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Media and rape sensationalism

Debraj Bhattacharya

Updated: September 18, 2013, 9:09 AM IST
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On the morning of 10 September 2013 I saw a wonderful piece of news on the net - the four accused in the rape case of a young girl in Delhi ("Nirbhaya") has been found guilty by the Indian judiciary. This is certainly a victory for the people who fought for justice. This is also a victory for the media in India who played an important role in highlighting the issue and continuously supporting the brave young men and women who took to the streets.
By the time evening came however I was struck by two disturbing news reports about a study on rape in Asia. The news reports that I saw came out in prestigious media brands - BBC and The Hindu.
The BBC headline read - Almost quarter of men 'admit to rape in parts of Asia'.
The Hindu news headline was almost similar - One in four men across Asia admit to having committed rape'.
Both news reports refer to a particular study by UN titled, "'Why Do Some Men Use Violence Against Women and How Can We Prevent It?" which was conducted in six countries - Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea.
I do not have access to the study report and therefore would not like to make any comment on the study itself. However a sample of 10,000 to speak on behalf of the population of these six countries seems to be too small. This however did not bother the reporters. Nor were they interested in knowing whether the sampling method is correct or not. Clearly while rushing their report in the age of instant media reporting such minor questions as to whether the sample adequately represented the population of these countries did not bother them.
A study usually mentions some of the limitations within which it was conducted. This was again not reported. So what do we get in the reports finally? According to BBC in a particular region of Papua New Guinea 62% men have admitted to rape, in Indonesia's Papua Province 48.6% have admitted to rape, in urban Indonesia 26.2% have admitted to rape, in China urban/rural 22.2 % have admitted to rape, in Cambodia 20.4% have admitted to rape, in Indonesia rural the percentage is 19.5%, in Sri Lanka it is 14.1% , in Bangladesh urban the percentage was 9.5%.
It is important to remember that these percentages are percentages of the number of people interviewed but the data has been presented in such a way that it seems that 22.2% of men in China, for example, are rapists. There is a crucial difference between percentage of respondents and the population of the country but this difference may be missed by a reader who is well-versed in research terminology. We are not even told how many respondents per country were interviewed. Let us assume there were 6000 respondents in China. Does it adequately represent the Chinese male population? Are the scholars saying that the Chinese population is adequately represented by the sample they have drawn? Are they saying that if 22.2% of the respondents from China have said that they have raped it also means that 22.2% of Chinese men are rapists?
I will be extremely surprised if the scholars behind this study have made such a claim.
What is however even more dangerous, and this makes this study relevant for India, is the astonishing piece of sensationalism that one can see in the headlines. I have great respect for both BBC and The Hindu but I am afraid both stand guilty of sensationalism and misleading their readers. A study of 10,000 men in 6 countries of Asia has been generalized in the headlines as representative of all men in Asia, which of course includes India. The astonishing headline by The Hindu implies that 25% of Asian men, including Indian men, have committed rape. BBC has been slightly more circumspect - they have said "parts of Asia". But to the casual reader the fine distinction would not really get noticed. Across the world people will be thinking how terrible Asian men are. Many of them certainly are and like in many other parts of the world rape is certainly a serious problem. But 25% of men in Asia are rapists is a claim that can only be described as unpardonable sensationalism.
I would not be surprised, given the title of the study, if the focus of the study is not on finding out what percentage of men in Asia are rapists. Rather it seems that the study has tried to find out why some men commit violence against women and what can be done about it. That certainly would make interesting reading especially if there are good psychological explanations.
My humble request to media persons is this - please take your time before writing about a study. Ideally you should read the study and then present an analysis. Otherwise one may end up writing reports such as these which amounts a new kind of Orientalism - Asian men are rapists. Surely this is not what prestigious media houses would like to end up doing.
First Published: September 18, 2013, 9:09 AM IST