"Discussion of the links between the media and violence against women crystallised around two focal points (over the past decade). One was the extent to which negative and stereotyped women's images in the media - particularly in fictional content - might contribute to gender violence in society The second ... concerned media coverage of actual incidents of violence against women."
New Agendas for Media Monitoring and Advocacy
Monday, 25 October 2004, was just a regular, routine news day.
In Bangalore, The Hindu's front page had a large photograph of the havoc wrought by the weekend's earthquake in Japan. The main headlines told us about the continuing post-election tug of war between the Congress and the NCP in Maharashtra, the forthcoming visit of the Pakistani Prime Minister to New Delhi, the umpteenth postponement of Cabinet expansion in Karnataka, plans for cooperation between India and Russia in coal gasification, and a new project of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency to grade electric devices on energy use.
The briefs column highlighted BJP leader LK Advani's comments on the AP government's talks with Naxal groups, the state visit to India of Myanmar's top leader (Than Shwe), Hamid Karzai's controversial win in the Afghan elections, The Washington Post's endorsement of John Kerry in the US elections, and so on.
What? No blood and gore on the front page? But of course. That was also the day Omar and Farooq Abdullah "escaped unhurt in Anantnag blast," as the headlines informed us, while two other persons were injured in the incident - one of them seriously. Also, the bodies of 49 Iraqi soldiers had been found on a remote road in eastern Iraq: apparently victims of an ambush as they were heading home on leave.
There was more inside. Two youths had been found murdered (in separate incidents), a cyclist had died in a road accident, and a boy had drowned in a swimming pool - all in Bangalore. A petrol station employee was shot at in Raichur. Further afield, one person had been killed and nine - including six policemen - injured in police firing in UP's Sant Kabir Nagar, ironically enough. Also in UP, 12 persons had been injured, several shops set on fire and some cars damaged during a communal clash in Bhadohi. Across the seas, the death toll in Japan's earthquake had gone up to 21 and, in Iraq, besides the 49 soldiers mentioned earlier, six people had died and seven had been injured in yet another US air raid on Fallujah.
In the midst of all this murder and mayhem, who was to notice that one woman had died a fiery death in her own home, while another had sustained burn injuries in an apparently similar incident in the city?
Only the actual death was reported by five out of the six English newspapers published in Bangalore (The Times of India appears to have ignored both). The Hindu's brief report on the incident was headlined: "Woman sets herself on fire, dies in hospital." The City Express of The New Indian Express had a boxed item headlined: "Housewife commits suicide after quarrel over bonus money." The Bangalore Age of The Asian Age: "Woman sets herself ablaze." Vijay Times: "Woman dies of burns." Deccan Herald was the only paper to mention both incidents, albeit in the Crime Beat column, under a common, insignificant and innocuous headline: "Two couples sustain burns."
All the news items seemed to have taken at face value the police version of the tragic incident, which in turn was based on the statement of the husband of the dead woman. They all unquestioningly reported that the woman had killed herself over a petty quarrel over how the husband's Ayudha Puja bonus money should be used: she allegedly wanted to buy new clothes and/or jewellery, while he wanted to repay loans. Clearly no journalist handling the story thought it worthwhile to probe a little further, if only to determine whether or not that was the whole story. *
This kind of routine report is disturbingly reminiscent of the innumerable news briefs that appeared through the latter part of the 1970s about an astonishing number of young women dying as a result of stove bursts and other kitchen accidents. It was only when women's groups began to highlight the fact that many of these were not accidents at all, but suicides or murders of young married women within the marital home, that it became clear that there was far more to what the police automatically listed, and the media duly reported, as accidents.
Until then nobody - neither the police nor the media - had thought to inquire into why the victims of these "accidents" were, almost always, daughters-in-law - not mothers-in-law, daughters, sisters, aunts or any other female relative. And why many of these "accidents" took place at times when people are, in general, not likely to be cooking or boiling milk or whatever else they were reported to have been doing in the kitchen when they caught fire. Subsequently, of course, this phenomenon came to be referred to as "bride-burning," underlining the reality that the majority of victims were young married women or, even more commonly, "dowry deaths," since many of the deaths were apparently linked to dowry demands.
It is incredible that more than a quarter of a century after the women's movement blew the lid off domestic violence, first through the campaign against dowry-related violence, and then by bringing marital violence, battered women, etc., out of the closet where they had until then been conveniently hidden, media reports on such crimes have not changed a great deal. They still seem to treat violence against women - within as well as outside the home -- as a staple of the crime beat, warranting nothing more than the largely unthinking, unquestioning reproduction of items arbitrarily selected from the police handout to fill that particular section of the city page.
Two other issues emerge from this scrutiny of newspapers on a run-of-the-mill day - exactly a month ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (25 November), which marks the beginning of the growing global campaign called 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence (upto Human Rights Day, 10 December).
One is the apparent banality of the reports on violent crimes against women, especially in the midst of all the other violent events faithfully covered by the media. The manner in which such crimes are reported render them so ordinary, mundane and predictable a feature of daily life that they barely enter readers' consciousness, let alone impinge on their conscience. The other is the implicit triviality of the crimes themselves, conveyed by the haphazard, careless manner in which they are generally reported.
As an article by Carolyn Waldron published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) pointed out, the "media implicitly tell us how to rank the importance of public issues according to the amount of press coverage devoted to an issue." In other words, a topic that does not get adequate, appropriate media coverage tends to be perceived as unimportant. Public awareness of gender violence is bound to be affected if such stories are either not reported at all, or reported in a manner that does not catch the attention of, make sense to, and enhance the understanding of the audience.
Clearly the news media have yet to wake up to and inform themselves about the grim and gross reality of gender-based violence. This is despite the fact that concern about violence against women has moved far beyond women's organisations and feminist groups over the past couple of decades.
For instance, a number of major international institutions, including the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, have acknowledged it as a global pandemic that needs to be urgently and decisively tackled. As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said at a world conference on ending violence against women in 1999, "Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. And it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace." The theme for this year's 16 Days campaign is "For the Health of Women, For the Health of the World: No More Violence."
Violence against women
When violence of this magnitude and intensity terrorises half of the world's population, it would be reasonable to expect that it would be front page news and the subject of serious editorial comment. Yet it rarely is, except when the victim happens to be one of the "beautiful people," if not an established celebrity. As Jennifer L. Pozner, former director of the FAIR Women's Desk, has said, controversy rather than facts sells in a "media climate that considers news a 'product' and readers and viewers 'consumers'."
It is small comfort that the Indian news media are not unique in the manner in which they tend to cover - or not cover - gender violence. For example, as international media consultant Margaret Gallagher reports in her book "Gender Setting", a two-year study of 30 newspapers in Sri Lanka by the Women and Media Collective's Women's Rights Watch came to disturbing conclusions, which apply just as well to the situation in India. The survey revealed that "The press rarely initiated any substantive debate about the causes or consequences of violence against women, and there was little comment on laws, law enforcement or policy ..."
Similarly, quoting Gallagher again, research covering 20 Canadian newspapers concluded that stories about violence against women generally lacked analysis or context, depicting the crimes as the isolated, freak actions of - for example, a 'serial killer' - rather than as being part of a larger problem. Clearly there's no major North-South divide in this regard.
There has, no doubt, been some improvement in the Indian news media's coverage of gender violence, especially in terms of analysis and comment - by journalists as well as academics, activists and other professionals contributing to the media. However, this positive development is barely reflected in regular reportage, which is extremely important - if only because that is how yesterday's history comes to be recorded.
According to the WHO's World Report on Violence and Health 2002, "... while no conclusive research results are yet available on how exposure to violence through the media affects many types of violence, the media can be used to change violence-related attitudes and behaviour, as well as social norms." The WHO includes the media among the community-based efforts to prevent violence: activities meant "to raise public awareness of and debate about the issues, stimulate community action, address the social and material causes of violence and make provision for the care and support of victims."
In recent years there have been many attempts across the globe to engage the media in a serious, sustained way to tackle the worldwide plague of gender violence. There are several ideas and models to draw from, a number of them cited by Gallagher. Most of them involve monitoring, documentation and analysis of media content; developing professional guidelines and codes of conduct; generating public debate on gender violence in the media among different representatives of civil society, including media professionals and decision-makers; and providing media education to equip audiences to critique, deal with and respond to violence in the media.
The Toolkit to End Violence against Women, brought out by the US National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women and the Violence Against Women Office, has a whole chapter on " Engaging the media, advertising and entertainment industries" in the fight against gender violence. According to the document, "The responsible voice of the mass media is critical to communicating that violent behaviour is unacceptable. Violence against women, in any of its forms, should never be condoned or romanticised under any circumstances. Although reducing violence in the media is a central goal, messages that promote violence prevention are equally important."
The toolkit calls upon the media to refuse to justify, glamourise, sanitise, or normalise violence and, in addition, to employ its power to support efforts to end violence against women. Among the various actions listed in the document under the heading, "What the Mass Media Can Do," is this suggestion addressed to the news media: provide coverage about the incidence, prevalence, and impact of violence against women and the need for comprehensive, coordinated systems and community response. The toolkit highlights the importance of reporting the consequences of violence, especially the negative impact that violence against women has on both victims and society. It also suggests that the experiences and opinions of survivors of violence be included in stories and programmes on violence.
One of the most comprehensive civil society initiatives to improve media coverage of gender violence emerged in South Africa, initially as an initiative of the Commission on Gender Equality set up in 1997. Guidelines for media coverage, based on two surveys conducted during consecutive years, were introduced to and popularised among media practitioners through regular workshops. In an encouraging step, the Independent Broadcasting Authority based the section on violence against women in its revised Code of Conduct for Broadcasters on these guidelines.
A comprehensive booklet, "Violence against Women in South Africa: A Resource for Journalists," produced for distribution among media professionals, includes information on the prevalence of gender violence, deals with common misconceptions about various forms of violence, presents some findings from the two media monitoring studies, and offers suggestions for improving coverage. The info-kit has been widely disseminated in newsrooms and media training institutions, providing journalists with practical help in an accessible form.
Addressing a United Nations Security Council Open Debate on "Women, Peace and Security" on 29 October 2004, Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), emphasised that any real solutions to eliminating violence against women must derive from a concerted attack on its origins -- deeply rooted, historical patterns of discrimination against women, and systemic gender inequalities that are pervasive both in peacetime and during conflict.
The challenge before the media is to move beyond routine crime briefs, on the one hand, and sensational stories, on the other, to cover what Amnesty International describes as "the greatest human rights scandal of our times" with the depth and seriousness that it deserves.