‘Bad’ journalism from good people: sexual violence, social responsibility, and change-making in Indian newsrooms

Authors: Thorsen, E. and Sreedharan, C.

Conference: IAMCR

Dates: 26 June-13 July 2023


Sexual violence incidents remains high in India: in 2020, one rape was reported approximately every 19 minutes. This statistic becomes even starker when one considers that in India, as in many other countries, such incidents are heavily under-reported. Recent studies have evidenced the prevalence of sexual violence in national and regional newsrooms across India, and how this challenge, along with others, shapes news content on sexual violence (eg: Sreedharan and Thorsen, 2022; Sreedharan, Thorsen and Gouthi, 2019).

This paper presents a holistic consideration of the attitudes, beliefs and conventions that shape journalistic practices in relation to sexual violence. Many journalists see their reportage as a tool for social intervention. Yet, they face considerable constraints, both in terms of the ‘localised’ news cultures (Allan 2010) within which they undertake their newswork as also the more ‘global’ societal structures enveloping their news outlets and the journalism they produce. Drawing on a thematic analysis from a multilingual dataset involving 256 semi-structured interviews with journalists across the India, we explore the underpinnings of what we consider suboptimal–and at times counterproductive–performance of the news media while reporting on sexual violence in India. Our interviewees included journalists working in 14 languages, across all six administrative regions of India, representing print, television, radio and online news, including both female (41%) and male journalists (59%).

We begin by outlining the context and scope of sexual violence in India. Then, we present insights into a dual-layered issue that curtails journalistic efficacy in terms of reporting on sexual violence—namely, the absence of formal editorial guidelines within news institutions, and the absence of a felt need among journalists for codified policies and processes beyond the legal framework or their own lived experience. We deploy the notion of journalistic doxa (Bourdieu, 2005, Shultz, 2007) and argue that India draws liberally from patriarchal attitudes and structures within and without newsrooms. Our central concern here is not solely the existence of codified guidelines or the operationalisation of these within the journalistic doxa, but the extent to which the habitus includes a sense of deontologic duty towards promoting and remedying rape and sexual violence as a social problem. This is important to understand the capacity within the journalistic community to not simply observe legal guidelines, but alter the journalistic doxa. We conclude then by analysing the change and advocacy role that journalists want to engender and the gulf that needs to be bridged to effect that change.

Source: Manual