One of my earlier columns, the gender lens, was about insensitive reporting (October 22, 2012). It was a report in the Bangalore edition of this paper on sexual assault on a law student. Though the report refrained from naming the victim, a good practice not to doubly penalise the victim, as identifying the victim can lead to unwarranted stigma, it did give away some other details that can be construed as identifying clues.
Early this year, on January 6, there was a signed note from the Editor: “As some of you may know, a foreign newspaper has published the name of the 23-year-old rape victim, apparently with the approval of her father. Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits publication of the name of a deceased rape victim without the permission of her next of kin, lays down a specific procedure by which this permission is to be accorded: it must be given in writing to a welfare organisation or institution recognised by the Central or State governments. To the best of my knowledge, this procedure, which was introduced into law as an added layer of protection for the victim and her family, has not yet been followed. We respect the father’s wish to go public, if that is indeed what he wants, but unless he states the same in writing in the manner prescribed by statute, The Hindu will continue withholding the name of the victim.”
The Editor’s note and my column were published in all editions of the paper in a prominent manner, and one assumed that the import of its content would reach both the general readers as well as journalists working for this publication in an unambiguous manner. It seems that the message has reached the readers but not all the journalists. A report from Tirupati last week titled “Public outrage over rape and murder of student” (May 14, 2013) committed the cardinal mistake of naming the victim. Readers were alert. There were messages. Within hours, the mistake was rectified in the “Today’s Paper” section on the Internet site; the cache was fully deleted to prevent deep crawling search engines from locating the earlier offensive versions of the story.
How did this unacceptable mistake happen? According to the Editor, it was a failure at multiple levels. He said: “First, the reporter has no business to name the victim. Second, if he had slipped in the name either inadvertently or due to the fact that some others have done so, it was the duty of the gatekeepers to be alert. They too have failed.” He hopes that this column may act as a deterrent.
Guide for journalists
I recommend that all journalists, including those who handle the desk, read, absorb and internalise Kalpana Sharma’s edited volume Missing: Half the Story: Journalism as if Gender Matters (Zubaan Books, Delhi). This book is not a theoretical treatise on gender, but a practical guide. As Ms Sharma points out in her introduction, “it has been put together by professionals, journalists who have been in the rough and tumble of the trade, who have reported and commented on a vast range of subjects for several decades, managed and edited independent publications and sections in mainstream media, headed news bureaus, taught in journalism schools and who have emerged from this experience with the belief that there is a missing angle to much of reporting.”
After posing many questions that confront a journalist, Ms Sharma and her co-authors answer each one of them in a manner that is both erudite and accessible. She writes: “Does gender-sensitivity apply only to feature writing? Can it apply to the way news is covered, to the sense conveyed in headlines, to the choice of photographs used, to what news story is followed through and which is dropped, to the choice of people quoted in stories? We believe that such a perspective is not a stressful, artificial add-on, something that you do only if you have a boss who insists, or if as a student you are asked to do an exercise that incorporates gender sensitivity. Our own experience over several decades as journalists has taught us that this is how you can be a more effective, credible and serious journalist.”
Sensitive reporting, especially in this era of the 24x7 news cycle, cannot be taken for granted even in newspapers like The Hindu. It is a virtue that comes from training and a news culture that inculcates value-based journalism in its daily practice. This paper has an induction programme for young journalists where various dos and don’ts are explained; legal and ethical issues expounded, giving them a firm anchor for best practices. A refresher programme for mid-career journalists may be an answer.