoken by the researchers and chose the Delhi editions, as newspapers read in the capital city are arguably the most likely to influence the perceptions of policymakers. Further studies comparing our data to reporting in on VAWG in other languages, other cities and other forms of media would make a significant contribution to understandings of the variation across contexts.

Each article was coded using a coding sheet developed from two previous studies of reporting on VAWG in Australian media (Morgan and Politoff 2012; Simons and Morgan 2018). The main changes we made to the coding sheet involved making it more suited to the Indian context, for example, by adding questions about caste and forms of violence such as dowry harassment, acid attack, and set on fire. Pandit, Gilbertson and a researcher with experience in coding for one of these previous Australian studies coded and then cross-checked a small number of English-language articles. Once we had reached consistent agreement on how each question should be answered, Pandit coded the remaining articles. Shorter coding sheets were used for those articles that were only one to two paragraphs long (149 English language and 341 Hindi) and for those articles in which VAWG was mentioned but was not the main topic (157 English language and 148 Hindi). The full 84-question coding sheet was only used for longer articles with VAWG as the main topic (419 English and 315 Hindi).

Social Context

The sheer quantity of reporting on VAWG is in itself notable. Over the two months of our study, stories about VAWG appeared at an average of 6.3 stories per paper per day. The number of stories varied between papers—an average of 6.5 stories per day in the TOI, 5.4 per day in Hindustan Times, 7.9 per day in Dainik Jagran and 5.3 per day in Hindustan. Some of these were articles that merely mentioned VAWG in the context of another topic. If we exclude these, we get an average of 5.4 stories per day in the Hindi papers and 4.7 stories per day in the English papers.

Within this plentiful daily diet of articles about VAWG, the overwhelming majority—85.2% of English articles and 94.2% 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 a systemic social problem and as something that occurs over a long period for many victims (Berns 2017; Carlyle et al 2008; Marhia 2008).

A key principle recommended in the media guidelines for coverage of VAWG around the world is to contextualise the story (Sutherland et al 2015). This can be achieved by providing statistics on prevalence and information on factors influencing VAWG, legal and institutional contexts and help services. Such elements were very rare in our study. For example, only 18 English articles and 12 Hindi articles in our study included VAWG statistics, and only 10 English and four Hindi articles included information about the causes of VAWG.

Consistent with this trend of incident-based reporting, few articles in our study included information about help services (only 5% of articles in both languages) or explicitly challenged the myths surrounding VAWG. Only five of the longer Hindi articles (n = 316) and 11 of the longer English articles explicitly challenged victim-blaming. The discrepancy here in part reflects the attention the English papers paid to the stalking of Varnika Kundu, a disc jockey and daughter of a senior bureaucrat, by Vikas Barala, the son of Haryana Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president. There was some very positive reporting about this incident. For example, a TOI article by Aarti Kapur was titled “Why should I hide? I am the survivor, not the accused” and explicitly challenges victim-blaming, quoting Kundu saying “Why ask me about what I was doing out late at night? The two stalkers should be asked what they were up to” (8 August 2017). A TOI article from 9 August 2017 has the headline “Stamp Out Stalking” and the lede “Chandigarh case highlights twin evils of VIP culture and lack of women’s safety.” It states that the justice system “is geared towards protecting the powerful” and reports that stalking cases are rising but convictions are rare. There were several articles in the English papers that criticised the victim-blaming statements of a politician who had commented on the case, with headlines like “Kids Mustn’t Be out at Night: BJP Neta” (TOI, 8 August 2017), “Misogynist Minister” (TOI, 11 August 2017) and “Union Minister under Fire for Misogynist Tweets” (TOI, 10 August 2017). We would hope to see more of this kind of reporting about incidents involving less high-profile individuals as well. Another example of good “myth busting” reporting is a TOI article from the 5 July 2017 newspaper that challenges the myth of “stranger danger” with the headline “Rapist Known to Victim in Most Cases: Study.”

Seven Hindi articles called for action against VAWG, one mentioned the difficulty of reporting crimes or the trauma of court procedures for victims, and two mentioned the need for law reform (n = 316). Discussion of these issues appeared more frequently, but still rarely in English articles—19 called for action against VAWG, 22 mentioned the difficulty of reporting crimes or the trauma of court procedures for victims, and 21 mentioned the need for law reform (n = 419). Discussion of problems with the way VAWG is handled by institutions like the police, the criminal justice system, politicians, social services, and healthcare practitioners were much more common, appearing in 46 Hindi articles (14.6%) and 89 English articles (21.2%). There were several examples of positive reporting here. For example, an article by Indira Jaising titled “Victims of Sexual Harassment Need More Than Funds” that appeared in Hindustan Times on 30 July 2017 describes the need for changes in the justice system. A TOI article (24 June 2017, p 6) with the headline “5 Years on, It’s the Same Ordeal for Nirbhayas” reports results of a study conducted by Partners for Law in Development. The article outlines problems with the medical and legal systems that make it difficult for sexual assault survivors to get justice. And an article about a new online portal for government employees to report sexual harassment at work mentions the passing of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act in 2013 and the widespread failure to implement the act (Hindustan Times, 25 July 2017). However, there was a tendency in articles about the need for change to focus on technical or one-off solutions such as street lamps, safety apps and closed-circuit television (CCTV) rather than the need for more systematic structural reform. For example, an article about college students experiencing sexual harassment reports that the solution was to open the back gate to the college, which reduced students’ walk from the metro station (TOI, 6 August 2017).

The problem of incident-based rather than thematic reporting on VAWG is closely related to which sources journalists cite. Representatives from organisations working on VAWG are more likely to comment on the problem as a social issue but are rarely cited. 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. Previous research has shown that journalists reporting on VAWG rely heavily on police and legal professionals. As well as contributing to incident-based reporting, this facilitates reproduction of the injustices that occur within the legal system, such as the silencing of victims and putting their behaviour/character up for public scrutiny, and reinforces the idea that legal reform is the best solution to VAWG (Taylor 2009; Morgan and Politoff 2012; Byerly and Ross 2006). Several media guidelines advise journalists to consider how their source selection might shape the framing of the story (Sutherland et al 2015; Child and Family Services 2011). Consistent with previous literature, police were the most frequently quoted or paraphrased source in our study—used in 57.5% of Hindi articles and 62.9% of English articles with sources. When one considers legal and criminal justice professionals together, including police, judges, magistrates and lawyers, they are quoted or paraphrased in a startling 74.1% of Hindi articles and 88.0% of English articles with sources. Representatives from organisations working on VAWG were quoted or paraphrased in only 4.0% of Hindi and 5.5% of English articles with sources.

Victim-blaming

Press coverage of violence against women tends to blame the victim and exculpates the perpetrator (Alat 2006; Benedict 1993; Berns 2017; Bullock and Cubert 2002; Consalvo 1998; Taylor 2009; Meyers 2004). In some reporting, victim blame is explicit and in other, the blame is implied by suggesting the victim enabled or provoked the violence. Most media guidelines advise against both direct and indirect victim-blaming. For example, the media guide produced by the United Kingdom (UK) organisation Against Violence and Abuse (AVA) (2013) begins: “Do not imply that a survivor of VAWG might be somehow, even partly, to blame for the violence she experienced, nor assume/imply that any of her behaviours might have triggered/avoided the abuse” (see also National Union of Journalists 2013). Consistent with other recent studies of VAWG in the media (Sutherland et al 2016), explicit victim-blaming was rare in our study. The language used to describe the victims was largely neutral, and positive language (nine articles in each language) was slightly more common than negative language (five articles in English and three in Hindi). We judged the overall tone of 4.3% of English articles (17 of 391) and 3.3% of Hindi articles (10 of 304) to be victim-blaming.

While explicit victim-blaming in the media is less prevalent globally than it was in the past, the idea that victims can be guilty of enabling the violence remains commonplace (Berns 2017; Morgan and Politoff 2012). Media coverage that focuses primarily upon the victim (and her actions) normalises the notion that women are responsible for preventing their own victimisation and stopping the abuse in instances of ongoing violence (Berns 2017; Barnett 2012; Dwyer et al 2012; Richards et al 2011). However, even implicit victim-blaming was not particularly common in our study. In 26 English articles (6.6%) and 46 Hindi articles (15.1%) details of the victims actions were given (for example, an affair) that could imply that the victim provoked the violence. Ten English (2.6%) and 16 Hindi articles (5.3%) included information about the victim’s behaviour that some readers might interpret as evidence that the victim enabled the violence/abuse, such as drinking alcohol and going home with the perpetrator.

Globally, there is a public perception that false allegations of violence against women are common. Studies carried out in the UK, Europe and in the United States (US) show that false allegations are rare—between 2% and 6% of incidents reported to police (Lazard 2017; Lovett and Kelly 2009). In India, the situation is a little more complex. The criminalisation of consensual sex by parents who disapprove of the relationship appears to be quite common, as is the redefinition of consensual sex as non-consensual in instances where a man retracts a promise of marriage, known as rape by false promise of marriage (Misra and Bronitt 2014; Brereton 2017). Nevertheless, a very large proportion of violence against women goes unreported and the fear that they will not be believed is a significant contributor to women’s reluctance to go to the police (Bhattacharya and Kundu 2018). Low conviction rates tend to be interpreted by men’s rights groups as evidence of false accusations, whereas women’s rights groups argue that low conviction rates more likely reflect a failing criminal justice system that distrusts women’s testimony (Brereton 2017) and the fact that most violence occurs in private spaces with little evidence (Jaiswal 2017). All this points to a need to make it easier for women to report violence and receive justice. However, the idea that women misuse the law has resulted in measures that make reporting, prosecution and conviction even less likely. The “misuse” argument has been used repeatedly to justify the fact that marital rape is not a crime in India and to justify the extension of this marital rape immunity to “live-in” partners (Brereton 2017). In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that the domestic violence laws needed to be watered down because most cases were based on false allegations or trivial matters (The Invisible Lawyers Team 2017).

Research in the US (Barnett 2012) and New Zealand (Gavey and Gow 2001) have shown that the media reflects and shapes this perception of widespread false allegations. In India too, the mainstream media’s reporting of the misuse argument has at times overemphasised its extent and impact, and failed to put this in proportion with the scale of VAWG and the problem of under-reporting (see Anand 2015, for example). Given this context, we were somewhat surprised to find that only a small number of articles in our study explicitly or implicitly (through presenting accounts that contradicted the victim’s story) suggested that the victim may have lied—30 English articles (7.7%) and 22 Hindi articles (7.2%). The myth of false allegations is most powerful in relation to sexual crimes. In our study there was a suggestion that victims lie about sexual crimes in five of 149 Hindi articles (3.4%) and 11 of 200 English articles (5.5%) about rape and indecent assault. In three of 149 Hindi (2.0%) articles and seven of 200 English articles (3.5%), there was a suggestion that the victim(s) may have consented at the time and later changed their mind (or do this in general). Perpetuation of the myth that rape victims often lie was thus not highly prevalent in this study.

Sensationalism

Sensationalism in reporting on VAWG is used to increase the article’s “unusualness” and make reports more appealing to audiences (Carter 1998; Benedict 1993; Greer 2003). Constructing stories through the lens of entertainment can publicly humiliate victims by subjecting them to the readers’ gaze and undermine the serious realities of gendered violence (Kothari 2008: 50; Morgan and Politoff 2012). This is a representation of VAWG in the media that is provocative rather than representative (Sutherland et al 2015). Sensationalism in reporting on VAWG can take many forms—the types of violence selected for coverage, the language used in articles and headlines, and the level and type of detail used to describe incidents of VAWG.

In our study we found that some types of VAWG were more newsworthy than others. For example, rape was discussed in 45.7% of English and 43.0% of Hindi articles, and murder was mentioned in 23.8% of English and 23.9% of Hindi articles. Emotional abuse and threats of violence barely featured. Many of the cases reported were in themselves sensationalist—involving young victims, multiple forms of violence, and particularly brutal violence. For example, 17.4% of Hindi (49 of 282) and 19.2% of English (50 of 260) articles about rape involved gang rape. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB 2017) data for 2016 indicates that only 5.6% of reported rapes nationally are gang rapes.

The questions we asked to establish sensationalism were:
(i) Does the story offer large amounts of detail about the crime? (ii) Are the details offered unnecessarily titillating? (iii) Is the headline sensationalistic? So as not to conflate issues related to the types of violence reported on and the nature of that reporting, we decided to use a fairly high bar for sensationalism in headlines—coding as sensationalist only those headlines that used particularly emotive verbs or adjectives, or provided unnecessary detail that was likely to be particularly enticing to readers. With this definition, we found that 17.9% of English (75 of 419) and 36.4% of Hindi (115 of 316) headlines were sensationalist. The difference reflects the greater use of emotive language in Hindi articles. Some examples of sensationalist headlines include “SP ke thappad ki keemat 50 hazaar” (SP’s slap costs `50,000), “Sadak par bekaabu daud raha hai aparadh” (Crime running amok). An example of a Hindi headline that included excessive detail is: “Sauteli maa ne pakde the masoom ke haath, pita ne dabaya tha gala” (Stepmother held child’s hand, dad strangled her). Examples of English headlines that were coded as sensationalist include: “‘Killer’ Hubby Suspected Wife, Bought Knife” (Hindustan Times, 22 June 2017), and “Why Trigger-happy Delhiites Are Killing over Suspicion of Adultery” (TOI, 17 July 2017).

We defined excessive detail as articles that provided enough detail to give the reader a vivid picture of the crime. This was a highly prevalent problem, a feature of 45.3% of English articles (190 of 419) and 57.0% of Hindi articles (180 of 316). Occasionally, images were used to convey some of this detail. For example, a Hindustan Times article with the headline “Man Stabs Wife 30 Times over ‘Affair’” includes images detailing the crime step-by-step (10 August 2017, p 13). Titillating details were rare—prevalent in only 15 English articles (3.6%) and nine Hindi articles (2.8%).

Framing the Perpetrator

Previous studies have shown that newspaper articles tend to over-report crimes perpetrated by men unknown to the victim (Marhia 2008; Mason and Monckton-Smith 2008; Morgan and Politoff 2012). This results in a heightened sense of “stranger danger” and the false perception that women should avoid public spaces in order to keep safe. The reality is that most violence against women and girls is perpetrated by a known person. In our study we did not find an abundance of stories in which perpetrators were stranger to the victim—only 64 Hindi (10.3%) and 76 English articles (14.2%). However, this may reflect our very broad definition of “acquaintance.” We included in this category perpetrators who were described as living in the same neighbourhood or going to the same school as the victim, for example. Furthermore, in 25.3% of Hindi and 21.4% of English articles, the relationship between the victim and perpetrator was either unknown or not mentioned. This raises the total proportion of articles in which the reader could assume the perpetrator was a stranger to 35% of both Hindi and English articles.

The myth that women are most at risk from strangers is strongest in relation to sexual crimes. Data from India suggests that only 47% of women experiencing domestic violence (Jaiswal 2017), and between 0.97% (Palermo et al 2013: 605) and 5.8% (Gupta 2014: 3) of rape survivors formally report to the police. Given the vast majority of VAWG is not reported to the police, we cannot use police statistics as a guide for the true nature of VAWG. We might reasonably expect, however, that there would be some alignment between the two types of reported VAWG—that reported to the police and that reported in the media. Data from India’s NCRB (2017) shows that 94.6% of reported rapes in 2016 were perpetrated by a person known to the victim. Only 5.4% of rapes were perpetrated by strangers. If we focus only on those articles in our study that report on rape, 7.4% of Hindi and 10.2% of English articles explicitly report stranger rape. However, in 24.8% of Hindi and 19.2% of English articles, the relationship between the victim and perpetrator was either unknown or not mentioned. This raises the total proportion of articles in which the reader could assume the perpetrator was a stranger to 32.2% of Hindi and 29.4% of English articles. The same issues with our broad definition of “acquaintance” apply. It thus appears that the newspapers in our study may be contributing to the myth of stranger danger, particularly when considered in the context of the lack of reporting on domestic violence.

Researchers have found that the coverage of violence against women can often minimise the blame of the male perpetrator (Taylor 2009; Benedict 1993), for example by describing the unfortunate background of the perpetrator, or describing the perpetrator as also a victim of violence or as a nice or kind person. This was not a significant feature of our study. An overall tone that seemed to exonerate the perpetrator was a feature of only 21 English and three Hindi articles. Mentioning the unfortunate background of the perpetrator, and describing him either as a victim of violence or as a nice/kind person were very rare.

While encouraging empathy can problematically minimise blame of the perpetrator, overly demonising portrayals can suggest VAWG is an anomaly or unusual rather than systemic. An exaggerated sense of “stranger danger” can be conveyed when perpetrators are described as evil or monstrous, rather than as someone familiar with “normal” psychology. This was a feature of 24 Hindi articles (8%) compared to only three English articles (0.8%). This discrepancy again reflects the use of more emotive language in Hindi reporting. Headlines and stories in Hindi newspapers often used words such as vahasheeyat (bestiality), haivaniyat (animality), darindgi (predator-like), and jaghanya (heinous).

Domestic and Family Violence

Very few articles described incidents of violence perpetrated by intimate partners and family members.1 We recorded the relationship between victim and perpetrator for all articles in this study and found that 18.4% of Hindi and 19.2% of English articles reported on violence that had been perpetrated by a husband or other family member. We subjected longer articles to the full coding sheet, which included more detailed questions about incidents of domestic or family violence. Of the longer articles (315 Hindi and 419 English), only 42 Hindi and 45 English articles concerned domestic or family violence. The perceived newsworthy-ness of domestic and family violence is thus also indicated by the fact that many articles about it were too short to be subjected to the full coding sheet.

According to the NCRB statistics, 32.6% (1,10,378 of 3,38,954 incidents) of reported crime against women in 2016 was reported under “Cruelty by Husband or His Relatives” and several other categories of crimes against women would also have included a significant proportion of perpetrators who were relatives of the victim. The 18%–19% of VAWG perpetrated by relatives (including husbands) in our study is significantly less than the proportion of relative-perpetrated VAWG in police data. When we look more closely at specific crimes, we see that the proportion of rape perpetrated by a family member (other than a husband) in our study (10.5% of Hindi and 9.0% of English articles about rape) is similar to NCRB data for 2016 (10.0%).2 Murder perpetrated by family members was possibly under-reported in our study, however. Indian statistics on the relationship between victim and perpetrator in the murder of females are unavailable, but globally 38% of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner. In our study, if we look at articles about adult female murder victims (aged 18+ and assuming articles where no age is mentioned involve adults), 18.0% of Hindi articles (30 of 167) and 21.7% of English articles (28 of 129) involve a husband as the (alleged) perpetrator.

In addition to incidents of domestic violence, the language of domestic violence was also lacking in our study. Most media guidelines include recommendations regarding correct use of language (Sutherland et al 2015: 28). For example, Australian organization Our Watch (2014: 2) provides the following advice to journalists under the heading “Name it”:

Always use the term “domestic violence” when it applies. Using language like “domestic dispute,” “volatile relationship” or “bashing” minimises and trivialises a violent situation. Plus, if your audience consistently comes across this term they will get a better understanding of the extent of the problem.

In our study, only three Hindi articles use the phrases gharelu hinsa (domestic violence) or gharelu jhagda (domestic fight or dispute). A few Hindi articles use the phrase dahej utpeedan (dowry harassment). The remaining Hindi articles that describe domestic violence use words like jhadga (fight), maarpeet (battery) and pitai (beating). There is ample description of violence between intimate partners, but not many use gharelu hinsa, instead choosing to describe the specifics of the violence. For English articles, 13 make use of the term domestic violence usually in the context of court stories, general stories about domestic violence, interviews with lawyers or when talking about the anti-domestic violence legislation. In incident-based articles, while the crime is often described in great detail, it is hardly ever named as domestic violence. The phrases domestic violence and gharelu hinsa are included in the relevant act—Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 or Gharelu Hinsa se Mahilaon ka Sanrakshan Adhiniyam 2005. Furthermore, India has a long history of civil society campaigning for laws and public awareness around domestic violence. This language is therefore likely to be reasonably familiar to newspaper readers. We contend that if journalists used the phrases domestic violence and gharelu hinsa, it would help readers to recognise individual incidents as part of a systemic problem, and to recognise the scale of the problem relative to the comparatively minor problem of false accusations (see section on victim-blaming above).

Media coverage of VAWG often provides reasons to explain or excuse men’s use of violence. “Reasons” can include anger management, impulse control, and emotional stress (Exner and Thurston 2009). In the case of domestic violence, researchers have found a tendency of journalists to include information about arguments that preceded the violence. This can perpetuate a “she asked for it” stereotype and constructs responsibility for the violence as shared (Evans 2001). Thus, even when discussions of VAWG are not explicitly victim-blaming, they can include explanations of the violence that excuse it or misrepresent the causes of violence. In our study, reasons or explanations were given for the violence in 26.6% of Hindi and 18.6% of English articles. However, reasons for violence were much more common in incidents of domestic violence than in our sample as a whole—two-thirds of English and 76.2% of Hindi articles about domestic violence included a “reason.” The most common category of reason/explanation was details of arguments preceding the violence, which occurred in 24.4% of English and 32.5% of Hindi articles. Some examples of headlines providing “reasons” include: “Man Says Killed Wife after Threats” (TOI, 23 June 2017), “Suspecting Extramarital Affair, Man Murders Wife” (Hindustan Times, 16 July 2017), “Man Kills Wife as Her Chappatis Not Round” (TOI, 24 July 2017).

Who Gets Media Attention?

Most articles collected for this study were about VAWG that happened in a metro, that is, one of India’s biggest cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata—65.0% of English and 67.2% of Hindi articles. Only 6.6% of English and 4.9% of Hindi articles reported on violence that had happened in a rural context.
Because we analysed the Delhi issues of the chosen newspapers, it is unsurprising that most of the violence that was reported had occurred in Delhi. However, the under-reporting of VAWG that had happened in a rural context is notable. We contend that this reflects a media bias towards covering issues in places that are perceived to be more important. Despite many years of critique of the metro-centric nature of Delhi media, there has been little change, leading to the emergence of specific rural-focused publications like Khabar Lahariya and the People’s Archive of Rural India.

However, this is not simply a matter of more and less newsworthy geographies. The demographics of victims and perpetrators can also influence which violence gets reported. Many commentators have suggested that the scale of media, public and political attention given to the December 2012 gang rape and murder case reflected the fact that the victim was an aspiring middle-class young woman killed on her way home from a movie in a middle-class area of New Delhi (Dutta and Sircar 2013). In our study, a large proportion of the more thematic reporting that sought to challenge victim-blaming was focused on the Varnika Kundu case. This implies that it is the high-profile cases involving famous perpetrators that are perceived as warranting a thorough analysis of the systemic, gendered nature of VAWG.

In contrast to the cases above, the media failed to cover the murder of a Dalit family in Khairlanji in 2006 (PUCL 2007), and more recently the case of a Hindu man raping and murdering a girl from a nomadic Muslim community in Kathua was barely reported beyond the militarised state of Jammu and Kashmir where the violence occurred. Although this case occurred in January 2018, outside the period in which we were gathering articles, it is notable that one of the Hindi newspapers included in this study, Dainik Jagran, published an article claiming that the girl had not been raped (Boom Fact Check Team 2018). In our study, articles included the caste and religion of the victim and perpetrator so seldom as to make it impossible to draw conclusions regarding over- or under-representation of certain types of victims and perpetrators. Only two English and no Hindi articles explicitly described violence in relation to caste. Similarly, only three articles in each language explicitly described the violence in relation to religion.

Several media guidelines advise against including certain details about perpetrators to avoid perpetuating the myth that certain communities are more violent than others. For example, guidelines from AVA (2013: 16) state: “the country of origin of the perpetrator is irrelevant, considering that gender-based abuse is a cross-cultural phenomenon, with no geographical or cultural boundaries.” It is likely for this reason that the Press Council of India (PCI) (2010) guidelines advise against identifying a person’s caste or community. In our study, the articles that explicitly described the violence in relation to religion were at risk of perpetuating myths about certain communities being more prone to gendered violence. All described VAWG in relation to Islamic culture, and could be interpreted as examples of a global trend of “outsourcing” patriarchy to Islam and using gender inequality as a way of vilifying Islam (Abu-Lughod 2013). An example of this is an article with the headline “Minor ‘Sold’, Married to 65-year-old Arab” and the lede “Sayeeda Unnisaa, mother of the girl said she received a call from her daughter saying she was being tortured by her Arab husband” (Hindustan Times, 18 August 2017, p 10).

However, the complete absence of caste and religion in newspaper reporting on VAWG, other than these few problematic examples, means that readers are not informed about the centrality of VAWG to inter-caste and inter-religious violence as well as conflict situations more generally. While it is imperative that journalists avoid demonising particular communities, we assert that a more thematic reporting on the role of VAWG in inter-caste and inter-religious violence is necessary to educate readers about these systemic social issues.

Conclusions

This paper has shown that there is much room for improvement in mainstream newspapers’ reporting on violence against women and girls. Several problems identified in studies of media representations of VAWG elsewhere were not highly prevalent in our study, particularly victim-blaming, suggesting victims lie, and exonerating the perpetrator. We found a few examples of high-quality thematic reporting that explicitly challenged common myths about VAWG and highlighted the difficulties survivors face in seeking justice. However, beyond these few exceptions, newspaper readers are subjected to a steady stream of often excessively detailed and sometimes sensationalist stories in which incidents appear isolated rather than part of a systemic social issue. Almost no articles provided information about support and resources available for survivors and VAWG experts were very rarely cited. Incidents of domestic violence did not make the news as often as other forms of violence, when they did they were rarely named as “domestic violence,” and explanations were provided in most articles about domestic violence which could imply that the victim was “asking for it.”

Journalists’ can play a very positive role in informing the public about gendered violence. Evidence of this can be found in a number of digital new media sites such as Feminism in India, Youth ki Awaaz, The Wire and The Ladies Finger, which frequently produce the kinds of journalism encouraged by media guidelines. What, then, can be done to encourage mainstream newspaper journalists to include more context and analysis in their coverage of VAWG? One avenue might the PCI’s “Norms of Journalistic Conduct” (2010). These norms currently only discuss gender in the context of reporting on HIV. Perhaps, including guidelines about reporting on VAWG and encouraging news organisations to endorse and commit to these guidelines would result in better reporting. However, we also need more information about the factors that inform journalists’ and editors’ decision-making regarding what information to include and exclude. Better guidelines may do little in the face of the pressures of newsworthiness. Nevertheless, studies show that reporting on VAWG has improved in countries with sustained government-supported campaigns (including guidelines) aimed at achieving this (Sutherland et al 2016; Morgan and Politoff 2012; Simons and Morgan 2018). The results of this study demonstrate the need for just such a campaign.

Notes

1  Defining domestic violence was challenging in this project. Some of the violence against women was perpetrated by family members other than their intimate partner. Dowry-related violence was the key example of this. We included these examples within our definition. There were many different types of intimate partner. In India, it is very uncommon for unmarried couples to live together. Therefore, violence perpetrated by a boyfriend was often not connected to a domestic setting. These examples were not included in our definition.

2  We have consolidated all categories of relatives listed by the NCRB—grandfather/father/brother/son (630), close family other than above (1087), and relatives other than both the above (2174).

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