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 black4 informs 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
- 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.
- Contextualise the story – use with facts about violence against women to show the scale of the epidemic.
- Depict with care – use pictures that do not perpetuate harmful myths about the nature of abuse.
- 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.
- It is important to remember that figures are much higher and go unreported.
- 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
- The Sun 01.02.18 No Author Specified, Domestic Abuse is everyday horror we simply will not ignore, pp. 3-4