CEJ director: For less sensationalist rape coverage, journalists need ethical training

by Sahar Majid
Oct 30, 2018 in Specialized Topics

IJNet sat down for two conversations with Kamal Siddiqi, a longtime print journalist in Pakistan and director of the Center for Excellence in Journalism (CEJ), which offers trainings for journalists in Pakistan and plans to offer the country's first-ever master's program in journalism. 

One of the aims of the CEJ (which is backed by the International Center for Journalists) is to provide practical training for Pakistani journalists, helping them better engage with audiences. Below are excerpts from IJNet's conversations with Siddiqi about a common problem facing newsrooms across the globe: producing sensationalist coverage for the sake of attracting clicks. As Siddiqi discusses, this has been particularly evident in Pakistani media coverage of sexual assault cases. 

IJNet: How can journalists identify a sensationalist story?

Siddiqi: Sensationalism is when you take a story out of context or give it some sort of different meaning from what it’s supposed to be. We have a lot of journalists who do that in Pakistan, mainly because there’s such a major ratings war. And that, in many instances, is a problem because then you’ll have stories with information added to it that is not true. That just defeats the purpose of journalism.

Some of the most respected media organizations in Pakistan lack ethics while covering assault cases. For example, in a story about the rape case of a nurse in 2010, Dawn News showed the victim's face on TV while she was on a hospital bed. Also, in 2013, a five-year-old girl was raped in Lahore and not only was her name revealed, her face was shown and her father was interviewed on TV. How is the rape shield law practiced in Pakistan? If journalists or news organizations violate it, are there any severe consequences?

The naming of rape victims or interviewing of the family is not a criminal offense. It is more of a matter of ethics, not law. In terms of law, the legal recourse is the defamation law, which is weak and largely unenforced in Pakistan. What we have seen is that over the passage of years, through training and awareness and by involving news directors and news editors, the practice of naming rape victims or minors involved in offenses of any kind has become minimal. There are still some newspapers and TV channels who continue the practice to gain ratings, but they are in a minority.

Do you think covering sexual assault cases for TV is more challenging than print media?

Yes, it is. The pressure on TV is more to give visuals and details. Also, the quality of journalism practiced in the broadcast media leaves a lot to be desired. There is little training or sensitization. But this is now changing.

What do you think are the main reasons behind this?

The biggest issue is lack of training in ethics and law. Most practitioners of journalism in Pakistan do not have a degree. Very few have any formal training in the profession. This is a challenge that we are trying to address through a number of platforms. At the CEJ, where we hold monthly courses for journalists, we make it a point to hold a session on media law and ethics as well as on media safety. These are the two challenges for the media in Pakistan today. There are other platforms, notably the Coalition for Ethical Journalism, as well as the Pakistan Coalition for Media Safety, that also work on these issues.

In the 2010 nurse rape case, a woman was raped by the doctor in his on-call room. While reporting this story, a Dawn TV reporter said, “There’s a question that needs to be answered: why did the nurse go to the doctor’s on-call room?” He said this in a very judgmental tone. How do you think social expectations influence how journalists report on rape cases?

Barely 5 percent of working journalists in Pakistan are women. But this percentage is now changing and more women are coming into the profession. I agree that when women cover a rape case, there is more sensitivity involved. I know from my experience, when I assigned a woman reporter to cover a rape case after a male crime reporter did the typical judgmental job, it showed how reporting can change based on who is covering the story. The larger challenge is to make sure every reporter — both man and woman — is able to report with sensitivity and consistency.

If journalists are provided with proper training, do you think it can bring substantial changes to how  assault cases are covered in Pakistan?

Yes, I believe that will happen.

What should be the main components of a journalism training program for journalists who cover sexual assault cases?

Ethics. Law. Media safety. I would also recommend counseling for those who cover trauma.

IJNet's interviews with Kamal Siddiqi have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Darren Shaw.