c8lwcttxuaiajmlTaking the first steps to changing a toxic media into an empowering one have begun. By Claire Sawers, freelance journalist, and Jennifer Jones, academic and founder of Media for Communities.

Last night Zero Tolerance launched the ‘Write to End Violence Against Women’ Pledge in Glasgow, along with representatives from Engender, Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid. Zero Tolerance’s pledge offers best practice advice for the reporting of violence against women and girls (VAWG), including running free seminars for media professionals on the causes of VAWG, and asking journalists to refer to statistics rather than individual incidents, to provide the audience with the “bigger picture”.

“The Scottish press play a key role in influencing public opinion around men’s violence towards women and girls,” said Liz Ely (right), co-director of Zero Tolerance. “At Zero Tolerance we seek to work constructively with all sections of the media to support an increased understanding of the reality of men’s violence in Scotland. This is why we launched the ‘Write to End Violence Against Women Media’ Pledge which lays out our commitments to support media outlets covering this issue as well as guidelines for journalists and editors to aid responsible coverage.

Violence is a daily reality for too many women in Scotland. By signing up to this pledge journalists, editors and media outlets can signal their intention to be part of preventing men’s violence, rather than supporting myths which perpetuate it.”

The launch was followed by a Q&A, where Paul Holleran, Scottish organiser of NUJ, told how the NUJ first issued guidelines for reporting on mental health 24 years ago. He told the audience at the ZT launch that Scotland is now held up as a global example for treating the subject responsibly in the media. Thanks to the guidelines, with cooperation from the press, Police Scotland, Samaritans, Choose Life and See Me, there has been a huge drop in the number of copycat suicides. It’s taken over two decades for these ideas of how to discuss mental health to trickle into the mainstream, and for workplaces and other organisations to get onboard, but there has been a definite rise in public awareness.

“Violence is a daily reality for too many women in Scotland. By signing up to this pledge journalists, editors and media outlets can signal their intention to be part of preventing men’s violence, rather than supporting myths which perpetuate it.”

“There are so many experts on violence against women – we should be using this wealth of expertise when reporting,” tweeted Zero Tolerance. “We have to make sure the readers have an appetite for the gold standard of media reporting,” they added.

As for the problem that women face online from trolls, particularly when talking about issues around VAWG, arts journalist Vonny Moyes recommended her survival tactic of, “seeking out other voices, promoting them and amplifying them to drown out the negativity.”

In the crowd were also a group of women who’d got together after reading a column in The Herald a few weeks back. Four members of the National Union of Journalists, and one academic who specialises in alternative media. To quickly recap, the paper’s political editor, Iain Macwhirter wrote about the new Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill, saying it was “fraught with danger”. Although he insisted afterwards that he wasn’t, it read to many as though he was doing exactly what Zero Tolerance warns against, using an inappropriate tone and casually minimising the damaging effects of psychological abuse – brushing it off as, “almost a form of sexual foreplay.”

People started sharing the piece – some agreed that legislation on psychological abuse and coercive control would be tough to implement. But the reason politicians, academics, service providers and abuse survivors started weighing in with their objections online and offline, was the column’s tone. Something about the language, the veiled messages, the things Iain wasn’t quite saying, seemed way off. Fraught with danger, even. He paraphrased Bette Davis, saying, “Family life is not for cissies.” There was a dismissive, “no big deal” tone to the piece, an underlying mistrust of “women’s groups”, and what appeared to be a pretty dangerous lack of any evidence from experts or abuse organisations to back up his views.

The five of us started chatting about how common this kind of article is. Writers of opinion columns are under constant pressure to generate reactive, controversial pieces – hot potatoes that will get readers engaging and sharing, and boost traffic online. Conversation and debate is healthy – but perpetuating dangerous myths on a well-read, public platform, especially without researching the realities – not so much.

We talked about how we could respond. We knew it was never a personal attack on Iain – even if his words in that particular column had us face-palming ourselves in dismay. Since then, Iain has taken up Scottish Women’s Aid’s offer and gone into their offices for a chat. SWA welcomes the launch of the Bill as an opportunity to discuss the practicalities and workability of the legislation, and share their expertise in domestic abuse with other journalists, editors and reporters.

The article last month was just another everyday example of domestic abuse and violence against women being portrayed in a problematic way in the printed press. (Domestic abuse obviously does not affect only women, but statistically has a disproportionate impact on them.) We wanted to open up the conversation and see how others felt.

We approached The Herald initially, asking if they’d be interested in running a response letter from us. After lots of back and forth (catch up here), and two turn-downs for a letter then an article, we published an open letter to see if anyone else felt the same way. With 167 signatures gathered in a week – there were clearly plenty others who did.

The next steps are about encouraging more dialogue around this complex subject. The launch of the Zero Tolerance Media Pledge shows a desire to challenge the myths and preconceptions in the media around VAWG. It’s also a good opportunity to share Zero Tolerance’s guidelines on responsible media reporting of VAWG again, which recognises the problem of “chronic stereotyping” and “over trivialising”. It encourages “conscientious journalists” to consider the survivor’s perspectives when they’re writing, and also links to the numerous support groups for those affected by domestic abuse in Scotland.

Just as the five of us all felt more comfortable, and less likely to be targeted by trolls by linking up, we’d like to extend a safe place to others, or speak up on behalf of those who might be too scared to. Plans are underway to organise an open meeting, where we can ask people what steps they think should be taken next. We are also keen to work with alternative media platforms, such as Bella Caledonia, who are putting together a database of women writers and experts [ JOIN UP HERE ], to ensure inclusive and proactive commentary and dialogue about the issues that disproportionately affect women, and highlight underrepresented communities in the media.

We want to keep looking at ways in which we can we support and represent the voices of those who are unheard or deliberately silenced – both online and IRL – maybe because they have restricted access to their social media (another area of coercive control addressed in the new legislation), or no computer or smartphone, for example.

There isn’t an easy fix to institutionalised misogyny, but tackling it is also a way of galvanising like-minded people, who’d like to protect and support vulnerable people in our communities. Encouraging ethical journalism, challenging misconceptions, unpacking dangerous clichés, working directly with women’s groups and allies to try and spread the messages they would like to put out (by alternative media, and citizen journalism if that’s more effective) and calling out writers who glibly take us back to the 1970s on a daily basis – we’ll continue to look for ways to bring about positive changes, just as we believe the Domestic Abuse Bill is striving to do.