'Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted.'
Thursday 27 June 2019
How I got a major Indian media outlet to change the way they depict sexual violence
As a woman and an independent Indian journalist, a writer and a poet, I have regularly engaged with gender-based violence throughout my career. Recently, I decided I wanted to write more on the subject — particularly to better understand why men commit sexual violence and why women are not encouraged to report it. My research for this work required me to click on rape-related news more often than the average news consumer.
The outcome was distressing. I found that story after story included images of survivors of sexual violence that were gory and denigrating. They often depicted survivors in shredded clothes, fear-stricken eyes, and arms outstretched in appeal.
These images not only forced readers who are also survivors to relive their own trauma, but also depicted survivors as hapless objects carrying the shame that should be attached to their violators. This depiction also caused the subjects of the photos to potentially face a double victimization through the stigma that society imposes on rape survivors. As someone who has faced sexual harassment and child abuse, I certainly did not wish to be depicted this way.
What’s more, images of the alleged perpetrators of this violence were rarely featured. If illustrated at all, perpetrators were usually presented as hands gagging a woman’s mouth or a huge figure hulking in the shadows. While guilt squarely belongs with the oppressor, these images depicted powerless women cowering in shame. If sex is about power, then these images only served to maintain the status quo of men having power over women. They robbed women of their dignity, agency, and identities by presenting them as nothing more than victims — as prey to male predators.
In January this year, I grew tired of seeing these images and doing nothing about it, so I launched a petition on Change.org that explained why this subject was of concern not only to me, and all sexual violence survivors, but to anyone who respects women and believes in gender equality. Specifically, the petition asked Network 18, a media house in India, not to use disrespectful images of women in their reporting on sexual violence. I chose Network 18 because I believed it would be more effective to start with a specific news group rather than condemn all of them at once. What’s more, Network 18 is a mainstream news group that has a large presence across various platforms in more than one language — all of which could be positively impacted if my petition saw success.
In February, I co-organized a Twitter chat with the human rights organization Breakthrough India in which journalists, activists, and other people participated and discussed how insensitive gender reporting discourages and disrespects survivors.
All of these efforts allowed me to have a conversation with the media about gender-sensitive reporting that was related to the petition but that also ultimately went beyond it. I wrote to media groups in India and other countries requesting that they do simple things like make a statement on social media supporting the petition if they agreed with the cause. Sometimes this worked: For example, one Hindi magazine contacted me to let me know that even though they are a feminist publication, my work helped them realize that they too need to be more careful with their language when reporting on cases of gendered violence.
Almost two months after I first published it, the petition had gotten 47,000 signatures, but I still hadn’t heard anything from Network 18. Then, on March 14, I received a response from the executive editor of CNN News Network 18, pledging that the outlet would remove all debilitating images of women from their database and use more neutral substitutes. He also committed to training their staff in gender-sensitive reporting.
This victory was ultimately just a small step toward changing how the media depicts survivors of sexual assault. All media houses, not just Network 18, need to take these steps — and stick to them in the long term.
Survivors often trust reporters to write about their stories in the hopes of achieving justice; the press can cover cases in which the police refused to help, and therefore shut them out of other forms of justice. Sometimes these reports have real power to put pressure on the police to act. But these benefits are often negated when the reporting involved isn’t sensitive to the survivor’s needs. Journalism has the power to hold a space of compassion and dignity for the trauma that survivors are denied elsewhere; we must make sure that it does.