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Survivors on and in the media

The Rosey Project Community with Karen Boyle

Last month, we launched a Gender Equal Media podcast reflecting on our guidelines on responsible reporting of sexual assault trials in light of the coverage of Alex Salmond’s criminal trial.[1] One of our key arguments – in both the podcast and the guidelines – was that regardless of the outcome of any individual trial, media reporting of sexual assault trials has an impact on survivors in the media audience.

New research from the Rosey Project Community – a group of young survivors at Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis– underlines just how important this point is, demonstrating the damaging implications of poor reporting.[2]

Organisations working with survivors have long recognised that survivors’ experiences of the media can be complex. Whilst media coverage of sexual violence can certainly be re-traumatising, it can also have more positive impacts, for instance in encouraging survivors to seek support or challenging feelings of isolation. This is borne out by the increase in calls to helplines or support referrals which organisations like the Rosey Project and Rape Crisis Scotland typically record after a high-profile sexual assault case in the news.

This new research - which the Rosey Project have generously shared with us for this blog - shows limited evidence that survivors in Scotland do take something positive from media portrayals. They surveyed 77 young women 18-25, all of whom had experienced sexual violence: 22.1% of those surveyed reported that media representations helped them to identify their own experience as sexual violence ; 14.3% said that it made them more likely to disclose their experience to someone they know and 7.8% of survivors said that the portrayal of sexual violence in the media had had a positive impact on their mental well being.

Whilst these experiences demonstrate the positive potential of responsible reporting, the results overwhelmingly point to the need for Scottish media to do better. Most damningly, a striking 72.7% of those surveyed said that the way sexual violence is portrayed in the media had a negative impact on their mental well-being.

Possible reasons for this emerge in response to some of the other questions. For instance, a significant majority of survivors (83.2%) felt that their experience of sexual violence was not well represented in the media suggesting a worrying disconnect between survivors’ experiences and media portrayals. Reflecting on what they’d seen in the media in the previous six months, only 9.1% thought survivors were portrayed in a positive light. In contrast, nearly three times as many (27.3%) thought perpetrators were portrayed in a positive light.

It is not surprising, then, that when survivors were asked what media reporting of sexual violence made them feel (Table 1), the most common feelings were negative ones: anger, feeling let down, shame and fear. Of course, the media does not exist in a vacuum and further research is needed to drill down into the meaning of these findings. For instance, survivors may be angered by the stories themselves rather than, necessarily, with the way they are told.

That 83.1% of survivors are deterred from reporting their assault to the police by media coverage is also tricky to interpret. Arguably, given what we know about women’s experiences with the criminal justice system in sexual assault cases, this may be because the media gives an accurate picture of just how damaging that can be for women.

Table 1: What did media reporting of sexual violence make you feel?


% of survivors in agreement



























Let down




The media in Scotland have a responsibility to these women – and to all survivors – to do better. That they cannot do so in isolation does not mean that they can’t take a positive role in leading the way to make Scotland a safer, healthier place for survivors. And the good news is they don’t have to do this alone: both our guidelines and those produced by Zero Tolerance on the reporting of men’s violence against women more broadly, offer concrete suggestions for better reporting.

Remembering the survivor in the audience is the most important element of that.

The Rape Crisis Scotland helpline is open every evening 6pm - midnight on 08088 01 03 02.

[1] In March, the former First Minister was acquitted on 13 charges of sexual assault, indecent assault, and attempted rape: the jury returned 12 not guilty verdicts, and one not proven on the charge of sexual assault with intent to rape.

[2] This research was conducted by the Rosey Project Community. We are grateful to all the survivors who shared their views.

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