‘It was like Nikita hadn’t been murdered’ – why reporting guidelines matter
Tarang Chawla is trying to find the words to describe coping with both the murder of his little sister by her partner and the simultaneous media ambush.
“Two worlds are playing out,” he explains. “One is the shock and horror of processing your grief – the mixed emotions of denial and anger and blame and everything else you go through when you lose a loved one to a violent crime.” The other was the journalists acting as messengers, speculating on the killer’s motives while circling for a scoop. “Families aren’t aware this could play out on a national or international scale. There was a lack of compassion.”
Nikita’s death generated such enormous coverage because of the horrific nature of the attack. Parminder Singh stabbed Nikita 35 times as she slept, before calling the police on himself in the early hours of the morning. His 23-year-old victim, meanwhile, was in the prime of her life when she died. A choreographer and performing artist, Nikita ran her own successful Bollywood dance studio and was in her final year studying for a Bachelor of Performing Arts at Monash University. She dreamed of one day working in Europe and America.
Her brother, now 32, is speaking on behalf of Our Watch, a group that raises awareness of violence against women and their children. In particular, he’s here to discuss the organisation’s new reporting guidelines, which aim to ease the suffering of those directly affected and discourage journalists from writing reports that inadvertently shift the blame on to the victim.
Tarang's story began one January morning in 2015 when Victoria Police knocked on the family home door to deliver the terrible news of Nikita’s death in person. Reporters began chasing the story within hours. “Still to this day,” he reflects, “I’m at a loss as to how they got my details because they shouldn’t have been released without my consent.” In the following hours and weeks, journos text him photos of his sister pestering him to confirm it was her and asked for reactions to daily revelations. Nobody, he says, explicitly sympathised he was living through the worst weeks of his life.
“It was almost like a crime hadn’t occurred, or a person hadn’t just been killed.”
Who was advising and protecting him from all the intrusion?
“No one. Absolutely no one.”
In reality, the police focused their time and effort on the procedural matters of the case and didn’t deal with the media directly. One officer, Tarang recalls, commented that, if it got too much, he should call the station himself. “That was it, you know. But once the press has your details, there’s nothing you can do because they can call you all the time, text and email. There wasn’t any recourse at the time.”
The reporters maybe didn’t realise that it was, in fact, brother Tarang who volunteered to identify Nikita's body; an autopsy later revealed she'd been stabbed those 35 times with a meat cleaver and had significant wounds to her scalp, face, neck and arms. It’s a moment he would later describe in court as being etched in his memory like a tattoo.
Our Watch’s reporting guidelines, available to download in full below, aim to redress the balance. The ten points might seem commonsense, but journalists often ignore them in the maelstrom of a breaking story. There are some recurring themes, though. Often, reports can be sensationalised, particularly for a readership now hungry for a diet of “true crime”. Pieces can downplay the scale of violence against women. And finally, there’s often an undertone the girl somehow had it coming… as the press hunt for a narrative to hang the story on.
“When reports do get it wrong, unhelpful, damaging myths and misunderstandings about violence against women continue to circulate in the community,” says Our Watch’s CEO, Patty Kinnersly. “Importantly, we also know women experiencing abuse, or at risk of it, may be less likely to seek help or speak out.”
In the Chawla family’s case, the preferred angle soon began one of jealousy and betrayal. Reports chose to highlight that Nikita had been on a date with a work colleague and was considering ending their relationship. “It was victim-blaming,” says Tarang. “Because she was leaving him, she was responsible. Instead of looking at what the perpetrator did and what led to those actions, it was ‘Why was she in that place at that time?’ ‘What did she say to him?’ or ‘Why was she wearing what she was wearing?’”
Recently, he has publicly pointed to unsympathetic reporting of the death of Courtney Herron, who was murdered in Melbourne’s Royal Park. The Herald Sun’s front page on 28th May 2019 led with an apparent new revelation that the 25-year-old left a city gathering with her accused killer, under the headline ‘Party Twist’. Tarang argues there’s an inability to write headlines that simply name the victim or recognise a life has been lost. “When Courtney’s body was found near tennis courts,” he says, “I half expected it to read ‘Tennis Court Murder’. We’re seeing a trend – especially with the killing of younger women – of sensationalising from the beginning to catch attention.”
Our Watch’s advice to journalists is to tell it like it is. Reporters shouldn’t – where legally possible – shy away from writing phrases such as ‘violence against women and their children’, ‘sexual assault’, ‘rape’ or ‘murder’, if appropriate. Furthermore, clipped language and narrative troupes can be a trap that discourages survivors from coming forward. Research suggests it’s rare for violence to be directly driven by alcohol, drugs, stress, debt or mental health issues.
In fact, it’s usually caused by long-standing attitudes towards the opposite gender. As Tarang later explained, the death of his little sister followed the killer’s increasingly controlling behaviour – from checking her phone messages to making all the spending decisions and deciding who she could and couldn’t see. “One of the common myths we still see reported is the idea perpetrators are ‘Good blokes who just snap,’” adds Kinnersly. “In fact, research overwhelmingly shows there is almost always an escalation in violence and a pattern of behaviour.”
The shift in emphasis from the perpetrator to the victim downplays the scale of the issue. While one woman is murdered each week by a current or ex-partner, one in three Australian females experience physical violence in their lives and one in five sexual. And of course, statistics don’t tell the full story – 80% of partner attacks and sexual assault go unreported.
Furthermore, stories often imply this is a niche issue that disproportionately affects, and is caused by, attitudes among minority groups. Some of the first articles on Nikita’s death came up with wild theories with racial undertones. Was it linked to the Chawla’s Indian background? Maybe it was an honour killing? “We feed the narrative that violence against women only affects groups such as migrants or refugees,” says Tarang, “but it’s a widespread social issue.”
When Nikita’s killer was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2015 with a non-parole period of 17 years, the judge’s findings echoed much of Our Watch’s research. The judge pointed to the lack of remorse from the murderer, and called the act one of vengeance and control to ensure she didn’t share her life with anybody else. “Family violence has for decades been ignored and trivialised,” Justice Lex Lasry told the court. “This is an extreme example.”
In the months and years that followed, Tarang dedicated his life to campaigning against domestic violence and in support of gender equality and better mental health. At first, he set up a campaign in memory of his sister, Not One More Niki, but before long his work became breathless in its scale. Today, he’s an ambassador for a string of domestic violence organisations, has spoken to thousands of people at schools, workplaces and sports clubs and even stood as a candidate in last year’s state election. He’s become such an authority on the issue, he now advises the Victorian Government on several ministerial committees and has been named a 2017 Young Australian of the Year Finalist.
And he’s also found the courage to speak with journalists, despite the memories of what happened in those early days. What he found is that those who returned later, after the media storm, handled his story with more sensitivity. One even sat with him and explained her own family’s experience of grief and loss at the hands of violent crime. “That reporting was immeasurably better,” he says. Not just for himself, as someone personally impacted, but for the article, too.
What advice, then, would he give reporters?
“Focus on the human element,” he says, “because it improves the story. Be aware that you’re talking to a human being, not a segment on the six o’ clock news. And remember, it takes all of ten seconds to acknowledge, ‘I know you’re going through something, sorry for your loss, but I would like to talk to you about it.”
For help or information on domestic violence, visit 1800RESPECT or call them on 1800 737 732. The Men’s Referral Service is aimed at men who need help to stop violent or controlling behaviour, but it also supports victims and families. You can call on 1300 766 491.
If you’re in immediate danger, phone 000.
Originally published in Mumbrella, 2019 and sponsored by Our Watch. Click here to read the original.