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.)

The questions might sound naïve, but these are pressing issues—sometimes, even a matter of law. Importantly, Section 228-A of the Indian Penal Code disallows the naming of rape victims without their authorisation or, in the case of death, that of their next of kin; or that of the police for the purpose of the investigation. While the police revealed the name of the victim before the rape was confirmed, most publications seem to have ignored that the victim has a very real right to not be named—a right recognised in the law. “This information is in the public domain. After this, it is the freedom of the press to decide what to do with it,” Kumar told me.

“No one has been given consent to reveal her name, legal or otherwise,” a person close to the family confirmed. “It has been the most trying period of our lives.”

Often, the news is a flash of the navel, vying for our crowded attention, showing us what is happening close to home. With the death of this woman—privileged, independent and living alone— came a reiteration of how women continue to be unsafe even inside the islands they create for their safety, even in places such as Goa, which are considered relatively liberal. But when do the details start to feed a different need, a prurient itch to know how this woman—powerful, wealthy, attractive—lived and died? Certainly, any reader is more likely to empathise with a story when the real, human details are made available, and this is the goal of many a crime reporter. But surely there is a nuanced way to do this, without an indiscriminate grab at minutiae.

Crime reporters and commentators often have to decide how much to share in the early stages of reporting a story; often, they have to consider how much agency the victim is able to exercise over their own narrative. For instance, when the rape of a young paramedical student in Delhi in December 2012 was first reported, some publications and channels chose to reveal her name, while others didn’t. Most revealed gruesome details of the crime—not usually a characteristic of sensitive media coverage. Yet, other details regarding the student and her companion—irrelevant to her rape and murder—were not widely revealed. But the absence of such details from the coverage did not render it ineffective. Many feel that the prominence and ubiquity of media coverage helped spread awareness about women’s safety, and helped reformulate the legislation around rape. By the time the woman’s parents chose to speak up and make the details public, the case had taken on a life of its own.

Suzette Jordan, commonly referred to as the Park Street rape survivor, decided to name herself, and in doing so, empowered herself and survivors like her. But not everyone has this choice. When you are not privileged, you may not have this choice. When you are murdered, you most certainly don’t have this choice—it is the journalist and the publication that invariably decide for you.

“There is a difference between a person getting murdered and a woman getting murdered,” Neha Dixit, a reporter who has frequently covered gender violence in India, said. “In a patriarchal society that keeps assassinating a woman's character, whether she is alive or dead, revealing the name of the rape victim or survivor not just compromises her identity but also denies her dignity in death. Facebook posts about her personal life are all over the place that are being manipulated to fit the misogynist narrative of the legal criminal case. Because her identity has been revealed some are talking about the number of abortions she has had, who she slept with. The same discourse does not emerge for a male murder victim.” She added: “The gender insensitivity of the police machinery is also telling. They are acting as guardians emboldened by the patriarchal state machinery to do this.”

There is a long line of dead women preceding the woman who died in October—Sheena Bora, Sunanda Pushkar, Aarushi Talwar and more—who were named by the press in differing circumstances. Perhaps it can be argued that in some cases, the details may help bring the assailant to light, or tell us about the way the police and judiciary operate in India. But in the case of the October rape and murder, what do we gain from discussing peripheral details when we have a confession and the police have the man in custody, with evidence and a motive which implicate him? Certain publications have already raised this argument—on 14 October, The Ladies Finger, an Indian feminist zine, asked why the media was making a “macabre spectacle”of the crime. That day, The Hindu ranan article in which the writer described how headlines ran the details of the crime such that they seemed like “adjectives, rather than sober facts of the case,” in “the lurid strobe lights of a hundred pulsating papers and websites.”Many have also expressed similar concerns on social media.

Ultimately, it is up to each reporter and their editor to consider which details of the crimes that are in the public domain they choose to include, and why. After all,if the aim is to raise awareness or to bring about tangible change, publications can also consider editorials or opinion piece as alternatives instead.

Journalists and media houses need to ask themselves what we gain by telling this story this way. There is enough noise out there. While it is their report to write, it is the story of someone else—and she can no longer speak for herself. Why not tell a different story?