Anushka Shah
November 12, 2016

In December 2012, a young girl was gruesomely gang raped in New Delhi, India. The method of the rape was particularly violent, involving insertions of a metal rod and irreparable intestinal damage. For the days following, Jyoti Singh went through emergency treatment in hospitals in India and Singapore, until finally succumbing to her injuries 13 days later.                                                    

What followed in the Indian news media was as unprecedented wave of coverage on issues of rape, sexual harassment, and violence against women. These issues, which prior to this incident had been seen as largely prevalent in rural India, had not been reported as key concerns in the Indian English language news media, whose target audience was primarily urban, English-speaking, middle to upper class Indians. However, Jyoti Singh, who was studying to be a paramedic, was attacked on a bus in the capital city of the country, while returning home from a movie with a friend. It was a situation many young people in urban India could relate to.

In the aftermath of the rise in reportage around sexual violence, key questions arose abouthowthe relevant issues were being framed and discussed in the press.How were readers being made of aware of the nature and causes of rape? To what extent did this reporting help them place their own gender norms in context?

The aspects a news story chooses to highlight or the language used play a critical role in signaling to the reader what aspects of an issue may be salient. For example, here are how two different newspapers covered the aftermath of the Orlando shootout in June earlier this year:

Front-pages of the New York Post and the Daily News post the June 2016 Orlando shootout at Pulse nightclub.

Readers of the New York Post may well see the issue from the lens of an external terrorist threat, while those of the Daily News may understand domestic culpability of the National Rifle Association and its stance on gun laws.  

As a media researcher exploring how the news can foster civic engagement, I often wonder what sort of news frames or narratives push readers most effectively to challenge their own biases and subsequently change their thought or behavior on an issue?

The brushstroke summary of behavior-change theory: for news to affect someone’s behavior, three things must happen. The reader must have gained an information based awareness of the issue; two, the reader must have an idea of his or her personal role, if any, in contributing to the problem; and three, there was some form of understanding on how the problem in question could be corrected.

In order to address the original question then of women’s issues in Indian English language press and how it may be influencing wider gender norms, I conducted a quantitative analysis of the news data and compared to the above behavior-change criteria.

This research was done using Media Cloud – an open-source platform developed by the MIT Media Lab and the Harvard Berkman Klein Centre, where this author is employed as a researcher. By tracking millions of stories published online, Media Cloud serves as a big data platform that aggregates, analyzes, and delivers visualizations on news conversations from media ecosystems around the world.

Four specific topics related to women’s issues were selected and their news reporting between 2015-2016 in English mainstream news[1] analyzed. The four topics were rape, as it receives maximum coverage under women’s issues; selective abortion, given the increased reporting post the NDA government’s ‘Beti bachao, beti padhao’ (Save the girl child, educate the girl child) campaign; and dowry and child marriage as prevalent social and gender issues.

The research outcomes showed two main lenses through which the issues were discussed; (1) a “blame game”-driven response to the problems, and (2) an episodic approach the reporting.

Here the “blame game” response refers to the cause of the problem being directed towards an individual such as a rapist or criminal, or then a political leader not performing his or her duty. A large number of stories, by focusing on a ‘victim’ and ‘assault’ narrative, limit the exploration of causality to the attacker over the complex causes of gender inequality. Other stories report outlandish statements by politicians, such as the one below by a former Chief Minister of a state in Northern India on the impracticality of gang-rape, providing readers with an easy target to scapegoat the problem on to.  


Samajwadi Party leader and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Mulayam Singh Yadav making a statement on gang-rape.

The second, an episodic approach, refers to the framing of events such as rape or dowry violence as isolated occurrences of crime cases, rather than as continuous, regular outcomes of complex social and economic factors like patriarchy or unequal opportunities. In a vast nation filled with stories, both good and bad, these selected scandals are the occasional glimpses of the ugly.

The attention graphs below for selective abortion and dowry for example show the presence of sharp ‘peaks’ that are often representative of episodic reporting – the key stories around these peaks are those that reach the news audience the loudest, and conversation often rises and falls around these. On examining the events at these peaks for rape, selective abortion, dowry, and child marriage, it was found that most fell into the following categories: statements by politicians, high profile cases, or government schemes.

Cabinet Minister Maneka Gandhi makes statements supporting sex determination in July ’15 and February ’16.

Self-styled God-woman accused of supporting a dowry case of one of her followers in August ’15.

The presence of peaks is a clear indicator of event-driven reporting. When we analyze the language used in those peaks, we may find two types of language: details about the event, including who, when, why and other descriptions, or then a broader conversations about the complex reasons for sexual violence and gender discrimination.

To explore which way the Indian news treats women’s issues, we did an analysis of language used around the peaks. The results for each of the four topics suggest that descriptive language is far more common than broader, contextual language that considers these events as part of a longer narrative. For example, the map on language around dowry reporting below shows that the key terms used with ‘dowry’ are ones such as complaint, harassment, victim, petition, criminal, lodged, IPC (Indian Penal Code)– all terms that reflect descriptions of crimes rather than discussions around a social issue.  


Language map showing words used most frequently while discussing ‘dowry’

‘Crimes against women’ has become a popular term to reference women’s issues in India, and this narrative has even begun to reflect itself in prime time television with shows in the true crime genre such as Code Red and Saavdhan India that further the fear and sensationalization of this framing.

Both these framings, episodic reporting on crimes versus social complexities and the blame game focus, serve as significant impediments to the criteria of affecting social norms. Critically, they prevent the reader from introspecting into the role he or she may be playing within the larger problem – in perhaps not raising sons and daughters equally, in holding up a patriarchal structure of their family, or then in not paying male and female employees the same wages.

The news is both a reflector and creator of social norms. If the Indian news media is to play a role in creating more informed gender norms, then the paradigm needs to crucially change from ‘crimes against women’ to ‘we’re all part of the problem’.

This post is an excerpt from a wider Media Cloud research study on the Indian news media conducted for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

[1] A manually curated list of over 650 sources covering mainstream and digital-only English news publications in India