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Making headlines – why language matters when reporting violence against women – by Kirsty Strickland

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Journalist Kirsty Strickland (@kirstystricklan) writes for NUJ Scotland about the importance of use of language in news headlines to raise awareness of violence against women and dispel common myths and misconceptions as part of the Stronger Voice for Women in the Media project.

In the aftermath of the harassment scandal sparked by the revelations about Harvey Weinstein a movement emerged which dominated the news agenda for the latter part of 2017.

One of the most powerful and influential elements of this news coverage was the clear link made between men abusing power and wider structural inequality. Inevitably, what followed was a predictable and misogynistic suggestion that women who spoke out may be lying or maliciously over-reacting to their experiences to gain fame or money. Broadly speaking though, the power dynamic of the individuals involved (and the imbalance between them) was discussed and analysed meaningfully across various media platforms.

For women, this wasn’t new information. We understand that violence against women is both a cause and consequence of gender inequality. But for media outlets to make this connection and dedicate time to discussing it properly was something new and refreshing.

It’s important to acknowledge though, that had the initial story not focused on the conduct of famous men it’s unlikely that the women speaking out about harassment and sexual abuse would have been given such a receptive audience.

Harassment and violence encompass a spectrum of experiences; from street harassment and unwanted touching in clubs to sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, and murder. They do not fall into easy categories such as ‘real misogyny’ and ‘the kind we should just tolerate’. To do so would be to ignore the way one facilitates the other. An acceptance of sexual harassment at work leads directly to a place where the Harvey Weinsteins of the world feel they can assault women with impunity in the certain knowledge that our sexist culture will protect them.

Journalism is vital in helping the public identify the crucial link between this violence and wider inequality. Yet it requires more than just agreement that such crimes are wrong. Often, we see headlines and reports deploying words such as ‘monster’, ‘beast’ and ‘animal’ to describe a rapist. Such terminology may seem appropriate; desirable even. Labelling of this sort after all conveys a sense of disgust for them and their actions. “They aren’t men, they are animals,” we are often told. But they are men. The overwhelming percentage of violent crimes – and not just in the UK – is committed by men against other men, women and children.

Pretending that these men are an anomaly or an aberration is to ignore the inherent misogyny of the society from which they spring. We are often squeamish about naming certain things for what they truly are. This is especially so when it involves one group with less power challenging another with much more.When discussing anything that falls onto the spectrum of “male violence” we are unusually cautious. Not all men are like that: most men would never hit a woman; it is offensive to good men. Because. Because. Because.

Contrast this with the openly hostile discussions we see about women who have been the victim of these crimes. These ‘discussions’ are wholly without statistical or logical justification.

We listen to the phone-ins on daytime television, where viewers are asked: “Is rape ever a woman’s fault?” This feeds into a disproportionate and vitriolic obsession with the myth that false accusations for rape are commonplace. This narrative prevails across our best-selling newspapers and drips from the pens of some of our most influential columnists.

What we have learned from the harassment scandal – from Hollywood, to Holyrood and Westminster – is that the quality and accuracy of reporting can fundamentally change the way that society views an issue. Not only can it also influence the way in which we tackle it but whether we decide even to do so at all.

In the world of newspapers headings are deployed to catch our eye and to let us know what the story is about. The best ones will pique our interest and we will read on. If not, that headline might be the only thing you glean from that news item.

In reporting violence against women headlines have often proven to be particularly problematic. Given the grim reliability of domestic violence and sexual assault as a news item on any given day – as well as the gory and salacious details that accompanies it – we often see headlines which sensationalise and obscure the reality of what we are reading about.

A common trope is that one which includes the violent man’s excuse for his actions in the headline, such as: “Husband kills wife after she refuses to have sex.”

There is a delicate balance to be struck between catching the reader’s attention, thus encouraging them to read on, and using the systemic violence against women and girls as entertainment. If done correctly, good reporting on violence against women will raise awareness of the issue and help to dispel common misconceptions about how it manifests itself.

It’s no coincidence that when newspapers and television programmes were overwhelmingly against equal marriage societal attitudes were too. Homophobia in the media has far from been eradicated but the change in approach has helped move us to where we are today.

A 2015 survey of societal attitudes conducted by the Scottish Government showed that only three in five people thought that a woman was not at all to blame for being raped if she wore clothing deemed to be ‘revealing’. The idea that women are partially to blame for being harmed, depending on their choice of clothes, utterly contradicts what we assume to be the values of a progressive country. Culpability for violence against women is suffused with attitudes that blame the victim. It skews our focus.

This is not to say that newspapers are entirely responsible for changing attitudes and thus for reducing incidences of violence against women – but they do have a significant role to play. Often, this can be simply to take more care with framing the story and placing it in the correct context along with sensitive use of language.

Journalism of a high standard brought the predatory behaviour of Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men to light. In doing so, it sparked a long overdue conversation about structural sexism.

If we are to move away from violence against women being regarded as an almost accepted part of the female experience, then societal attitudes need to change. With a few tweaks and changes in approach our media can be highly influential in the process of making this a reality.


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