We Need to Talk About How We Talk About Rape and Murder

20 October 2016

Like many, I read about the murder of a woman in Goa in early October with great sadness. Her assailant was apprehended a few days after the news of her murder broke. Later that week, it was confirmed that she had also been raped, compounding the collective shock and grief. The next evident concern would be whether justice will be delivered, and what form it might take. But after several days of seeing dozens of news reports with the same, lurid details of the attack, other pressing questions must also nag at us: for instance, do we, as readers, need to know exactly how the crime was perpetrated, and why does the media seem to think we do? In a world where journalism is so often consumed immediately and insatiably, how do we tell the story of a murder without compromising on the truth or on ethics, without causing distress to the friends and family left in its wake? How do we do so without extinguishing other precious and intangible things: the memory a person leaves behind, or their undeniable right to not have the world know what was done to their body? (Disclosure: I knew the woman who died, though not very well.)

Ethics in reporting has been the subject of age-old debates, argued perhaps, from the time of the first tabloid. But in the age of instant—albeit valuable—journalism, it appears that we are yet to reach a conclusion on what constitutes ethical reporting. It is true that the facts of the crime had to be reported, just as in the case of any other crime, and that the story is in the public domain. The Goa police revealed some details of the crime during the press conferences that they held following developments in the investigation. At first, the police “reported the case as a murder,” Rajesh Kumar, the principal investigator of the case, said. “When we reported the rape later, a section was added to the original case on which her name is not mentioned.”

As is often the case, some journalists dug around further, while others speculated on even more. In the frenzy, little time and thought appears to have been dedicated to ascertaining the relevance of some of the facts that featured in the reports that followed. Perhaps in a bid to get out the story first, and fast, most reports read the same. Did the readers of publications such as the Indian Expressand the Huffington Post really need to know that the man who is accused of the crime boiled eggs in the victim’s kitchen and ate her chocolate?  Was it necessary for most leading publications—including those that operate digitally such as Firstpost and Scroll—to begin their stories with the sordid, explicit personal details surrounding this heinous crime, such as the state the body was discovered in? What purpose did headlines featuring the phrase “porn clip” in some of the most prominent national dailies, such as the Times of India and DNA serve, except as bait for clicks? Why did other headlines need to mention bite marks and “naked body” when speaking of the police’s investigation? And why, in nearly every report about the crime, did we see the victim’s happy, smiling face, like a misplaced advertisement for her own murder, accompanied by detailed descriptions of her life, work and marital status? Outrage in India, like in other parts of the world, is often accompanied by acute voyeurism. Can a rape or murder not register without a face, name and address? (Of course, many an unrecorded rape goes quietly into the night, without these.)

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    Rajni George  is a writer and editor based in south India. She was the Fiction and Poetry Editor at The Caravan.

    Keywords: Goa crime murder ethics rape digital media media coverage sensationalism headlines