Trial by media: sexualization operating in crime reportage

In India, if you are a female suspect in a crime, the crime is that you are female.

Trial by media is not a completely new phenomenon in the news broadcasting industry.   But when it comes to reporting crimes, especially if the suspect is a female, hell breaks loose. Media personnel along with the politicians take complete liberty to character assassinate the accused. The focus is not on reporting on the crime, but to merely celebrate the shock value associated with the gender of the alleged.

In the most recent case, a woman named Swapna Suresh is being trampled under media’s big elephant feet.  A former employee with the UAE consulate in Kerala, she is the main accused and in a major gold smuggling case in Kerala. The role of media is to report facts, which also involves bringing to the forefront, information regarding the accused in relation to the crime. What happens, is something else altogether.

It is atrocious that well-to-do news channels, papers and other digital platforms would stoop down to the level of yellow journalism to sensationalize the case by discussing the personal lives of the accused, to hold the viewers’ attention.  Investigative journalism does certainly help in trying to decode any relation an alleged individual has with top bureaucrats and politicians. However to color it with a sexual tinge, for the sake of ‘impact’, is extremely derogatory.  There are several such cases from the past as well; a careful observation will reveal this bias to any consumer of the news.

In this particular case, a prominent news channel calls her a ‘gold beauty’ in their headline.  The headlines further discuss whether she is the government’s ‘preferred friend’ in their news hour debate. The use of such language displays the sheer absence of editorial consensus on what tone and narrative can be used and what cannot. It further provides a specific looking glass for the consumers of the news. The consequence of this unchecked liberty is that it furthers the normalization of sexual slurs in the society.

Political representatives and other guests speaking in the news hour debates have at length analysed the ‘character’. This is done in an attempt to tarnish the image of their opponent party members, who allegedly have non-professional relations with the accused. It is clear that this kind of ‘discussion hour’ programmes have no value except to facilitate heated arguments between party representatives, which engages the viewers.

The sources of information the news presenter chooses must also be analysed carefully. While sources may give elaborate and wild descriptions in the news interviews, it is a whole different matter if these ‘witnesses’ will be ready to testify in court. The legitimacy of an investigative report by news channels must rely on credible sources rather than the loose tongues of suddenly morally upright individuals, which are ready to lash out in front of a camera that gives them instant fame.

There is no age or gender restriction to the act of committing a crime. Hence by highlighting the womanhood of an accused, the media places the woman in the cultural sphere of societal norms. By pulling out personal details of the individual, like her marriage, they try to increase the shock value. Not that of the case, but the individual. If they happen to be a mother or a divorcee, what a bonus! Note that by now, it has easily strayed from the reportage of the crime to celebrating the spiking of TRP rates. It is mortifying to know that there is absolutely no concept of privacy if a woman becomes a suspect in a crime.

In an interview given to The Swaddle*, Dr. Mahuya Bandyopadhyay, a social anthropologist explains how women criminals are either glorified or invisibilised. This adds to the perspective that there is bias, one way or the other, in the way treatment is meted out to the female suspects and criminals.

If ethics in journalism is still of any regard, there needs to be a shift in the way crimes are reported. The media needs to stop banking on the gendered angle to get their reportage viewership. The focus must shift to the crime instead of making it a lesson on culture and morals.  The male gaze within journalism needs to be shattered and the onus of it lies very much on the community practicing journalism. And we as consumers of the news need to be aware of this and try bringing a change at least by pointing this out.

Link to the interview mentioned in the piece:

Also read a similar article that was published by The News Minute:

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