When news sensationalises crime

December 19, 2021

While efforts have been made to sensitise journalists about gender violence reporting, the media is still far from devising a strategy of shifting its focus from politics to the more pressing social issues

When news sensationalises crime

Coverage of crime stories relating to gender-based violence has for long been monitored by independent observers, watchdogs and organisations working on gender issues. There is a continuous struggle to make newsmen understand the sensitivity required in the coverage of gender-based incidents. Things have improved marginally so that there is a long way to go. Why has the Pakistani media, especially television, not come up to the mark vis-à-vis awareness regarding gender-based violence? Is this on account of lack of education and training or an ingrained patriarchal approach? Yes. A patriarchal mind set does prevail in the society, and the media is no exception.

Creating hype or sensationalising crime against women, trivialising gender-based issues and making harassment issues “spicy” for TV and social media have been the hallmark of the local media to get better ratings and more views and likes. Though efforts have been made to sensitise journalists about gender violence reporting and coverage through workshops and seminars, the media is still far from devising a strategy of shifting its focus from politics to the more pressing social issues including violence against women.

The launch of Geo News in 2002 brought about a big change in the media industry of Pakistan followed by a mushroom growth of independent news channels in the succeeding years. The electronic media gave voice to the oppressed, including women. Unlike newspapers, women got more opportunities in the electronic media as presenters, reporters and newsroom and technical staff. Still, more than 90 percent of the workers in electronic media are men. This is partly the reason why gender-based issues are hyped, sensationalised or trivialised on broadcast media.

There are hardly any women in key editorial positions in newsrooms. In the nearly 30 news TV channels in the country, there is only one woman currently serving as a bureau chief (Farzana Ali has been the bureau chief at Aaj TV for the last several years.) All decisions regarding news coverage are thus made by male-dominated newsrooms and bureaus. In most cases, women journalists are not given politics, crime, sports or economy beats. Their tasks are limited mostly to mid-level positions and reporting of social events. There is no training mechanism for news staff, men as well as women, regarding coverage of gender-based violence.

Several major news channels are currently being run without news directors/ editors. Important editorial decisions are therefore made by mid-level staff who lack adequate training and awareness about the sensitivity of such issues.

According to a report prepared by Sustainable Social Development Organisation (SSDO) as many as 6,754 women were kidnapped and 1,890 raped during the first six months of this year. 3,721 cases of violence against women were registered in the Punjab. The media did not get to report all these cases. The report said 752 cases of child abuse were registered in the Punjab. It said 34 rape cases were registered in Islamabad, but only 27 were reported by the media.

When news sensationalises crime

So, what are the priorities of news channels and digital media platforms? Though people are now more aware than before, ratings – the race to be the first to break the story – and pressure tactics have led to a marked decline in coverage of social issues. Politicians get most of the attention of the media. Political leaders belonging to opposition parties and minister/ advisors to the prime minister and chief ministers occupy the TV screens while social issues find little space and time. Issues like the Sahiwal “fake” encounter and Motorway gang-rape remained in the headlines for a couple of days until a new political development managed to gain media attention, following which these issues were put on the back burner.

A patriarchal mind set prevails in a majority of newsrooms where decision makers either try to trivialise gender-based violence or a blame-the-victim mentality leads to playing down the cases of violence against women. People with this mindset and the junior lot of newspersons hardly know the words and phrases to use or avoid in such cases.

The broadcast media has become a tool of political propaganda. Hardly any news channel is following up on social issues. Reporters have no time to investigate crime against women or children. They are mostly engaged in coverage of politicians and the government. The news channels are mainly serving certain quarters, who want to use them for political gains. Judicial activism and political pressures do not let news channels have day plans to execute. Special reports on social issues fall flat when the channels are forced to cut live for press conferences.

The only way forward is to ensure proper representation of women in media and to provide opportunities for extensive on-job training to news staff, especially women to empower them with professional skills that allow them to reach decision-making positions in newsrooms. A high-powered independent watchdog is the need of the hour to force media outlets to provide harassment-free and friendly environment at workplaces, where gender balance is guaranteed by the owners by providing women with transportation and other facilities. This can help women excel in their respective fields in the media, and will help them rise to decision-making positions in newsrooms.

The writer is a senior broadcast journalist, and has worked with several news channels in Pakistan

When news sensationalises crime