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Media representation of violence against women: what's the situation in Scotland

This blog is the first in a series in which Claire Simpson, PhD student at the University of Stirling discusses the results of her media monitoring project. Over the next three weeks we will publish blogs from Claire where she takes in an in depth look at some of the results of her study.

As part of my Masters degree in Gender Studies at the University of Stirling, I have recently undertaken a placement with Zero Tolerance to analyse representations of violence against women (VAW) in the Scottish press. I studied eight national newspapers - The Scottish Sun, Scottish Daily Mirror, The Scottish Times, Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman, The Scottish Herald, The Scottish Daily Express and The Scottish Telegraph – for one week, reading every article relating to VAW and using ZT’s Handle with Care guide to determine good and bad practice.

Download Handle With Care here

I had some preconceptions about what I would find before starting this project. I thought tabloids would sensationalise the violence with overly dramatic or humorous headlines, whilst broadsheets may underreport domestic cases of VAW opting to focus on “bigger” stories with international scope. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found in some cases and unpleasantly outraged by others.

A total of 134 stories on VAW appeared, averaging 2.4 stories per newspaper per day. Tabloids covered twice as many stories as the broadsheets with The Sun reporting the most: 33 cases, and The Scotsman and The Herald the least: a paltry 8. When 1 in 3 women globally will experience some form of VAW it is difficult to comprehend how so few of these incidents are reported by some papers.

Surprisingly, for me at least, the Daily Mail afforded VAW reports the most page space, almost 3 in 5 stories filled over quarter of a page, whilst the same is true for 55% of articles in the Daily Express. Indeed, tabloids generally awarded more space to incidents of VAW than broadsheets. However, out of the 134 articles, only 7 contained some form of statistical evidence with 4 newspapers using no contextual data and only 1 article referring to VAW as a public health concern.

The Daily Mail contained the most articles written by women, at least with respect to stories of VAW, with 18 women being credited. In all other newspapers more male journalists wrote on VAW than women. This could go some way to explaining the poor reporting, women’s experiences are being explained and framed from a male perspective. We need women’s voices to speak on women’s issues to better represent VAW and empower survivors. The most frequently reported form of VAW was murder. With 2-3 women in the UK being murdered by their partners every week this is unsurprising1. However, my statistics will have been slightly inflated due to the widespread coverage of Helen Bailey’s murder trial with all papers mentioning the case on several occasions throughout the week. The popularity of this high-profile case is also why the most prevalent explanation given for VAW was financial by 5 of the newspapers, which includes all of the broadsheets.

One of the more worrying statistics was that an average of 1 in 5 articles provided a justification for the perpetrator’s actions. 1 in 3 stories in The Sun portrayed VAW as justifiable - the most frequent reason given being that the perpetrator believed the victim had consented. Thankfully however there were some instances of good reporting. None of the articles in The Scotsman or The Herald provided any justifications or blamed the victim.

In the vast majority of articles, women were described as a ‘victim’ rather than ‘survivor’. This reinforces the most commonly used adjectives for women – ‘weak’, ‘vulnerable’ or similar. Despite 55 stories discussing the relationship between spouses - the most common type of relationship examined - only 2 articles characterised the reported VAW as domestic violence. It is statistically improbable that out of 134 stories, 132 were one-off, random acts of VAW. Some articles mentioned the perpetrator being controlling, manipulative or aggressive but did not define this behaviour as likely being part of a pattern of domination and intimidation.

Why is there such a reluctance by the Scottish press to label the violence for what it is? Domestic abuse. This lack of acknowledgement contributes to the poor understanding as to what constitutes domestic abuse. To take away the label is to empower the perpetrator by displaying the violence as a one off whilst disempowering women by not accurately reporting the true extent of her suffering. Without defining the violence as such, how will people learn what constitutes domestic abuse and how prevalent it is in our society. Women’s Aid1 report, on average, that every thirty seconds a 999 call is made to the police pertaining to domestic abuse. The Crime Survey of England and Wales 2013/141 shows over a quarter of women have been subject to domestic abuse from 16 years old. Domestic abuse is happening in our society. We need to talk about it in order to stop it.

1. Women's Aid, How common is domestic abuse? https://www.womensaid.org.uk/information-support/what-is-domestic-abuse/...

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