A panel discussion on ‘Reporting on rape’ hoped the issue would be retained by the media on the front burner
Days after the young woman was gang raped on a bus in New Delhi, many thought her story would fade along with other, equally brutal crimes. But three weeks have passed, and the 23-year-old student’s death continues to inspire protests—and still dominates press coverage, to the surprise of those who thought the media would soon leave the tragedy, and the issue of crimes against women, behind.
“The media is always shifting its gaze,” said Pamela Philipose, editor-in-chief of the Women’s Feature Service, delivering her remarks to a standing-room-only crowd at the Indian Women’s Press Corps on Friday. “For perhaps the first time, there has been an undiluted response by the media. It is not lifting its gaze from this story.”
Ms Philipose spoke as part of a “Reporting on Rape” panel of journalists and media experts called to evaluate press coverage of the incident and the public outrage that followed — or, as the event press release put it, was the media “hysterical and irresponsible, or effective and balanced in its coverage”?
KTS Tulsi, an attorney and criminal justice expert, gave the press low marks. He claimed the coverage had sparked violent street protests and too much focus on the sentencing of the accused rapists over concrete criminal justice reforms. “Instead of generalising anger to constructive purpose, it actually fed the frenzy,” he said. “Why can’t we have specialists in media who know a little more about crowd control?”
Mr. Tulsi’s critique raised questions you might hear in any journalism classroom: Should the media reflect society, or direct it? Where should the line between journalist and social activist be drawn?
Shoma Chaudhury, managing editor of online magazine Tehelka, said that editors — contrary to the popular ideal of “journalistic objectivity”— should have enough of a political point of view to choose to “stick with a story after the immediate, white-hot attention is over.”
“Whether there is interest in a story or not, whether there is commerce in it, will you follow it or not follow it?”
Indeed, the lack of journalistic follow-up was as much to blame as any branch of government for all but ignoring crimes against women until now, Ms. Philipose said: “We have been letting this issue grow in front of us until it has become a Frankenstein monster.”
Or until such a shocking case grabbed public attention. With government statistics showing that a woman is raped every 22 minutes in India — and with many of those cases equally horrific, panelists had different answers for why this case appears to have become a watershed moment for the country.
“She was able to galvanise by her courage,” saidNivedita Menon, a politics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University affiliated with social-political blog Kafila.org. “She was everywoman.”
And who was ‘she,’ exactly? As of yet, news outlets have preserved the 23-year-old student’s anonymity, leaving it to her family to choose whether to release her real name — a journalistic standard that goes beyond that of some countries, including the United States, where newspapers would have published the victim’s name after her death. Ms. Chaudhury took some news outlets to task for using fake names in the absence of a real one —particularly The Times of India, which has dubbed the young woman ‘Nirbhaya’ or without fear—calling the pseudonym “cheap, abhorrent sentimentality.”
But whether press coverage of the young woman’s death, and the discussion of women’s rights that has ensued is excellent, mediocre, or downright terrible, all panelists agreed that it should not let up. “For the first time this issue is on the front burner,” Ms. Philipose urged the audience, many of whom were journalists themselves. “Don’t let it go to the back burner.”