Sexual Violence and the News Media:
Issues, challenges, and guidelines for journalists in India
Chindu Sreedharan and Einar Thorsen
‘This report on sexual violence and the news media in India is a more than welcome addition to existing literature on the subject. If the recommendations and guidelines are taken on board by news media organisations, it could result in a sea-change in coverage of sexual violence in the Indian media.’
Journalist and Author
‘This study presents a wide-ranging, rigorous, and in-depth analysis of the relationship between news media and incidents of rape and sexual violence in India, both in terms of the stories told and the people who tell them. There is a persuasive analysis of a wide range of newspapers in multiple languages, coupled with in-depth interviews with an impressive number of journalists.’
Professor Karen Ross
Professor of Gender and Media, Newcastle University
‘An extremely thorough and thought-provoking report that contains precious analysis and many qualitative interviews with journalists. The pointers and recommendations to journalists at the end are excellent and can lead to a new form of journalism education which has been completely absent from all J-schools in India. This is an exceedingly useful report that should be made mandatory in newsrooms and all journalism training institutes.’
Professor of Journalism and Media Studies, Ashoka University, Sonepat
Published July 2021, free PDF available from:
This report presents findings from a large scale national research project on the news reporting of sexual violence in India. We undertook a comparative content analysis of 10 newspapers covering six languages, and semi-structured interviews with 257 journalists working across 14 languages, representing print, radio, and online sectors for this project. The first study to analyse a multilingual dataset from across India, with a comprehensive cross section of vernacular languages, the report provides comparative insights into the routines journalists follow and the challenges they face as they report on sexual violence. It investigates the role of organisational and regional contexts. Further, it documents the influence of attitudes, identity (gendered or cultural), and the self-perception of journalists on their reportage. The report presents seven national and 10 organisational recommendations grounded in research evidence. We conclude by offering guidelines that individual journalists and media houses can absorb into their news routines.
Patterns in daily news about sexual violence
- News outlets tend to disproportionately publish unusual cases, such as those involving extreme brutality or attacks by strangers, thus presenting a misleading picture of how sexual violence usually manifests in India.
- The key deciding factor that governed journalists’ decision on covering a sexual violence incident is the ‘profile’ of the victim or perpetrator (according to 20.6% of respondents). Law-and-order responses is the second-most critical factor (16.7%), followed by ‘gravity’ of the crime (14%).
- Newspapers were typically concerned with rape in urban areas (49%); only 22% were about incidents in rural locations.
- The majority of news reporting on rape and sexual violence was made up of ‘spot’ news stories, focusing on the details of the attack, and lacking in context.
- While overt victim-blaming was evident in only 2.2% cases, very rarely was there an attempt to provide a voice, direct or otherwise, for the victim.
- Only 19.5% of respondents said they used the term ‘rape’ in their news reporting. Most (51%) tended to use euphemisms instead.
- The majority of journalists (78%) said they felt responsible for effecting change in relation to sexual violence. Despite this, very few stories, just below 7%, focused on solutions.
Sources and newsgathering challenges
- More than 50% of reporters said they relied heavily on police reports and sources for their crime stories, and generally approached other sources (if at all) afterwards.
- 27% of journalists cited hurdles from police as limiting their work.
- Women reporters were overall less inclined than men to depend on police sources. Some women journalists also mentioned experiencing gender bias from the police.
- 35% of respondents cited lack of access to victims as a hurdle when reporting on sexual violence.
- More than 74% of respondents who discussed details of their reporting indicated they did not undertake investigations or in-depth reportage of sexual violence incidents.
Safety of journalists and personal impact
- Almost 20% of respondents said they experienced significant distress while reporting on sexual violence. This factor was more pronounced among women than men.
- 55% of women journalists said they had directly experienced workplace sexual harassment or violence, typically perpetrated by someone who wielded power through seniority or a supervisory role.
- We identified three areas where women journalists are particularly vulnerable to harassment and unwanted attention during newsgathering:
from bystanders; during interactions with police officers; and when dealing with elite sources.
Guidelines and training
- There was a conspicuous lack of formal editorial guidelines across newsrooms in India. Only 13% of the respondents said they had access
to written guidelines, while 14% said they did not have any type of guidelines at all.
- Education and training were seen as critical mitigations against stereotypes and biases.