The failure of ‘big media’ to tell the story of the unprovoked death of an Aboriginal man goes to the heart of journalism’s relationship with Indigenous Australia. It also highlights how the rapidly changing media environment is challenging who gets to take part in the national conversation about race. Our long-term research sheds some light on this complex issue.
News organisations are implicated in a long history of racialised reporting of Indigenous issues. Routine journalism practices result in the portrayal of Indigenous people and issues as a source of conflict, blame and deficit. Significantly, the association between Indigenous men and violence provides a backdrop for public discussion of race in Australia.
'The death of Duroux by a single, unprovoked punch does not fit easily with the dominant portrayal of Indigenous men.'
During the 2000s reporting of Indigenous news increasingly focused on violence and corruption. Indigenous men featured in stories of substance abuse, domestic violence and child abuse in remote communities. This reached its pinnacle in the late Howard era, when the frame of ‘Indigenous male depravity’ played a significant role in the 2007 Intervention.
Narrow and stigmatising portrayals reinforce socio-cultural values that further marginalise Indigenous populations and perpetuate the racial divide. This helps to explain why the established metropolitan media – Fairfax’s Brisbane Times, News Limited’s Courier Mail, and the ABC – largely ignored the Trevor Duroux story.
The death of Duroux by a single, unprovoked punch does not fit easily with the dominant portrayal of Indigenous men. As an Indigenous man of his community and his family, Duroux’s story challenges the established frame of the Aboriginal man as the perpetrator of crime, blamed for disadvantage, and needing to be punished.
At the same time, it is not surprising that the single-punch death of non-Indigenous teen Cole Miller a month later was unequivocally newsworthy. Miller’s death received saturation news coverage. It was a tragedy that resonated with the public and also became a touchstone for national debate about crimes involving a single, unprovoked punch.
There is little doubt that the victim’s race played a part in how each story was told, but this is not the whole story. Criminology research finds that, along with race, age does play a part in how crimes are reported. Juveniles constitute a central focus of crime news reporting and representations of young victims emphasise their innocence and good character.
In addition, the demands of a 24/7 newsroom, shrinking revenues and declining audiences intensify pressure for journalists to produce stories that are easily accessible, require the fewest resources and resonate with the widest audience.
The media environment is also more diverse and fractured than ever, and this further complicates analysis because local media, new online players, blogs, citizen-generated news, and social media are fundamentally changing the way people access news.
We can offer three positive observations about media coverage and discussion of Trevor Duroux’s case. The first is that while the big players ignored it, local media did report on the assault and subsequent death. For the Gold Coast Bulletin this was a local news story given sustained, consistent and empathetic coverage. His family’s hospital vigil was reported through interviews with family members. Duroux’s death some two weeks after the attack was reported in local news outlets where he and his family were based, including the Tenterfield Star, Moree Champion, and Northern Daily Leader.
Secondly, Duroux’s tragic death was widely discussed in social media, with Facebook as a site of family and community mourning, linking with the #stopthecowardpunch Facebook community and an online crowdsourcing campaign.
'The uneven way the tragic deaths of Duroux and Miller were reported across local, metropolitan and social media is a stark reminder of how legacy journalism’s well worn frames of race, innocence and youth play out'
And finally, digital media enabled the rapid dissemination of Chris Graham’s article in New Matilda challenging ‘big media’s’ failure to report the story. It was shared over 1,000 times from the New Matilda Facebook page, generating heated debate in social media forums.
The publication of Graham’s story on a small independent media site was an important intervention in public discussion of the coward’s punch issue. It held Fairfax Media to account, ultimately bringing the story to the attention of a much wider audience. Subsequent reports included Duroux’s death as another example of one-punch violence in Queensland.
The uneven way the tragic deaths of Duroux and Miller were reported across local, metropolitan and social media is a stark reminder of how legacy journalism’s well worn frames of race, innocence and youth play out, but also how a fracturing news media landscape can disrupt the way news stories unfold in the contemporary media environment.
Kerry McCallum is Associate Professor of Communication and Media Studies and Senior Research Fellow in the News and Media Research Centre, University of Canberra.
Lisa Waller, PhD, is Senior Lecturer in Communication in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University.