THE media’s focus on disadvantage and disparity when reporting Indigenous affairs has come under fire in the latest issue of the MJA, with experts saying it is a form of colonialism with damaging health impacts. (1)
Melissa Sweet, a health journalist and public health lecturer at the University of Sydney, joined Indigenous academics in condemning mainstream media practices for portraying Aboriginal people as passive, powerless victims.
“The media industry can learn from efforts to decolonise health care research and practice, with a view to producing journalism that better serves the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”, the authors wrote.
They called for more reporting of “strengths, capacity and resilience” among Aboriginal people rather than problems, and “more emphasis on solutions-focused reporting and coverage that humanises rather than portraying Aboriginal people as ‘the other’”.
“A mainstream media discourse that acknowledges the strengths, culture and knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples may bring benefits for the social and emotional wellbeing of individuals and communities, as well as encouraging a focus on culturally appropriate and safe health care practices and services", the authors wrote.
Claiming deficiencies in media coverage had led to a “narrowing of policy options in Indigenous affairs”, they suggested decolonising journalism could result in healthier policy outcomes for Indigenous Australians.
Dr Chelsea Bond, who lectures in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies at the University of Queensland, agreed colonialism was alive and well within the Australian media.
She gave the example of the ABC’s discredited Lateline episode about a paedophile ring in Central Australia in 2006, which led to an inquiry by the Northern Territory Government and ultimately to the NT Emergency Response. (2) (3)
Another example was conservative columnist Andrew Bolt’s article questioning the right of fair-skinned Indigenous people to call themselves Indigenous. (4)
“For many non-Indigenous Australians, their relationship with us is through media reports about us, rather than lived social interactions”, Dr Bond said. “So, persistently negative portrayals of Aboriginal peoples and communities will perpetuate a bigger ‘gap’ in the minds of non-Indigenous Australians.
“Indigenous people are sick of being represented as sick and dysfunctional”, she said, saying such representations impacted on peoples’ sense of identity, social and emotional wellbeing and, as in the case of the NT intervention, led to policies that directly affected their lives.
However, Dr Bond said the media was not solely to blame, as journalistic practices reflected the values and assumptions held in the broader Australian community.
A spokeswoman for ABC News defended the organisation’s Indigenous reportage, saying it was subject to the same approach as other news.
“We plan for and produce stories on the basis of their newsworthiness”, the spokeswoman said. “There are many factors we consider when assessing newsworthiness — for example, is the story new, is it timely, does it raise important issues, are the pictures compelling, is there a strong human interest factor, is it relevant to our audiences?
“Consistent with that approach, we do not set out to cover Indigenous stories because they focus on either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ news arising from Indigenous communities.”
The spokeswoman said the ABC was committed to increasing the on-air representation of people from Indigenous and ethnically diverse backgrounds.
“We know we have more work to do to improve diversity both on-air and within our workforce. ABC News is currently looking at ways to achieve this”, she said.
Dr Bonita Mason, a journalism lecturer at Curtin University in WA, said the media was an industry which struggled to work cross-culturally.
“A journalist will want an immediate response and a short sound bite, but Aboriginal Elders will want to take time to develop trust before telling their stories”, she said.
While it was not journalists’ role to do “PR work” for Indigenous communities, she said it was frustrating that even good news stories about Aboriginal Australians were so often presented as “individual achievement against the odds”.
Journalism schools are also trying to improve Aboriginal affairs reporting and cultural competence among students. Curtin University, for instance, has a project encouraging students to get to know Aboriginal people through local organisations before writing their stories.
Luke Pearson, who runs the social media project @IndigenousX, said the health profession and other industries were “light years ahead of many media organisations when it comes to respectful inclusion of Indigenous views and voices”.
“I imagine this is largely due to a lower rate of representation within the organisations, but also a lack of interest or effort in addressing institutional racism is rife within media organisations.”
1. MJA 2014: 200: 626-627
2. ABC Lateline 2006; Paedophile rings operating in remote communities
3. Department of Social Services: Northern Territory Emergency Response
4. Herald Sun 2009; Column – The new tribe of white blacks