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Missing Voices


By Jaideep Hardikar

How do media report and frame the stories on violence against children?

A media analysis we did of eight newspapers published in Maharashtra to understand the extent to which media lends importance to the themes of ‘violence against children’ in particular and ‘children and women’s issues’ in general, yielded some interesting and important insights into the way the issues underpinning the violence against women and children get reported.

In a nutshell, there is no reflection of children’s issues, particularly the violence against them, in the print media even though crimes against them are on the rise.

Yet, the Marathi newspapers tend to do more stories than their English counterparts on incidents even if those are happening in small places or hinterland.

However, we found that the reportage does not go beyond the incidents and as compared with other issues the children’s issues won’t make up more than a percent of all content.

For this study, we chose to look at eight newspapers as a test case from April 1 2016 to March 31 2017: four Marathi and four English newspapers.
Broadly, we found a severe lack of children’s voice and reflection in the newspapers. It seems as if children do not make up for a focused beat in newspapers and so the structural and incidental violence against children do not find coveted space in the pages of the papers.

While calendar year of 2016 actually saw a surge in violence against children and women, as the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report for the particular year released in late November 2017, the newspapers do not brood on this reality if one sifts through their pages.

The four months after the demonetization decision was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw the newspapers getting inundated with the news stories and opinions around the issue, with virtually no space for other issues, far less the stories concerning children and women.

But how did demonetization impact children’s life? Did the financial blues of the people in the rural and semi-urban areas, migrant workers, or footloose labourers have a palpable impact on children? There was hardly reflection in or attempt from the media to capture those processes, though demonetization did have a bearing on the food intake and education of the children.


INDIA BIG PICTURE:

India is home to 17% of the world’s children, going by the 2011 census, and has the world’s largest child population. Despite this, children are often neglected and their rights ignored.

Of the 430 million children in India, an estimated 55% – a staggering 236.5 million – currently experience rights violations, going by various child-rights studies.

India’s media landscape, one of the oldest and largest in the world, is vast, fragmented, complex and highly diverse – a natural result of the country’s geographical size, huge population and numerous languages. And with over 3 million non-governmental organisations (NGOs), India also has one of the world’s largest NGO sectors. The majority of these, child rights advocates among them, view media as extremely important and powerful in achieving the civil society goals of ensuring child rights and exerting pressure to hold government accountable for them.

Yet, child rights advocates express strong concerns on what they see as India’s media failing to play its part in this effort. The media is repeatedly criticised for its lack of adequate, balanced coverage on child-related issues, and the absence of children’s voices in news reporting.

Factor this contrast: According to the NCRB data for 2016, incidents of rape of children rose by over 82% compared to 2015. It is for the first time that such a sharp increase in sexual assaults on children was registered. Maharashtra was among the top two states in the notorious list, the NCRB said. Yet the ground reportage that year of the issues did not reflect such a glaring trend.

There are several progressive laws, policies and programmes in the country and Maharashtra for safeguarding the rights of children. However, several reports from time to time have said that the government-run programmes’ implementation and legislative enforcement are extremely poor.

One reason is the low budgetary allocations: less than 6% of the total national budget goes into child and women development. The budgets allocated are far too low to fulfill all programmatic requirements, leading to problems such as inadequate staff and material resources, low-quality training, poor documentation etc. in all government-run child initiatives. The condition of children in India remains dismal, with unmet targets or worsening trends noted for nearly all child rights indicators; the statistics are particularly appalling in the areas of child nutrition and child protection. Current child related policy debates in India are noted to mainly revolve around The Juvenile Justice Act – revisiting the legal age definition of a juvenile, and the proposed amendments to the existing Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act – the debate around broadening the legal definition of what constitutes child labour in India.

BROAD OBSERVATIONS:

Poor quality: If we evaluate the quality and media coverage of children’s issues on the rating system drawn from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and created with variables based on quality, depth and context, the newspaper reports analysed for this study would fair very poorly. The IFJ considers these quality factors to assess the content based on how well it: avoids  stereotypes of children such as portraying them as helpless victims; sensationalised coverage of crime or violations of children’s rights; protects the privacy of children; amplifies children’s voices; and verifies information provided by children. The depth and context of the coverage of the issues: relevant policies and laws; of the possibility for improvement and means of solution; information on how children and parents can protect children’s rights and get help.

Missing voices: An indifferent attitude towards children and youth severely limits the space that they get in mainstream media; media fail to raise a public debate on child rights.

Missing beat: Reporting on child rights and children’s issues is not widely recognised as a specialised field, and this means not many journalists are motivated or even capable of producing in-depth coverage. This neglect starts right from journalism schools and extends to almost all newsrooms. There is an absence of meaningful, realistic and socially relevant media coverage or information flows on child rights issues.

Children not as audiences: Children do not seem to be key-audiences of the news stories at all, neither by the Marathi newspapers nor their English counterparts. News targeted at children is confined to periodical children’s supplements or pull-outs carried by some newspapers.

In our study, of nearly 250 shortlisted articles – cutting across all eight newspapers – 210 were only news items largely based on police press releases, virtually small news items conveying incidents, victims, places where the incidents happened, and without any perspective, except for some occasional stories such as on the malnutrition or Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). Marathi newspapers tend to report more on crime and violence against children than their English counterparts. The sources of the news stories are mostly the police press notes, and there seems no effort on part of the newspapers to go beyond those sources to explore and find out about the incidents and the broad social trends that they suggest. So the stories are small and short fillers, with no follow-up on the criminal incidents.

Opinion pieces and editorials are fewer and far between, almost nil in the English newspapers.

As many as 49% of the news reports would fall under the category: sexual abuse and exploitation of children in society. Sample stories relate to the crimes against children especially sexual abuse, minor rape and victims and exploitation mainly attributed to the press releases issued by the Police Department. This was followed by the second category: 16 % of the samples fall under Children and Health in which issues like malnutrition, mid-day meal scheme and diseases among children and also deaths of children due to malnutrition have been reported.
News samples on responsibilities of states account for only five per cent of the stories. In this section we see news clips on implementation of schemes and policy. Four per cent of the stories concern juvenile delinquents, but most of the news stories reported by the papers emerge from the police information. Issues of Children and disabilities accounted for three per cent of the sample news clips: and they mainly concerned issues such as disability certificates and news on disability rights. News on ‘Child and identity’ accounted for barely a per cent of the sample.

There were no stories on economic and social deprivation, structural inequalities, discrimination and child labour all through the year in any of these editions of the newspapers.

There are very few mentions of the selected child rights policy issue; those discussing the incident and policy were angry at the perpetrator and the system in general.

News coverage is sensational, incident-orientated, with often an urban-bias and political spin. The trigger is always an incident or a tragedy; the bigger the tragedy, the more popular the news item. Incidents such as child rape or child-sexual abuse are therefore readily picked up.

Long-form or discursive reporting is rare; and solution-based reporting or coverage with regard to government efficiency, e.g. the rehabilitation of children freed in child labour raids, is lacking.

Some reasons for this sort of distorted and lopsided media reporting of children’s issues and particularly on the violence against children:

Firstly, there is no explicit demand from readers and viewers, therefore the media is reluctant to wade into this territory; as a direct result, there is no separate ‘child beat’ in the Indian media. This, in turn, leads to fewer stories and editors often assigning only junior reporters to cover child-related stories.

Secondly, there is extremely limited media understanding of the child rights sector, as a result of which many reporters do not have the background knowledge or capacity to appropriately and comprehensively report on a child rights issue or violation that takes into account all relevant aspects of the situation; this leads to low-quality stories.

Among the frequently quoted authorities, police would rank as number one in the news stories, particularly the ones concerning the crime against children, mainly sexual abuse.

The NGOs working among children or women do not seem to have a major voice – they too are virtually missing from the child rights issues.

In very rare articles – published in the op-ed pages of the Marathi newspapers – the authors are those who have some direct social engagement with the issues.

MEDIA GUIDELINES AND MONITORING

A few media guidelines for child rights reporting already exist in India; some of these are court imposed, while others have been developed through NGO-government partnership.

However, the media appears to be largely ignorant of the existence of these guideline documents. Most reporters are informed of the stipulations on child coverage by editors when they file stories that violate set norms, rather than through training. While the common, court-imposed norms are largely followed by the big media houses, occasional slips occur; reporters in rural areas are less aware about these child coverage regulations.

 

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