Moving the Media Agenda

Abstract: The very fact that the contemporary Indian women’s movement has been around and active far nearly a quarter of a century and that the media have been responding to its activities, as well as to the information and insights it has made available has meant that these issues have been in the air’ for at least a couple of decades. As a result, over the past 25 years or so, they have seeped into public consciousness and found fresh life in different, often unexpected, shapes and forms which, in turn, have served to spread awareness farther and wider.

Though the women’s movement tends to make less news now than it did in the early days when it was more obviously active in the public arena, it continues to have an impact on the media. It generates knowledge and understanding that help shape editorial views, and it has entered the consciousness and influenced the perceptions of at least two generations of media professionals, especially but not only women.

Keywords: public consciousness, generation of media, network of women, mainstream media, women issues, women’s empowerment, gender inequality, media rape coverage

Rape was back on the media agenda in the second quarter of 2005, a quarter of a century after it became a legitimate subject for media attention thanks, mainly, to the nationwide campaign against rape in 1980 that was, arguably, the first coordinated- public activity of the country’s then nascent Women’s Movement.

It took a series of high-profile cases, especially in the political and commercial capitals, to recently rekindle media interest in a crime that is otherwise far too common and numerous to hit the headlines. Among these were. the rape of a 17-year-old college student by a policeman inside a police post on Mumbai’s famous Marine Drive on 21 April, the rape of a 47-year-old ‘German tourist by two autorickshaw drivers in Jodhpur on 11 May, and the gang-rape of a 20-year-old student and call-centre employee from the Dhaula Kuan area of New Delhi on 14 May.

Also contributing to the heightened interest was the 4 May judgement m the Shanti Mukund Hospital case, which involved the rape of a nurse by a ward boy and was all the more brutal because he also gouged out her left eye and injured her right one. The two-year-old case took a dramatic turn the day before a Delhi court judgment was due, when the rapist had the temerity to `offer to many his victim. Television news channels, in particular, had a field day with the story in a manner reminiscent of the orgy of coverage that followed the 2002 rape of a student of the Maulana Azad Medical College and the 2003 rape of a Swiss diplomat, both in the capital city.

This has been a perceptible and predictable feature of ‘mainstream’ media coverage of rape (and many other forms of violence against women) over the past 25 years: long spells of routine reports regularly, if randomly, culled from police handouts, broken by brief periods of intensive and extensive coverage catalysed by one or more cases that happen to grab the imagination of the media and the public — usually in that order. 1

The cases most likely to become causes celebres nowadays are crimes committed in one of the metropolitan cities, especially Delhi with its high density of ‘national’ media, involving a victim (and/or an offender) from the middle or upper classes. As commentators have pointed out time and again, both the media and their ‘target audiences’ are liable to get agitated when crimes, including rape, affect ‘people like us,’ while crimes against the poor and the powerless receive little, if any, media and public attention.

For example, while a city court judgement in the Shanti Mukund ‘Hospital rape case in Delhi made front page news in several newspapers across the country, the controversial judgement of the Kerala High Court at the beginning of this year, acquitting all but one of the three dozen accused in the landmark Suryanelli serial rape case (which had blown the lid off the sex mafia operating in the state), was barely reported in the so-called national media. Similarly, the rape of a two-year-old girl by a 24-year-old man in one of Mumbai’s many slums the day after the notorious Marine Drive rape took place hardly got the kind of play — in the media or public consciousness –that the latter did.

Further, the treatment of the stories often reveals an urban, middle/ upper class bias. Take the cover story in India Today on The Rape Nightmare’ (30 May 2005). It was, on the whole a timely, serious and well-researched article, obviously based on the understanding that rape is a grave issue which demands urgent, effective action so that women can lead normal lives, as they are entitled to.

Written by Kaveree Bamzai and Anjali Doshi, with inputs from correspondents across the country, the piece covered several aspects of the complex issue, including the legal and judicial systems, social attitudes and economic trends. It brought together statistics, not only from a specially commissioned opinion poll, but also from a wide variety of other sources. It included commentary from at least four women, based in Delhi and Mumbai, who have long been associated with the Women’s Movement. It built up a strong argument against rape, highlighting its direct and indirect effects on women’s lives.

However, there were a number of problematic areas in this otherwise positive example. One of these was the cover. The visual on the cover page was of an obviously urban, upper class, fashionable young woman in black pants worn with a short, midriff-revealing top and stiletto heels, placed against a neat brick wall and looking fearfully over her shoulder at the looming figure of a man. It fit right into the stereotypical and false notion that young, attractive women wearing what the moral police would consider skimpy, provocative clothes invite harassment and rape and, conversely, that they are the only ones who get such treatment.

The image was reinforced by the headline at the beginning of the article: `Single and unsafe.’ The intro leading into the piece, too, pointed to the urban focus of the piece: ‘As high-profile rapes shake Mumbai and Delhi, an exclusive opinion poll reinforces the skewed equation: being an urban Indian woman is to live in terror of sexual assault.’

The note on the poll methodology revealed that it was conducted across eight metros and mini-metros (Bangalore, Hyderabad, Jaipur and Lucknow obviously belong to the latter category). From the note it appears that the only two characteristics of the 838 female respondents taken into account were marital status and age group — not income group, caste, community or any of the several other socio-economic variables likely to influence experiences and perceptions. Presumably, then, the opinions thrown up by the poll were those of urban, educated, middle/upper class women in the national and seven state capitals.

The box on ‘Attacking rape’ (or ‘how to curb the menace,’ as it was announced on the cover) featured do’s and don’ts that may be doable for women matching the profile of the magazine’s female readers and their cohorts, but not for the larger community of women across the country who are as vulnerable to rape, if not more, than the students and career women dealt with, almost exclusively, in the main article.

The central argument of the cover story appeared to be that there is a connection between rape in cities and the fact that more women are now single, independent, working and living on their own, that it is part of ‘the backlash against the ongoing shift in gender power.’ According to the piece, ‘Rape, always the dark side of the moon, has acquired a far more vicious dimension now, when it is used to punish urban women, as the gap between the aspiration of the have-nots and the reality of the haves widens.’ A tenuous link was drawn between statistics that indicate women’s greater mobility and solvency, and their ‘liberation’ (which, according to the writers, society is not ready to accept) — and, then, between them breaking out of traditional boundaries and losing the ‘protective umbrella of the family.’ This, it was argued, leads to anonymity and thence to being taken as ‘fair game’ and an ‘easy lay.’

This theme was so strong throughout the piece that even some of the activists interviewed, who are undoubtedly aware of the multiple dimensions of the problem, were quoted only on this aspect of the subject: ‘That’s what is wrong with our mistaken modernity, where you can wear the latest label in clothes but still regard women as property or a sex object,” As women fight for education and careers, there’s a backlash to their presence in the workforce,’ Has there been any attempt at image building of women as single, smart and successful?’

The lone reference in the cover story to the Women’s Movement was in the last paragraph, in the form of some rhetorical questions: ‘Is this what the Women’s Movement hoped to achieve after such a long struggle? That its daughters, taught to value their bodies, their minds and their independence, would have to cope with a society that cannot accept them for what they are? That they can work, provide children, be dutiful daughters, but they dare not be themselves?’ Quoting a 27-year-old graphic designer living alone in Delhi who asks, with justifiable angst, ‘It is like eradicating poverty. Will it ever happen?’ the article ends with the observation that ‘It does not seem a logical end to such a long and tortuous journey.’

Indeed it does not. But whoever said this was the end of the journey, logical or otherwise? And can the Women’s Movement be held solely responsible for the fact that society has not been transformed, gender inequality has not been obliterated, rape has not been eradicated, and a host of other such modest goals have not been achieved — within the two decades and some since it came into being as an entity that is, at best, the sum of its many different, often dissimilar, parts?

These are not the kinds of questions that many in the media choose to ponder before they call the amorphous movement to account or dismiss or deride it on, say, 8 March, when newspapers often publish photographs of a poor, toiling woman with captions which suggest that while feminists and/or women’s groups are busy with rallies and seminars commemorating International Women’s Day, the real woman of India is struggling for survival with no one sparing a thought for her.

The growing tendency within the media to be dismissive of or cynical about individuals, groups or movements working towards equality and justice – as opposed to social workers, philanthropists, etc. – is an integral part of the metamorphosis of the mainstream media from the 1990s onwards, especially over the past ten years.

Among the developments contributing to the accelerating changes in the last decade of the millennium were the growth and proliferation of the electronic media (especially television), the first official steps towards the `liberalisation’ of the economy, the attendant rise of consumerism, the Accompanying greater .market orientation of the media, the consequent marginalisation of the concerns and interests of the ‘non-market’ majority, the related expansion of the entertainment quotient of the media, and the ensuing devaluation of ‘social commitment’ among media professionals.

As a consequence of these and related trends, ‘the liberal consensus that underlay the investigative stories and other types of press coverage in the post-Emergency period up to the late 1980s had largely vanished by the early 1990s’.2 By the end of the decade ‘there was little dispute among thinking Media professionals that the press in the 1990s was a very different animal from its 1980s avatar, having moved from seriousness towards superficiality and from societal concerns to socialite affairs.’3

This was, perhaps, inevitable in view of the continuing process of economic ‘reform’ and globalisation, the consequent resurgence of Consumerism (aided and abetted by the media which, in turn, profited from it), the emergence of television as the new opiate of the middle classes, if not the masses (chiefly due to the “invasion from the skies” in the form of satellite television brought home by cable networks, including multiple, multi-lingual 24-hour news channels), and the subsequent, additional pressures on the print media leading to the further promotion of ‘infotainment.’

Less apparent to the public eye were the far-reaching and significant changes taking place within the media, including the blurring of the lines that traditionally divided management and editorial functions within media organisations, and the growing influence of business compulsions on decisions about editorial content. Both these tendencies have undeniably resulted in a dilution of journalistic priorities, norms and even ethics.

It is a sign of the times that celebrity and lifestyle journalism have joined corporate journalism as the new growth areas within the media. The emerging trends within the media were, in a way, symbolised by the orchestrated, disproportionate excitement generated by sections of the media over the international beauty crowns won by two young Indian women in 1994 — and a succession of beauty queens thereafter – which boosted the fashion and beauty business in the country and created new media darlings turned public icons overnight.

Equally symptomatic were the following two quotable media quotes from the 1990s: ‘News must be light enough to rise like froth’ (said by a newspaper publisher to a young journalist) and ‘Our organisation has no room for bleeding hearts’ (said by the corporate manager of a newspaper company to a group of journalism students).

However, all is not lost, as I have maintained elsewhere in the recent past.4 Staying with the example of media coverage of rape, I would like to highlight a few instances that suggest that there is still some room for manoeuvre.

It is an established fact that the mainstream, nationwide media, which covered the intense and prolonged communal conflagration in Gujarat in 2002 quite boldly and critically, were surprisingly slow to report the rapes and other forms of sexual violence that characterised the carnage.5 In fact, the first to expose these gendered crimes were two reports, one by an independent fact-finding team of women (and one man) from different parts of the country and the other by a team from the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). Significantly, these were among the first of several citizens’ reports on the macabre events of the first half of that year.

Media coverage of the communal crimes against women in Gujarat appears, by and large, to have been catalysed by these reports emerging from the Women’s Movement. One of them, titled ‘The Survivors Speak,’ included criticism of the mainstream media’s reluctance to cover the special forms of violence experienced by women, as well as of the explanations offered by concerned, secular journalists. Subsequently the media – including news television — did report on these atrocities as well as on the problems involved in securing justice in most of the known cases. Clearly the movement, such as it is, was able to influence the media in this instance, goading it into doing its duty by women.

Later in 2002, a sensational, eyewitness report by a male journalist on the front page of The Times of India, Mumbai, describing the rape of a teenaged (possibly mentally challenged) girl in a compartment of a suburban train and its aftermath prompted the Network of Women in Media in the city (part of a three-year-old national network6) to critique the contentious first-person account. The idea was to use this example to generate a professional debate on media coverage of violence against women.

The NWMM analysis called for self-criticism on the part of media professionals: ‘We also have to acknowledge that our media, including several of us who work in it, are a part of this growing indifference in society. If we ‘fail to acknowledge this sufficiently and forcefully, we will, in turn, be in danger of glossing over the reasons why we have reached this sorry state… Journalists have long held up a minor to society, holding others accountable for their inaction in the face of savagery. Members of the public have told us that they feel let down that journalists were found wanting when it came to their turn. Should the media just observe and report and do nothing else? Surely, journalists have inherent social responsibilities, not the least of which is balanced reporting. There is need for collective self-reflection, so that we can better rise to the occasion when called upon next time.’

It also examined the issue within the wider context of news policy, raising questions about why the media highlight certain dramatic incidents but remain silent over many other atrocities against women: ‘In a city like Mumbai there are any number of such incidents taking place, though their setting may not be as dramatic as a moving train. But where is the space to tackle issues like child molestation, rape, and other women’s concerns in a serious way in our newspapers? While examining the style and substance of one report, we also need to focus on the decreasing space for coverage of serious issues in the media.’

The NWMM critique, posted on the NWMI site as well as the media-watch website, The Hoot, generated considerable debate within the profession across the country and beyond.7 Clearly the media still harbour a number of journalists committed to human rights and gender justice who are as much a part of the movement as anyone else with similar concerns, even if many of ‘them may not see their role in quite that way.

In 2005, soon after the controversial judgement of the Kerala High Court in the Suryanelli rape case, the newly formed Network of Women in Media in the state (also part of the NWMI) collaborated with women activists land lawyers to convene a meeting in Ernakulam to discuss the verdict and possible follow-up action. Participants expressed solidarity with Kerala Sthree an umbrella organisation of women’s groups, which had held a meeting previous day, resulting in the formation of a Defense Committee to assist young woman and her parents in their next steps in pursuit of justice.

The building up of a media campaign was seen as one of the urgent ahead. A Delhi Support Group, formed to facilitate action on the case in the capital, attempted to generate media attention so that the issue would not remain ‘a tragedy of an anonymous woman in a far-flung state.’ At the same time, concerned women journalists from Kerala appealed to colleagues across the country via the network to cover the issue since the judgement has serious implications for justice in rape cases elsewhere, too, in the future. Meanwhile, a lawyer from Kerala, who had access to a copy of the judgement, sent it to a journalist in Bangalore so that she could write about it for a ‘national’ paper. Clearly the links forged over the past couple of decades between concerned women in various places and fields, including the media, and, of course, the ease of communication in the days of the Internet, are being employed to work towards gender justice.

Such connections and collaborations are, I believe, a legacy of a quarter century of interaction between the Women’s Movement and the media. There is little doubt that the ongoing relationship between the two, uneasy as it may have been and may continue to be, has contributed to the spread of information and ideas about the status of women in society and the need to improve it. It has helped to generate fairly widespread public awareness of at least the most obvious of the problems facing Indian women, such as violence of various kinds. It has also led to public recognition of at least some strategies to help women overcome these problems, especially the less complicated and contentious ones.

As I see it, the very fact that the contemporary Indian women’s movement has been around and active for nearly a quarter of a century — in different forms, at different levels, on different issues, in different parts of the count’’, – and that the media have been responding to its activities, as well as to the information and insights it has made available – in one way or another, to a greater or lesser extent, positively or negatively, for better or for worse –has meant that these issues have been “in the air” for at least a couple of decades. As a result, over the past 25 years or so, they have imperceptibly, inevitably and irrevocably seeped into public consciousness and found fresh life in different, often unexpected, shapes and forms which, in turn, have served to spread awareness farther and wider. Such a slow, steady, silent process of osmosis is not always noticeable but that does not make it any less real.

The fact that gender is beginning to make its way into coverage of events and issues that are not usually seen as ‘women’s issues’ indicates that not such a process does, indeed, exist. For example, less than a fortnight after the tsunami waves struck Asian coasts in the winter of 2004-05, I based my presentation at a media workshop on the question of whether or not there could be a gender angle to the tsunami story, and whether or not a gender perspective was relevant while covering the post-tsunami situation. 8

At the time the carpet coverage of the tsunami and its after-effects by media reflected little awareness of the fact that disasters, like conflicts, impact diverse sections of the affected population differently, and that gender along with other socio-economic variables such as class and caste, race or -ethnicity, age, physical and mental health status, etc. — influences people’s experience of the events themselves, as well as their access to subsequent help coping with the consequences and rebuilding their lives.

Subsequently, however, gender-related aspects of the post-disaster situation began to surface in the media. A couple of months after the tsunami, The Week even carried a series of articles on the relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation process as experienced by women. Although the Oxfam Briefing Note on The Tsunami’s Impact on Women, released on 26 March, did not receive wide coverage in the media here, it is obviously a useful resource for use in media education and training seeking to ‘mainstream’ gender concerns in the media.

To conclude, looking back over the past couple of decades, it is clear that the women’s movement tends to make less news now than it did in the early days when it was more obviously active in the public arena. However, it continues to have an impact on the media, less perceptible though this may now be, because it often catalyses events and processes that do make news, it generates knowledge and understanding that help shape editorial views, and it entered the consciousness and influenced the perceptions of at least two generations of media professionals, especially but not only women.

Similarly, there is no doubt that the mainstream media today are on the whole more preoccupied with the lives of the bold and the beautiful, the rich the famous, the pampered and the powerful, and less receptive to the interests and concerns of those who do not belong to this charmed circle.9 However, they continue to reflect at least some of the issues highlighted by the movement. This may be partly because the issues have been adopted and legitimised by the government, international organisations and other policy- making, programme-implementing bodies, and partly because they are considered important by some individuals within the media. But one hopes that it is also partly because the media have not completely abandoned their role as watchdogs of society.


1 See ‘When Violence is not News,’ India Together (URL: http:ll )

2 Whose News? The Media and Women ‘s Issues, Ammu Joseph and Kalpana Sharma, Sage, 1994 (new, updated edition due shortly)

3 Women in Journalism: Making News, Ammu Joseph, KonarkiMedia Foundation, 1999 (new, updated, paperback edition due shortly)

4 See Out of Step: The Media and the Women’s Movement,’ Seminar,


(URL: )

5 See ‘Gender, Sectarian Violence and the Media,’ IWMF website (URL: )

6 Network of Women in Media, India (

7 See ‘First Person Reporting on Rape,’ The Hoot (URL: ) and related links.

8 Text reproduced in ‘Gender, Media and Human Rights,’ a report on the 2” CRG Media Programme & the Creative Media Workshop (2004-2004), Nilanjan Dutta [ed.], Calcutta Research Group; also see ‘Gender, Media and Tsunamis,’ India Together

(URL: )

9 Although my observations in this article relate primarily to the English language print media, there is considerable evidence that many of these trends are visible in the press in other Indian languages as well. Also, going by a study titled ‘Women in Print’ by Shree Venkatram (Unnati Features/UNIFEM), on ‘half a century of reporting on women and gender issues by Indian newspapers,’ there appear to be more similarities than differences between the English and Hindi press with regard to the editorial space occupied by women and gender issues.


AMMU JOSEPH. Freelance journalist, media analyst and editorial consultant based at Bangalore, India. Has co-authored and edited with Kalpana Sharma, a book entitled. Whose News? The Media and Women’s Issues (Sage 1994). At present she is editorial consultant for Voices for Change, a quarterly publication of Voice/ Madhyan Communications, a Bangalore-based NGO focusing on communications in and for development.

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Freelance journalist, media analyst and editorial consultant based at Bangalore, India. Has co-authored and edited with Kalpana Sharma, a book entitled. Whose News? The Media and Women’s Issues (Sage 1994). At present she is editorial consultant for Voices for Change, a quarterly publication of Voice/ Madhyan Communications, a Bangalore-based NGO focusing on communications in and for development.

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