Tomorrow Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) will gather to debate Stage 3 of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill. This Bill has the potential to positively transform the way we respond to survivors and to challenge outdated attitudes regarding domestic abuse. For the first time in Scotland, the legal understanding of domestic abuse will expand beyond the narrow definition of abuse as one incident of violence to an understanding that recognises ongoing patterns of abuse. Our laws will criminalise the insidious and coercive methods that abusers use to control their victims and therefore more accurately reflect the lived experiences of survivors.

The Domestic Abuse Bill’s contents and future prosecutions will receive a high level of media coverage. Stories and headlines will reach survivors, perpetrators, children, adults who grew up with domestic abuse, professionals and communities. This is a huge opportunity for media outlets to produce news, features, comment and headlines which are accurate, sensitive and in the public interest. This is why Zero Tolerance has produced: ‘What Journalists Need to Know About the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill’. Written with the help of Scottish Women’s Aid and ASSIST, this resource sets out a clear set of guidelines to help journalists, writers, bloggers and anyone hoping to report on this bill feel confident to do so accurately and sensitively.

The briefing reflects the fact that the media we consume plays a large part in shaping our attitudes.

Too often we see distorted coverage of domestic abuse; stories which suggest that abuse is a by-product of a messy and difficult relationship of equals rather than an expression of power and control by one person over another.

Apart from being inaccurate, this type of reporting could encourage a woman who is living with an abusive partner to stay for fear of not being taken seriously.

In 2017, Zero Tolerance undertook a media monitoring project, reading eight national newspapers every day, for one week. We found that a total of 134 stories on violence against women appeared, averaging 2.4 stories per newspaper per day. Out of these 134 articles, only 7 contained some form of statistical evidence with 4 newspapers using no contextual data at all.  Despite 55 stories discussing the relationship between spouses – the most common type of relationship examined – only 2 articles characterised the reported violence as domestic abuse. The problem with this approach is that it contributes to the myth that abuse is an inevitable tragedy that occurs in a vacuum. Within Scotland, there were 58,810 domestic abuse incidents reported to the police in 2016-17. Where the gender of the victim was recorded, women made up the majority (79%) of the victims in these incidents. Violence against women is a huge and complex problem that is caused by gender inequality. But without providing this broader context, it is too easily presented as an inexplicable tragedy with no solution, rather than a systemic feature of an unequal society that we have the power to challenge.

The responsibility to report on violence against women accurately and sensitively goes beyond coverage of the Domestic Abuse Bill. In partnership with Scottish Women’s Aid, and in consultation with survivors of abuse, we have produced a set of stock images for news outlets to use, these images more realistically depict women’s lived experiences of abuse and avoid harmful stereotypes. You can download these here.

Our Handle With Care guide lays out clearly how to report on violence against women with sensitivity and accuracy. You can download it here. 

Guest blog written by Lydia House of Zero Tolerance.

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