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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.


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.


  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

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. 

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.

Winners of the 2017 Write to End Violence Against Women Awards

A huge thank you to all of you who attended the 2017 Write Awards last night. We were thrilled to see such a packed event with so many people passionate about good media representation about violence against women.

Our compère Kainde Manji did a fantastic job of coordinating the ceremony and keeping things running smoothly.

We would like to give thanks to our wonderful MSP Sponsor Monica Lennon and speaker Jeane Freeman MSP; it is wonderful to have MSPs who are actively and vocally challenging the narrative that says violence against women is ever acceptable. Huge thanks as well to our wonderful panel of judges and of course all the writers who entered this year’s competition.

Zero Tolerance is supported in the running of the Write Awards by White Ribbon Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, Engender, Everyday Victim Blaming, Women 50:50, Rape Crisis Scotland, Women for Independence and the Scottish Refugee Council and media partner, The Sunday Herald newspaper.

We are grateful to our 2017 sponsors, NUJ Scotland and the University of Strathclyde.

We’ll be posting more about the awards in the coming weeks, so please keep an eye out – for now please enjoy the excellent articles that winners of this year’s awards.

Winner of Best Article – News

Annie Brown, Daily Record

Island rape victims forced to endure second hell due to lack of local forensic facilities

Winner of Best Article – Feature

Vicky Allan, The Sunday Herald

Domestic abuse: This article will upset you but it is vital that you read it

Best Blog and Comment

Talat Yaqoob, Women 5050

“Just Ignore It”

Best article – Student and Young Person

Polly Smythe and Niamh Anderson, The Student

Domestic abuse is happening at university. So why don’t we talk about it?

Gender Equality Awards 2017: Creative Writing

Erin Kelly

3 Poems; Silence, Deep Water, Survive

Read Erin’s wonderful poems on page 63 – 65 of our booklet.

Wooden Spoon

Rather than award “worst article” or wooden spoon to a particular article, the organisers have decided to award this year’s Wooden Spoon to a theme. This recognises the shortcomings of representation as a whole, rather than singling out one individual journalist.

The Wooden Spoon award was presented by Annie McLaughlin, our 2016 Write to End Violence Against Women bursary winner and you can read a transcript here.


Monica Lennon MSP supports the fifth Write to End Violence Against Women Awards

Zero Tolerance is delighted to announce Monica Lennon as the latest MSP sponsor for its 2017 Write to End Violence Against Women Awards.

The awards, which are now in their fifth year, celebrate excellence in journalism in violence against women reporting.

Monica Lennon MSP has pledged her support for the awards, run by Zero Tolerance and supported by organisations working to further gender equality. Since her election to the Scottish Parliament in 2016, Monica Lennon has been a vocal champion of women’s rights and has worked tirelessly to end period poverty in Scotland by pushing a universally accessible system of free sanitary products.

On why she is supporting this initiative to promote more responsible reporting of violence against women, Monica Lennon says: “It’s an honour to be sponsoring this year’s Write to End Violence Against Women Awards in the Scottish Parliament.

“I am passionate about improving women’s representation, and part of what it will take to achieve that means ensuring our media reflects women’s lives and voices.

“Write to End Violence Against Women is a unique opportunity to recognise some of the amazing writers and journalists who are committed to tackling gender stereotypes in their work, and I’m delighted to be working with Zero Tolerance to help raise awareness of the awards.”

Rachel Adamson, Zero Tolerance Co-director said, ““We are delighted that Monica Lennon, an MSP who has demonstrated such a strong commitment to challenging gender inequality, is supporting the Write to End Violence Against Women Awards. In the 25 years since Zero Tolerance started its work we have made demonstrable progress towards gender equality in Scotland.

However, we still have significant work to do, especially in demanding a media that does not trivialise and sensationalise violence against women. It is vital to our work that women in leadership roles speak out against a media that perpetuates harmful stereotypes and we are excited to work with Monica Lennon in promoting the awards.”

These awards are a unique opportunity to recognise professional journalists, writers and bloggers who are committed to challenging inequality and VAW in their work.

The awards event at the Scottish Parliament promises to be an exciting evening, attracting a mixed audience of people and will feature several other prominent women in Scottish political and media life in addition to Monica Lennon.

The public are encouraged to submit good (and bad for the Wooden Spoon) writing for consideration through the website.

Deadline for nominations is midnight on Sunday 1st October, 2017.


Notes for the editor

  1. The Write to End Violence Against Women Awards is organised by Zero Tolerance, a Scottish charity working to end men’s violence against women by promoting gender equality and by challenging attitudes which normalise violence and abuse. Find out more about Zero Tolerance on our website.
  2. The awards are supported by Engender, White Ribbon Scotland, Everyday Victim Blaming, Women 50:50, NUJ Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis Scotland, Women for Independence and the Scottish Refugee Council
  3. The official media partner for the 2017 awards is the Sunday Herald.
  4. You can find out more about Monica Lennon’s work on ending period poverty on this website.
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