|Year : | Volume
| Issue : | Page :
Quality of online news media reports of child sexual abuse in India
Swarndeep Singh, Romil Saini, Rajesh Sagar
Department of Psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi, India
|Date of Submission||18-Nov-2021|
|Date of Acceptance||15-Feb-2022|
|Date of Web Publication||02-Jun-2022|
Department of Psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi
Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None
| Abstract|| |
Background: Media plays an important role in creating awareness and shaping public opinion about child sexual abuse (CSA). Research suggests that sensible media reportage on CSA is important for positive impacts of media. However, most of the studies assessing the quality of CSA news reports are from western countries. Aim: To systematically assess the pattern of online news media reportage of CSA in India. Methodology: A total of 149 news reports on the topic of CSA in India, published online over a one-year period were analyzed. Framing of CSA and other news media characteristics were evaluated. Results: Framing of CSA was episodic in majority of news reports, with criminal-justice system-related details about individual cases mentioned in about 90% reports. Further, more than two-third news reports did not mention possible causes or reasons of CSA, and possible steps that people could take to prevent CSA. About one-fifth of news reports provided statistics, research findings, or correct information to dispel myths or wrong public stereotypes about CSA. Inclusion of child helpline or contact information of any child welfare/support services was missing in most of the news reports. Conclusion: This is the first study to systematically assess the quality of news media reports on CSA in India. It provides valuable baseline information about existing media practices and helps in identifying areas for further improvement of media reporting on CSA. There is a need to conduct regular workshops with media professionals to provide them adequate training and support for improving media reporting of CSA.
Keywords: Child sexual abuse, content analysis, media reporting, news frame
The World Health Organization definition of child sexual abuse (CSA) includes any activity between a child and an adult or another child who by age or development is in a relationship of responsibility, trust, or power; the activity being intended to gratify or satisfy the needs of the other person. It covers the entire range of sexual offences against children including exploitative noncontact sexual interactions (e.g., exposing children to pornography). A systematic review of 55 studies from 24 countries reported the global prevalence rates of CSA ranging from 8% to 31% for girls and 3% to 17% for boys. Similarly, a systemic review of different studies conducted across India estimated that about 4% to 41% girls (below 18 years) and 4% to 57% boys (below 18 years) have experienced at least one form of CSA. There is ample literature available on the long-term negative effects of CSA on the social, psychological, and physical health outcomes of children. Thus, CSA is a major societal and public health concern affecting children of both genders.
Media plays an important role in creating awareness and shaping public opinion about various social issues, including CSA., A study from India reported that majority of school children became aware about CSA for the first time from media. This underscores the vital role of media in creating awareness about CSA because sex is often considered as a taboo topic in several conservative societies and often not discussed with children. However, the available literature suggests that media reportage of CSA can have both positive and negative impacts on the general public, CSA victims and their family, and lawmakers or policymakers, depending upon the quality of media reporting. Media reports on CSA can help in primary prevention by creating awareness about types of CSA and different ways in which children can protect themselves or raise an alarm. The portrayal of CSA as wider societal issue can help in creating consensus among people in institutions and government to take steps for prevention of CSA (e.g., taking steps to make a safer school/home environment, or speedy trial of CSA perpetrators). On the contrary, sensational reporting, inappropriate description of CSA, and sharing of too much details about the incident (e.g., photos, identifying information, etc.) might lead to revictimization of CSA survivor, perpetuation of myths or false stereotypes about CSA (e.g., CSA is not a common occurrence in our society, the perpetrator is usually a stranger with criminal background, etc.). This might lead to further decrease in reporting of CSA by other victims or their family, negatively affect the believing of CSA victim's disclosure of abuse and subsequent recovery, and hamper adoption of steps to more effectively prevent CSA by public and policymakers. Thus, it is important to have sensible media reporting on CSA to maximize the potential positive impact of media.
However, there has been limited scientific literature available analyzing the media reporting on CSA in India, with most of it being published as nonpeer reviewed reports. A recent systematic review of studies assessing media reporting of CSA reported most of them to be conducted from Western countries like the United States of America and the United Kingdom but none of them being from the Asian continent. It also emphasized the need for assessing the pattern of media reporting of CSA in other Eastern countries. Thus, the present study was planned with the aim to systematically assess the pattern of online news media reportage on the topic of CSA in India. This would provide insights into the quality of media reporting on CSA in India, and help in identifying areas for further improvement of media reporting practices.
| Methodology|| |
The online news media reports related to the topic of CSA in India were retrieved using the Google News online platform (https://news.google.com). Google News is one of the largest online news aggregators, which uses the same web crawling and indexing technology as Google Search to continually identify and organize news articles from more than 50,000 news sources. The news reports containing the keywords “child sexual abuse India” or “child rape India” were searched on August 04, 2021. These keywords were used to identify news articles reporting on CSA in India. The CSA was defined as any incident of sexual nature that involved a minor of less than 18 years of age. The search was restricted to the past one-year period (August 04, 2020 to August 04, 2021) in view of focusing at the recent pattern of media reporting of CSA in India. A total of 171 news reports published on various international, national, and regional online news media portals were retrieved. Twenty-two of them either contained only videos or did not focus on CSA in India, and were excluded. Thus, a total of 149 articles were selected for further analysis. These included online versions of some of the highest read daily newspapers across the country such as Hindustan Times, Times of India, The Hindu, The Indian Express, The Tribune, and The Telegraph; each of which have a monthly average readership of at least 1.5 million. Our Google News search results also included news reports from popular news magazines such as Outlook India and India Today. It also included reports from popular online only news platforms such as The Wire, The Quint, The Print, and Scroll.in, among others which are likely to have a wide online reach. Thus, the news reports included for analysis in the present study are likely to cover a broad range of online news media in India.
Two authors (qualified psychiatrists who were proficient in English language) independently reviewed and extracted information related to name of publisher, headlines, and other news report characteristics related to the quality of description of CSA related aspects. A predesigned proforma for extraction of information pertaining to the quality of CSA news report related characteristics was prepared by the researchers based on their own professional expertise, and review of available literature and media guidelines on reporting of CSA [Table 1]., The framing of news report on CSA was categorized as either thematic (addressed CSA as a systemic or societal problem with a broader perspective) or episodic (represented CSA in a narrow perspective with individual case related details only), using the approach described in previous studies. Any discrepancy or disagreement between the two researchers was resolved by consensus, and the third author was consulted if required. The data were analyzed using SPSS version 17.0 (IBM Corp, Armonk, NY). The descriptive (frequency and percentage) and inferential statistics (Chi-square and Fishers' exact test) were conducted. A two-tailed P value of less than 0.05 was considered significant for all the tests.
|Table 1: Comparison of media reporting of CSA between national and regional news reports|
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The information used in this study involved published online media reports, which were freely available in the public domain. No individual names or identifiers have been reported in this paper. Thus, no written ethical permission was required from the ethics committee.
| Results|| |
Out of a total of 149 news reports on CSA included in the analysis, about 61.7% (n = 92) of them were published as national online news, whereas, about 28.2% (n = 42) and 10.1% (n = 15) of news reports were published as regional and international online news, respectively. About 53.0% (n = 79) of news reports used sensational or dramatic headlines. The framing of CSA was thematic in about 36.9% (n = 55) reports, whereas it was episodic in the remaining 63.1% (n = 94) reports. The action taken by the police or other government authorities was mentioned in 90.6% (n = 135) news reports. About 28.9% (n = 43) news reports included some information about possible steps the public can take to prevent incidents of future sexual offences against children (e.g., public awareness campaigns, stricter legal punishment and/or speedy judicial trial of CSA cases, sex education for children, steps to create safer school/home environment or child shelter homes, improving reporting of CSA, campaign to reduce stigma and shame among victims of CSA and their families, sensitive media reporting, preventing online sharing of child sexual abuse material or porn). An attempt to counter or dispel the myth of “stranger danger” associated with CSA was made in about 20.8% (n = 31) news reports. About 21.5% (n = 32) news reports mentioned about possible causes or reasons for sexual offences against children (e.g., addiction or viewing of pornographic material, increased vulnerability of children from lower socio-economic status or disadvantaged castes, orphaned children, high levels of mental stress or frustration in perpetrators, sex considered as a taboo subject in society, unsafe conditions at school or shelter homes for children). Views or opinion of mental health professionals or experts working with rehabilitation of CSA victims were mentioned in about 10.1% (n = 15) news reports. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 (POCSO Act 2012) was mentioned and discussed (i.e., two or more details about POCSO were included) in about 57.0% (n = 85) and 12.1% (n = 18) news reports, respectively. Potentially identifying information about the victim(s) of sexual offence was revealed in six news reports [name of victim = 1 (0.7%), neighborhood details or pictures = 4 (2.6%), picture of victim's parents = 1 (0.7%)]. There was inappropriate or imprecise usage of terms to describe sexual offences against children in about 28.2% (n = 42) news reports. The child helpline or contact information of any child welfare/support services was mentioned in only two news reports (1.3%).
The comparison media reporting of CSA between national and regional online news has been described in [Table 1]. National news reports were more likely to use thematic framing of sexual offences against children rather than episodic framing, as compared to regional news reports (χ2 = 15.07, P < 0.001). Also, national news reports were more likely to include information about possible steps the public could take for prevention of further incidents of sexual offences against children (χ2 = 11.36, P < 0.001).
| Discussion|| |
The present study systematically analyzed the quality of online news media reports of CSA in India. More than half of the news reports (53%) had used sensational or dramatic headlines. This would usually be done by focusing upon the extreme age of the victim and/or perpetrator of CSA, or by highlighting the incestuous nature of CSA, or by naming a political leader or party's name in the headlines. For example, “Boy, 12, booked in Noida for raping, impregnating 16-year-old sister”, “Delhi CM Kejriwal orders magisterial probe into rape, murder of 9-yr-old.” This is arguably done to catch readers' attention in the news story. However, excessive sensationalism or dramatization of events while reporting a particular incident of CSA might sometimes distract the readers from the broader problem of CSA in the society. Also, it might inadvertently lead to retraumatization of the victim(s) of CSA.
The framing of CSA was episodic in majority of news reports (63%), rather than being thematic. Further, action taken by the police or other government authorities was mentioned in a large majority of news reports (90.6%). This promotes the public view that CSA is primarily a criminal-justice problem rather than a social and ethical one too. Also, views or opinion of mental health professionals or experts working with rehabilitation of CSA victims were mentioned in a small minority of news reports (10.1%). This is similar to the findings from most of the previous studies on the quality of media reporting of CSA conducted in Western countries., The focus of news report in episodic framing is on the individual case details of a particular incident of CSA, rather than contextualizing the incident of CSA with regional or country level statistics of CSA, and drawing the attention of readers upon the overarching and more prevalent patterns or risk factors of CSA in the community. This is also reflected by the observation that more than two-thirds of the news reports analyzed in the present study did not mention about possible causes or reasons of CSA, and possible preventive steps that people could take to prevent CSA. The available scientific literature recommends thematic framing approach for media reporting of CSA. It has been shown that providing broader contextual information, expert analysis or views, and statistical information while reporting single-event stories is more likely to make readers perceive them as a common broader social problem rather than an isolated unpredictable crime of individual transgression. Thematic framing would make readers think about the societal role and causes behind CSA, and generate greater support for adoption of preventive steps at the community level., Interestingly, the national news reports (43.5%) more commonly used thematic framing to describe the issue of CSA than regional news reports (9.5%). Similarly, national news reports (38.0%) more often mentioned possible steps the public could take to prevent CSA in future than regional news reports (9.5%). This could be partly because of differences in the journalistic experience of reporters or editorial practices maintained for news stories published at the national level as compared to the regional level; however, it needs to be explored and better understood in further studies.
Refreshingly, only six news reports mentioned potentially identifying information about the victim(s) of CSA, and only one of them had mentioned the name of a CSA survivor. This is likely due to the compliance of section 23 (2) of the POCSO Act, which prohibits media from disclosing details like the child's name, address, photographs, family details, school, neighborhood or any other particulars that may lead to the disclosure of the identity of the CSA survivor. However, slightly more than one-fourth of news reports (28.2%) had used inappropriate or imprecise terms to describe CSA. The available literature suggests that it is better to use proper legal or medical terms while describing CSA instead of using euphemisms or vague confusing terms. For example, few news reports described sexual abuse as “child harassment,” “sexual misconduct,” or “immoral act.” Further, guidelines recommend that sexually abused child should be referred as “victim” or “survivor” and care should be taken to not inadvertently imply child to be partly responsible for being sexually abused. For example, one news report described the victim as “innocent girl,” which might make some people think that all victims of CSA are not totally innocent until explicitly mentioned, which is in fact untrue. Similarly, the accused person should be preferably referred as “perpetrator” or “child sexual abuser” and should not unduly demonized or confused with someone else. Appropriate terms should be used to avoid any confusion or miscommunication, while conveying the violent and sexual nature of the CSA.
About one-fifth of news reports (20.8%) provided statistics, research findings, or correct information to dispel myths or wrong public stereotypes about CSA. For example, risk of CSA by a stranger is often exaggerated by media reporting; when on the contrary it is well-established by research that the perpetrator of CSA is often a known and trusted person or caregiver. The child helpline or contact information of any child welfare/support services was mentioned in only two news reports. Because majority of people primarily use media to gain information about CSA, it is important that the above described potentially helpful information is included in the news media reports. Although majority of the news reports (57.0%) mentioned POCSO act, only a small minority of them provided details about this special act enacted by the Government of India in 2012 for addressing the issue CSA. It envisaged to create child-friendly judicial process with a speedy trial in special dedicated POCSO courts, and included several strict provisions to comprehensively address the problem of CSA. Thus, spreading awareness about the same might act as a deterrent for potential perpetrators, and also make children and general public aware about its child-friendly provisions and the simple process of reporting either confirmed or suspected CSA cases under the POCSO act.
This is to our knowledge, the first study to attempt a systematic assessment of the quality of news media reports on CSA in India. It provides valuable baseline information about existing media practices and helps in identifying areas for further improvement of media reporting on CSA. However, the findings should be interpreted while keeping in mind the limitations of the present study. The present study included only English language news reports, and did not include news reports published in vernacular or regional languages, which cater to a large non-English speaking population in India. Further, we did not assess print media without online version, radio, television, or social media reports (e.g., Twitter, Facebook). This is an important area for future research because these media are also likely to play an equal or if not more important role in shaping public opinion and attitudes.
| Conclusion|| |
The majority of news media reports analyzed in this study presented CSA using an episodic frame, with individual case details and steps taken by the police being the main focus. This highlights the depiction CSA as criminal justice system problem rather than a social problem. Majority of the news reports did not attempt to provide information about the various causes of CSA or discuss about steps people could take to prevent future CSA cases. Only a small minority of news reports attempted to educate public by providing correct information about CSA to dispel myths, and the POCSO act. Virtually no news report mentioned child helpline numbers or provided contact information for agencies that assist or support CSA survivors and their families, either within or at the end of report. Thus, there is a need to develop national guidelines for improving media reporting of CSA, and conduct regular workshops with media professionals to sensitize them about the same.
Financial support and sponsorship
Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.
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