A few years ago, I vented my frustrations about the Indonesian media’s tendency to objectify female victims of crime by referring to them as cantik (meaning “pretty” or “beautiful”), be it for sensationalism and clicks or a simple lack of awareness about journalism ethics. Despite the support readers showed for my arguments, I was under no illusion that one article could change an entire industry’s mindset and, unfortunately, I was right.
It is now 2019 and such unethical practices are seemingly as prevalent as they have ever been.
A news search for “korban cantik” (beautiful victims) on Google yielded these articles from just the past two days (among many more):
Rakyatku – Kasus Rp120 juta, wanita cantik ini mengaku jadi korban oknum anggota DPRD Gowa (In IDR120 million fraud case, this beautiful woman says she was victim of Gowa Regional Council member)
Tribun Jambi – Pembunuhan wanita cantik di apartemen, Haris tunggu setelah korban naik lift, lalu eksekusi sadis (In murder of beautiful woman in apartment, Haris waited until victim went up on the lift and then brutally executed her)
Okezone – Siswi cantik tewas ditikam, Walikota Bogor: Apapun motifnya, sangat biadab! (Beautiful student stabbed to death, Bogor Mayor: Whatever the motive, it was savage!)
My argument as to why this is categorically wrong has not changed — a victim’s appearance should be completely irrelevant to the reporting of just about all criminal cases. One’s attractiveness should not dictate the newsworthiness of a story, nor the amount of sympathy readers should have towards the victims.
But we don’t live in an ideal world.
The most common form of clickbait
I spoke to several journalists who work, or have worked, for Indonesian publications, and pretty much all of them told me the same thing: cantik drives traffic, and that it’s the most used form of clickbait in newsrooms. They said they had to use the word even if they don’t agree with it.
Dian, a reporter who worked the lifestyle desk at a news website, said there was no written rule in his newsroom to use the word cantik in articles, but journalists there — regardless of whether they covered criminal or celebrity stories — ended up accustomed to using it due to constant encouragement from editors.
“Some said that ‘cantik’ is a keyword that’s ‘eternally popular’ on the internet,” he said, adding that he understands why his colleagues never thought to push back against its use.
Dian said the crux of the problem was that objectifying women was the most surefire way to achieve the high personal targets for page views set by their editors, some of whom told reporters that they needed to get about 200,000 page views from their articles each day. Dian added he was often under pressure to meet those targets, as they counted towards his performance review. There was the occasional bonus, too.
“As long as [using the word cantik] is within normal boundaries, and not intended to insult someone, I can sort of understand a little. Even though I don’t agree with it,” he said.
“This needs to stop. It needed to stop many years ago.”
Rizki, a reporter who worked at a now-defunct news and lifestyle website, said Dian’s description of an ingrained newsroom culture of objectifying women applied to his workplace as well.
“If we write stories in accordance with journalism ethics, then they don’t sell. If they don’t sell, we will be asked to make it sell by making something more ‘interesting,’” he said.
As in Dian’s newsroom, there was also no official editorial policy about using clickbait words like cantik at Rizki’s website, yet all who worked there were told to write using templates derived from past popular articles, many of which objectified women.
“[The journalists in my newsroom] maybe lacked insight. Female and male [reporters] all thought within that framework,” he said.
Sensationalism trumps ethics in Indonesia's latest celebrity prostitution scandalhttps://t.co/wqAhdf83kk
— Coconuts Jakarta (@CoconutsJakarta) January 7, 2019
It’s hard to argue, however, that their editors lack awareness. All too often, well-aware of the sexist nature of their story angle and headline choices, they simply insist they’re giving the public what it wants.
A, a news website editor who asked not to be named for this article, acknowledged the cantik problem is as prevalent in his newsroom as anywhere. But he told me that growing the website’s audience is first and foremost why he was hired — not upholding the website’s journalistic integrity.
“I get that saying cantik in articles can be disrespectful. But most of our audience is male and they respond to headlines containing the word, so what am I to do?” he said.
“I can’t afford to be idealistic in this line of work. Cantik isn’t even the only ‘cheat’ we use to drive traffic,” he added, while mentioning that he encourages his reporters to write clickbait headlines and sensationalize stories related to sex, as with a recent celebrity prostitution case.
A says he believes that his website’s ways won’t change as long as the general audience in Indonesia remain as “unsophisticated” in their consumption of the media as it is now.
Lowest common denominator
Devi Asmarani, editor-in-chief at Magdalene, an Indonesian web magazine that channels the voice of feminists and progressives, told me she believes objectifying women has become journalists’ “first instinct” in writing lowest common denominator stories that include popular keywords like cantik and seksi (sexy).
“They don’t mind appearing sexist or misogynistic for traffic. I think it does their readers a disservice, because [the media is] keeping readers at a certain level — they don’t want their readers to be sophisticated, because that would make it more difficult for them to get clicks [for articles],” she said.
“We [in the media] have a purpose, to educate and respect society. If we let readers stay at this level, which is low and unsophisticated, I think there’s no difference between a media company and any other entertainment business.
“This needs to stop. It needed to stop many years ago.”
Devi says she has been invited to hold numerous workshops for journalists on gender issues in the media. While her training seemingly resonated with those who attended the workshops — mostly low to mid-level reporters — it doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact on how they write.
“When they go back to their newsroom, they go back to their old ways, because editors demand them to write a certain way. What we need is to educate editors and change their perspectives,” she said.
That, Devi said, is not going to be easy, because editors in turn want to please the commercially minded media owners in Indonesia.
“Unfortunately, media in Indonesia is a monopolized industry in that media companies are owned by a handful of people [who don’t prioritize gender issues over commercialism],” she said.
If the bottom line is indeed all that matters in the upper echelons of Indonesian media, a part of the solution lies with the audience. The stories you click determine the kind of stories you get to some degree. So, resist the urge to click on these stories and tell others to do the same.
We need to demand better, first from ourselves as Indonesian media consumers, then from the media outlets themselves. It’s a small, but important, step towards a less toxic, less misogynistic society.