If you are outside of southern India and do not follow Tamil, chances are high that you have either not heard of the Pollachi rape scandal or are not much aware of it. Blame it on the so-called national media, which in my opinion has been underplaying what in some ways can be described as a horrible event of national importance, if you compare it with the so-called Nirbhaya gangrape case or the Uber rape that resulted in nationwide outrage with legal consequences. In my opinion, if a story does not figure prominently in the headlines of prime-time TV news bulletins or the front pages of English language national newspapers, I would call it a case of underplaying.
In the incident, whose prosecution has since been handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation, several women were lured into friendship traps through strangers they met on social media and then blackmailed into rape using cameras, and involved harassment, forced sex and extortion. When a brother of one of the victims pursued the assailants, the crime came to light, opening a can of worms. The scandal suggests five kinds of biases journalists can be justly accused of. It is somewhat ironic that in the month that has the International Women’s Day, this story has been relatively underplayed.
The story does not lack drama, the kind of stuff news media usually jumps on. The most horrible part is that blackmail videos have made it to WhatsApp and are being viewed in a voyeuristic way. An article in Newslaundry observes that some publications in the South have covered the case that erupted after an incident on February 12 with a click-bait attitude to build audiences, which is a disgusting thing.
Writer Sharanya Manivannan says the “media shorthand for the situation is ‘the Pollachi case’, but with possibly hundreds of people directly affected by it, it might be better to call it the Pollachi crisis.”
I ran Google searches for “Pollachi rape case” and found 161,000 search results. A similar search for “Nirbhaya rape case” got me 25.9 million. I know the latter case is much older and stuffed with years of tracking but I still think the data is indicative enough of media bias. I do not think the national media deliberately ignores such cases but there are certainly five kinds of biases involved here.
- Proximity Bias: Often, Delhi media covers what is easier for it logistically. The late farmers’ union leader Sharad Joshi once told me his movement was much bigger than that of Mahendra Singh Tikait of the Muzaffarnagar-Meerut area but the latter got more media coverage because crews of Delhi journalists found it easier to do a day trip to neighbouring UP towns than go to interior Maharashtra. Pollachi near Coimbatore is far, far away from Delhi or Mumbai, where TV news anchors sit.
- Hierarchy bias: Delhi bureaux tend to have blue-eyed boys and girls, and it takes a courageous editor to call the bluff on rockstar colleagues who have disproportionate lobbying power over producers and editors. Having worked for national news organisations, I can say local correspondents often have to be persuasive or aggressive to get heard, even when they have great/significant stories. Sad.
- Class/culture bias: If it is not easily doable in Hindi or English, a story can be ignored. If it does not involve relatively affluent people, a story can be underplayed. The late historian and journalist Arvind Das once said the murder of leftist trade union leader Safdar Hashmi became a story of national importance because he was “one of us” (as in an English-speaking alumnus of St Stephen’s College in Delhi, who was murdered in a suburb of the city). Many trade union leaders and political/social activists have been murdered in India, but some get higher media coverage for cultural reasons.
- Context bias: If other stories get prominence on account of traditional priorities, some stories get underplayed. Because of its connection with a local AIADMK politician, the Pollachi case has a political angle. Sometimes, politicisation can lead to journalists discounting a story because of the belief that opposition groups may be overreacting. On the other hand, with general elections on, the natural tendency for the national media is to play up political stories at the parliamentary level.
- Audience bias: Newspapers historically tend to be local as print editions are local. Leading TV news channels are technically national as they are available on nationwide/worldwide cable and satellite platforms. But thanks to business strategies, some national channels position themselves to focus more on one region or demographic than another.
News organisations that truly believe that they are national in outlook need to have editors who should try to have their ears to the ground to avoid the above biases. Social media platforms like Twitter can help editors get a hang of what really matters. Using Twitter to influence priorities is, of course, another story.