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Spotlight on Scottish Media: Language Matters

9 newspapers, 5 days 26 stories of sexual assault and rape, 6 called it sex

This March, our intern Jenny is blogging about the results of her media monitoring study. She’s been scanning Scottish newspapers for stories about violence against women to get an idea about the state of media reporting in Scotland. Read her first blog here. 

In 26 articles discussing rape and sexual assault, 6 headlines used the word “sex” instead of rape or assault. This was one of the more disappointing findings from the media monitoring project I have undertaken for Zero Tolerance. From week beginning the 29th of January I bought nine major newspapers (the Scottish Sun, Scottish Daily Mirror, the Scottish Times, Scottish Daily Mail, the Scotsman, the Scottish Herald, the Scottish Daily Express, the Scottish Telegraph, the Guardian) to analyse the coverage of violence against women in the Scottish press. I’ve split the findings into four blogs, this first one you can find here, discusses what the stories were about. This blog is a more in-depth analysis of the language used in the stories. The third covers whose side the stories were on. And the 4th is about the breakdown of the gender of the author of the stories.

The language that is used in these stories is so important as it shapes attitudes towards violence against women (VAW). The word choice and framing of the story informs how the reader perceives the incident, and the context of the incident.

Non-consensual sex is rape

Out of the 26 stories that were about rape and sexual assault, six separate headlines defined the story as one about “sex”¹. This is simply factually inaccurate. If a woman had come forward with a “sex claim” about a man it wouldn’t be news, it wouldn’t be a crime, there wouldn’t be a story. Sex without consent is not sex, it is rape. This word choice is not only factually inaccurate, but damaging – it blurs the very clear line between consent and rape.

Man or beast?

Four separate stories chose to describe the assailant in sensationalised language, such as “beast”, “fiend”, “monster”, “evil”, and “brute”. All four of these stories were in tabloid newspapers; two appearing in the Mirror, and two in the Sun². Dehumanising these men who perpetrate violence against women allows the reader to set them apart from ‘normal’ men. This does not challenge the reader to question why some men think it is acceptable to behave in this way. As Zero Tolerance’s Handle With Care Guidelines put it: “A man who is a ‘sex-beast’ does not warrant further investigation for his evil is inherent and unexplainable; an ordinary man who commits a horrific crime is much more perplexing”. To tackle the cause of violence against women we need to do more than label some men as monsters and ignore the toxic culture that permits this behaviour.

“An attractive girl”

I was happily surprised that no stories used adjectives to describe the victim-survivors that made them appear weak e.g. innocent, pure etc. However, there was still some trouble word choice. One story about the murder of Cheryl Hooper, used quotes from the local community to describe her, and the journalist chose to include the slightly disturbing comment of, “an attractive girl”³. Cheryl Hooper was a 51 year old woman who had just been murdered – not an “attractive girl”. Although the journalist is not saying this about Cheryl Hooper, they still chose to print that specific quote – when they very easily could have left out that irreverent and sexist comment altogether. Printing comments like that tell the reader that she deserves our pity; not our rage, and that we should be focusing on her looks, not his crime.

Impact

Calling out this problematic language is not curtailing of free speech or censorship. This is about asking journalists to recognise their duty in shaping of societal perceptions, and to use factual unbiased language. The language that is used when reporting these stories can be part of creating a climate where we challenge the cause of violence against women. It is the duty of the media to be part of that change.

It is very easy to be part of this change and not part of the problem a journalist or editor. As such, I’ll be ending each blog with a simple set of recommendations, because writing about violence against women in a way that is not harmful is really very basic.

Recommendations:

  1. Never call assault or rape “sex” – it is vital not to blur the very defined line between consensual encounters and crimes.
  2. Do not call the perpetrators monsters or beasts – because they are not freaks of nature; they are a product of our society.
  3. Describe victim-survivors in language that does not disempower them – do not reduce them to their looks.

For full recommendations on how to write about Violence Against Women see our guidelines. Guidelines on language use can be found on page 19.

Have you written or read a story that is an example of good practice in reporting Violence Against Women? Enter the Write to End Violence Against Women Awards.

If you have been affected by any of these issues please get in touch:

Rape Crisis Scotland – 08088 01 03 02

Rape Crisis Scotland provides a national rape crisis helpline and email support for anyone affected by sexual violence, no matter when or how it happened.

The helpline is normally open from 6pm to midnight, 7 days a week, and offers free and confidential initial and crisis support and information.

Scotland’s domestic abuse and forced marriage helpline – 0800 027 1234

Scottish Women’s Aid runs a helpline, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, which supports anyone with experience of domestic abuse or forced marriage, as well as their family members, friends, colleagues and professionals who support them.

  1. The Sun, 29.01.18, No Author Specified, Nelly gig sex claim, p. 21                                      The Times, 29.01.18, No Author Specified, Actor denies sex claims, p. 4                      The Times, 29.01.18, Will Pavia, Casino mogul quits over sex claims, p. 33                The Herald, 29.01.18, No Author Specified, Republican finance chief resigns over sex  claims, p. 14                                                                                                                                The Daily Mail, 29.01.18, No Author Specified, Mr Selfridge hit by new sex claims, p.2  The Sun, 01.02.18, No Author Specified, Girl’s sex fiend hell, p. 23
  2. The Sun 29.01.18 Douglas Walker, BEAST QUIZZED OVER LOUISE GUN HORROR p. 19                                                                                                                                                      The Sun 01.02.18 No Author Specified Girl’s sex fiend hell p. 23                                          The Mirror 30.01.18 Tom Pettifor Black cab rapist’s secret London flat p. 11            The Mirror 02.02.18 Lucy Thorton, Rapist jailed for evil “tag team” attack p. 21
  3. The Times, .0.01.18, Will Humphries, Mother shot dead knew her killer, p. 16
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Spotlight on Scottish Media: what’s the story?

Media monitoring Numbers

This March, Zero Tolerance Project Support Intern Jenny Lester is blogging about the results of her media monitoring study. She’s been scanning Scottish newspapers for stories about violence against women to get an idea about the state of media reporting in Scotland. 

In 57 articles discussing rape, domestic abuse, violence, and murder there were 0 mentions of helplines that could be contacted if the issues affected the reader. This was one of the more disappointing findings from the media monitoring project I have undertaken for Zero Tolerance.

From week beginning the 29th of January I bought nine major newspapers (the Scottish Sun, Scottish Daily Mirror, the Scottish Times, Scottish Daily Mail, the Scotsman, the Scottish Herald, the Scottish Daily Express, the Scottish Telegraph, the Guardian) to analyse the coverage of violence against women in the Scottish press.

I’ve split the findings into four blogs, this first one discusses the what the stories were about – a quantitative analysis of the content of the 57 stories. The second, which will follow next week, is about the language used in the stories. The third covers whose side the stories were on. And the 4th is about the breakdown of the gender of the author of the stories.

Violence, rape, and murder of white women

Domestic abuse and violence against women affects all women – 1 in 3 women worldwide experience physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.¹ The abuse and violence that women experience is varied, it can come in different combinations, it can happen over a long period of time and it often escalates – intimate partner murder is often the end of a cycle of domestic abuse.  

In Scotland between 2014-2015 there were 59,882 incidents of domestic abuse and 1,901 rapes or attempted rapes recorded by the police.²³ This prevalence of violence against women means that journalists are not neutral in the selection of stories. It is important to remember that there are a multitude of stories, and journalists actively chose what to report and what not to report. The stories that are chosen to be published shape the public perception of what violence against women looks like.

Reporting only the “goriest” of stories, or mainly reporting on stories where the woman is white and middle class, and/or the assailant is poor and blackinforms and shapes myths surrounding rape. For example that it is perpetrated by strangers – when around 90% of women know the man who raped them before the incident.5

There were 57 stories in total – 50% of these stories were about rape and sexual assault, 38% were about violence and murder, and only 13% covered other forms of abuse.

Media monitoring Types of Abuse

Without stories about non-physical abuse, e.g psychological or financial, , the women who suffer it may feel they are alone in what they endure, or may feel like their situation is normal, or that there is no help available. Especially when no helpline is listed next to the story!

Reporting only on violence and sexual assault does not represent the range of violence against women and domestic abuse that exists. There is an active choice to focus on sensational stories with white victim-survivors which does not portray violence against women (VAW) as what it is; an everyday occurrence for women of all ethnicities, facilitated by a societal norms, that can be stopped.

It happens all the time

It was disappointing to note that almost all of the stories did not reference the magnitude of this epidemic. Feminist activists have long been trying to lift the silence on rape – and dispel the myth that it is rare and exceptional. Only one story out of 57 situated the story in the context of the scale of violence against women. This was in the Sun’s large spread on the new Domestic Abuse Bill6 – this newest legislation passed by the Scottish government rightfully criminalises psychological abuse such as coercive and controlling behaviour. The story was a transcript of the speech given by Justice Secretary Michael Matheson, and as such provided statistical context including reference to the #every9minutes campaign, and the gendered nature of domestic abuse; 79% of cases being with a women victim-survivor, and a male accused.

media-monitoring-herald-scotland.jpg

Every other story ran without this context. Leaving each of those stories to appear to be one-offs; horrible, but singularities. Things that happen to other people. Not only is this not true, but it also fails to recognise the preventable societal cause for the epidemic of violence against women.

A thousand words

I was pleasantly surprised by the imagery alongside the stories. Most pictures that accompanied stories were good, they showed pictures of the women as individuals, or the couple together. Ironically, the one story that used a picture of a black eye was the Sun story about Domestic Abuse bill, with their online story alongside a women flinching away from a man about to hit her. This seemed a strange choice as the story was literally covering a bill that says domestic abuse is not always physical.

Screenshot from the Sun depicting stock image of cowering woman and shadow of a man with raised fist.

Stock image used by The Sun – this is a stereotypical example of domestic abuse as purely physical.

Displaying pictures of bruises and physical injury, such as black eyes, does not cover the scope of harm done to women. It perpetuates the myth that domestic abuse is only when a man physically abuses a woman.

Not sure what picture to use? Zero Tolerance has a whole image bank of free to use stock images that can be used alongside stories about violence against women. Find these on our website. 

 

Photo credit: Laura Dodsworth

Impact

Focusing only on “gory” stories of stranger rape and violence, using stereotypical images, and not providing context shape societal perceptions of what we recognise as abuse and how we view the scale of the problem and creates a culture. A culture that does not recognise what happens to some women as abuse unless they are physically assaulted. It can make those women blame themselves, feel ashamed, and scared to come forward.

It is very easy to counteract this and not be part of the problem as a journalist or editor. As such, I’ll be ending each blog with a simple set of recommendations, because writing about Violence Against Women in a way that is not harmful is really very basic.

Recommendations:

  1. Select stories carefully – report on all forms of abuse, not just physical violence. When covering murder, report on the domestic abuse present in the lead up to it.
  2. Contextualise the story – use with facts about violence against women to show the scale of the epidemic.
  3. Depict with care – use pictures that do not perpetuate harmful myths about the nature of abuse.
  4. Include helplines – once reading your story a woman might want help; make sure you are facilitating her finding it immediately.

For full recommendations on how to write about Violence Against Women see our guidelines

Have you written or read a story that is an example of good practice in reporting Violence Against Women? Enter the Write to End Violence Against Women Award.

If you have been affected by any of these issues please get in touch:

Rape Crisis Scotland – 08088 01 03 02

Rape Crisis Scotland provides a national rape crisis helpline and email support for anyone affected by sexual violence, no matter when or how it happened.

Scotland’s domestic abuse and forced marriage helpline – 0800 027 1234

Scottish Women’s Aid runs a helpline, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, which supports anyone with experience of domestic abuse or forced marriage, as well as their family members, friends, colleagues and professionals who support them.

  1. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/
  2. https://beta.gov.scot/publications/equally-safe/pages/3/
  3. It is important to remember that figures are much higher and go unreported.
  4. Benedict, H. (1992). Virgin or vamp: How the press covers sex crimes. New York: Oxford University Press. And Block, S. (2001–2002). Rape and race in colonial newspapers. Journalism History, 27(4), 146–155
  5. https://www.rapecrisisscotland.org.uk/resources/RCS-SVinScot-leaflet.pdf
  6. The Sun 01.02.18 No Author Specified, Domestic Abuse is everyday horror we simply will not ignore, pp. 3-4

 

Erin Kelly wins ‘Best Creative Writing’ award

Over the next week we will be publishing information about all of our 2017 Write to End Violence Against Women award winners. You can find the full list here.

You can also listen to interviews with attendees of the Write to End VAW awards, on Engender’s Podcast ‘On The Engender’.

Erin Kelly won our inaugural Creative Writing award for her three poems. Read Erin’s wonderful poems, ‘Silence’, ‘Deep Water’ and ‘Survive’ here.

Judges’ comments

“Taking no prisoners in her work, Erin’s poems are visceral and visual in a way that makes her work stand out from the crowd. She wants her readers to take notice of what’s wrong with complicity and victim shaming and is succinct in doing so.”

“I love the immediacy of these poems and the use of evocative honesty. The writer has an impactful, stripped back style as she hits on the harassment and subjugation of women’s lived reality.”

You can read Erin’s writing on her website. 

Niamh Anderson and Polly Smythe win Best Student award

Over the next week we will be publishing information about all of our 2017 Write to End Violence Against Women award winners. You can find the full list here.

You can also listen to interviews with attendees of the Write to End VAW awards, on Engender’s Podcast ‘On The Engender’.

Polly Smythe and Niamh Anderson won the ‘Best Article – Student’ award for their writing on domestic abuse at university. Read the article here: Domestic abuse is happening at university. So why don’t we talk about it?

Polly and Niamh wrote about the fact that our stereotypical image of a domestic abuse victim is not a young university student, despite the fact that women aged 16 – 24 are the group at the highest risk of experiencing domestic abuse. They wrote about university initiatives which tackled sexual harassment and the limitations within these initiatives, as well as how reluctance to label behaviours as ‘coercive’ can prevent reporting.

“Not only are there misconceptions about who can experience domestic abuse, but misconceptions about what that abuse looks like. Women’s Liberation Officer Chris Belous told us that recognition tends to be for the more “obvious signs of abusive, violent relationships, while other things like emotional abuse and gaslighting go unnoticed”. When talking about domestically abusive relationships, so often the first question asked is ‘did they hit you?’. Not only does this significantly downplay the catastrophic effects emotional abuse can have, but makes victims less likely to come forward as they do not feel their relationship is abusive if there is no violence.” 

Judges’ comments: “A hugely important subject with clear and economic prose.”

“Extremely well researched and evidenced and written in an engaging style and strong gender analysis”

Read Polly and Niamh’s article here: Domestic abuse is happening at university. So why don’t we talk about it?

A special mention was awarded to ‘Inside the hospitality industry: a culture of harassment’ , by Richard Joseph with Meilan Solly and Jonathon Skavroneck writing for The Saint. Judges called this piece “A very well researched expose on exploitation in the hospitality industry.”

If you are concerned about your own safety or that of a friend, the Scottish Women’s Aid helpline is free to call, and open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on 0800 027 1234. 

Talat Yaqoob wins ‘Best Blog’

Over the next week we will be publishing information about all of our 2017 Write to End Violence Against Women award winners. You can find the full list here.

You can also listen to interviews with attendees of the Write to End VAW awards, on Engender’s Podcast ‘On The Engender’.

Talat Yaqoob won the Best Blog award for her writing on the subject of online misogyny. Read the blog here: “Just Ignore It”

On the gendered nature of online misogyny, Talat writes, “Why does this matter to the Women 5050 campaign? Because sexist abuse online and the disproportionate abuse of our women leaders prevents other women from aspiring to these roles. Last year, GirlGuiding UK released a report stating that “49% of girls aged 11–21 say fear of abuse online makes them feel less free to share their views”. Earlier this year, Unison Wales told us that online abuse was putting women off politics.”

Judges’ comments: “This blog makes an elegantly constructed argument about the virulence of misogyny experienced online by women, and women politicians in particular.  Talat Yaqoob frames the argument around the advice of men to ignore this abuse either because it isn’t worth a response or because we all “have bigger fish to fry” in domestic and sexual violence and FGM, for example.  Yaqoob aptly names the silencing inherent in both pieces of advice, and the tweets used to illustrate her argument remind us just how dangerous a place public space is for all women.”

“Brilliant! A tightly written, evidence based challenge to how women experience gender based violence online. The creative use of categories to guide the reader through the piece added to the impact of the blog.”

Read Talat’s blog here: “Just Ignore It”

Find out more about Women 5050 here.

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