THE BLOG

This Is What's Wrong With How The Indian News Reports Women's Issues

10/10/2016 5:14 AM IST | Updated 12/10/2016 8:46 AM IST
NEW! HIGHLIGHT AND SHARE
Highlight text to share via Facebook and Twitter
Blend Images/John Lund/Stephanie Roeser

This article discusses the findings of a research study conducted using Media Cloud – an open-source, media analysis platform developed by the MIT Media Lab and the Harvard Berkman Klein Centre, where this author is employed as a researcher. By tracking millions of stories published online, Media Cloud serves as a platform to aggregate, analyze, and visualize news conversations from media ecosystems around the world.

Since the December 2012 gang-rape of "Nirbhaya" in Delhi, there has been a rise in coverage on issues of sexual harassment and violence against women in the Indian news media.

How were readers being made of aware of the nature and causes of rape, and to what extent was this reporting able to help them place their own gender norms in context?

Prior to this incident, sexual violence against women was largely thought of as a rural issue and hence had minimal reporting in the English press in India, whose target audience is largely urban and middle to upper class. However, "Nirbhaya" was studying to be a paramedic, was attacked on a bus in the capital city of the country, and was returning home from a movie with a friend—it was a situation that many readers of the English news could relate to.

In the aftermath of the rise in reportage on rape, a key question to be asked was: how were sexual violence and women's issues being framed and discussed in the press?

How were readers being made of aware of the nature and causes of rape, and to what extent was this reporting able to help them place their own gender norms in context?

The aspects of a story the news chooses to highlight, or the language used to describe an event, play a critical role in signalling to the reader why an issue may be important. For example, here are how two different newspapers in the US covered the aftermath of the Orlando shootout in June this year:


New York Post
Daily News

Readers of the New York Post may well see the issue from the lens of an external terrorist threat, while those of the Daily News may understand domestic culpability of the National Rifle Association and its stance on gun laws.

As a media researcher exploring how the news can foster civic engagement, a frequent question of personal deliberation is: what sort of news frames or narratives push readers most effectively to challenge their own biases and subsequently change their thoughts or behaviour on an issue?

A large number of stories, by focusing on a "victim" and "assault" narrative, limit the exploration of causality to the attacker over the complex causes of gender inequality.

The brushstroke summary of behaviour-change theory around the news offers the following response: one, the reader should have gained an information-based awareness of the issue; two, the reader should have an idea of his or her personal role, if any, in contributing to the problem; and three, there is some form of understanding on how the problem in question could be corrected.

In order to address the original question then of women's issues in Indian English language press and how it may be influencing wider gender norms, a quantitative analysis of four news topics between 2015 and 2016 was conducted and compared to the above behaviour-change criteria.

The four topics chosen were rape, as it receives maximum coverage under women's issues, selective abortion, given the increased reporting post the NDA government's "Beti bachao, beti padhao (Save the girl child, educate the girl child)" campaign, and dowry and child marriage as prevalent social and gender issues.

Media Cloud

The above graph compares the amount of coverage specific terms in the Indian news receive as measured by number of stories per thousand stories.

The research outcomes showed two main lenses through which the issues were discussed: (1) a blame game-driven response to the problems, and (2) an episodic approach in the reporting.

Here the blame game response refers to the cause of the problem being directed towards an individual such as a rapist or criminal, or a political leader not performing his or her duty. A large number of stories, by focusing on a "victim" and "assault" narrative, limit the exploration of causality to the attacker over the complex causes of gender inequality. Other stories focus on reporting outlandish statements by politicians, such as the one below by a former Chief Minister of a state in Northern India on the impracticality of gang-rape, providing readers with an easy target to scapegoat the problem on to.

Media Cloud

Political leader Mulayam Singh Yadav's statement on the improbability of gang-rape.

The second, an episodic approach, refers to the framing of events such as rape or dowry violence as isolated occurrences of crime cases, rather than as continuous, regular outcomes of complex social and economic factors like patriarchy or unequal opportunities. By giving each incident this relatively simple narrative, it makes for easier or more digestible news for an audience.

Events such as rape or dowry violence [are framed] as isolated occurrences of crime cases, rather than as continuous, regular outcomes of complex social and economic factors...

The attention graphs below for selective abortion and dowry for example show the presence of sharp "peaks" that are often representative of episodic reporting—the key stories around these peaks are those that reach the news audience the loudest, and conversation often rises and falls around these. On examining the events at these peaks for rape, selective abortion, dowry, and child marriage, it was found that most fell into the following categories: statements by politicians, high-profile cases or government schemes.

Media Cloud

Cabinet Minister Maneka Gandhi makes statements supporting sex determination in July '15 and February '16.
Media Cloud

Self-styled godwoman Radhe Maa accused of supporting a dowry case of one of her followers in August '15.

While the presence of peaks is an indication of event-driven reporting, the language may determine one of the two following hypotheses: the first is that the discussion at each peak stays in the realm of an event with investigative details like when, where, who, or descriptions, while the second is that the incident is used as an opportunity to create a discussion around the complex reasons for gender discrimination and sexual violence.

To explore which way the Indian news treats women's issues, we did an analysis of the language used around the peaks. The results for each of the four topics showed that Indian sources largely confirm the second hypothesis, or that the reporting remains around investigative details rather than causal explanations. For example, the map on language around dowry reporting below shows that the key terms used with dowry are ones such as complaint, harassment, victim, petition, criminal, lodged, IPC (Indian Penal Code) – all terms that reflect descriptions of crimes rather than discussions around a social issue.


Media Cloud

"Crimes against women" has become a popular term to reference women's issues in India, and this narrative has even begun to reflect itself in prime time television with shows in the true crime genre such as Code Red and Saavdhan India that further the fear and sensationalization of this framing.

Both these framings—episodic reporting on crimes versus social complexities and the blame game focus, serve as significant impediments to the criteria of affecting social norms or behaviour.

The paradigm needs to crucially change from "crimes against women" to "we're all part of the problem."

They critically prevent the reader from introspecting into the role he or she may be playing within the larger problem—in perhaps not raising sons and daughters equally, in holding up a patriarchal structure of their family, or then in not paying male and female employees the same wages.

The news is both a reflector and creator of social norms. If the Indian news media is to play a role in creating more informed gender norms, then the paradigm needs to crucially change from "crimes against women" to "we're all part of the problem."

This post is an excerpt from a wider Media Cloud research study conducted on the Indian news media for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Gorgeous Photos Of Delhi's Native Trees

More On This Topic