In Australia, it seems as if not a day goes past without coming across at least one print, radio or television broadcast that is culturally insensitive, if not bigoted. And each time, these news reports and commentary set off heated discussions; often inciting online abuse towards people of the targeted ethnicity.
Sections of the media have always contributed to othering in an imaginary white Australia. For many Australians, the constant assault of myths, discrimination and negativity, as well as time and energy spent setting the record straight, can be exhausting.
In addition to annual events, such as Australia Day, there are numerous incidents that can trigger racialised responses from the media. Even unethical reporting of children’s deaths and deaths in custody, where truth is twisted to demonise grieving the loss of blak lives, has become normalised.
Amidst the recent negatives there have been positive shifts. Such as hearing Brooke Boney, the first Indigenous host on a commercial breakfast show, talk about what the 26 January means to her. That particular segment attracted fierce commentary and online abuse, but moments of change often stir up detractors.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are now being published in numerous digital and print media, and not merely being interviewed by non-Indigenous journalists.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are now being published in numerous digital and print media, and not merely being interviewed by non-Indigenous journalists. And this is raising the quality of both content and conversations. As evident after a recent incident on a television breakfast show, when Indigenous academics, journalists and writers responded with articles and opinion pieces.
And not every response was the same because, just like in every population group, there is no homogeneous First Peoples’ opinion. Publishing and broadcasting a range of responses to uninformed non-Indigenous opinions is slowly becoming the norm.
Being able to view on television a panel of Indigenous experts in media critique mainstream media and its influence on public perceptions of Indigenous issues is another sign of change.
Media supporting Indigenous-led movements by raising awareness of quick-forming protests and showcasing Indigenous activism, such as the well-attended 2019 Invasion Day marches, is another positive step.
And Indigenous-owned media continues to lead change in the sector, such as IndigenousX, who are punching well above their weight. As evident in their Change the Nation series in January and Debunking series in February. The #ChangeTheNation campaign was so effective, even mainstream media were talking positively about it.
Young blak voices in media are now very visible, as they forge their own paths, building on the legacy of those that worked hard to break down the barriers. Australian media has a blak past, present and future.
Still, amongst all these changes in how the media portray First Peoples and report on our issues, there are still personalities in media that refuse to listen or even attempt to derail the debate. There will always be some diehards that attempt to preserve the status quo rather than see the strengths in people-led change.
It’s not just First Peoples who are subjected to biased reporting and bigotry, as Australian media is rife with racism.
It’s not just First Peoples who are subjected to biased reporting and bigotry, as Australian media is rife with racism. It could even be suggested that racism as clickbait is good for business. Unfortunately, the media influences public opinion and emboldens articulation of discriminative views. Even overseas media are paying attention to rising racism within Australia.
So what’s the solution?
Shifting the systemic racism that’s entrenched in Australian media needs a multi-pronged approach. Amplifying the positives and talking up change, like the many examples above, is just one approach.
Continuing to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment within the sector, especially in senior roles, is imperative for breaking down barriers and to broadcast experts. However, if systemic racism is not also addressed in workplaces, discrimination and lack of support will continue to result in poor retention rates for Indigenous employees.
Embedding cultural awareness within secondary and tertiary media units will produce a more skilled future workforce.
Embedding cultural awareness within secondary and tertiary media units will produce a more skilled future workforce. Professional development and specific guidelines to help the current workforce become more competent in reporting or discussing Indigenous issues is also beneficial.
Industry-appropriate guidelines, such as the new Reporting on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples And Issues handbook and quick guide produced by Media Diversity Australia, will help strengthen professional practices.
These guidelines are well written and provide clear directions for workers in media. As do previous guidelines, such as SBS The Greater Perspective (1997) and 2018 supplementary guidelines. Australian Film, Television and Radio School’s Listen, Learn and Respect: Indigenous cultural protocols and radio (2006) is another good resource. As is Pathways and Protocols: a film-makers guide to working with Indigenous people, culture and concepts (2009).
With all these excellent media guidelines readily available, why are some people working in media still producing racially-biased work?
Because facts are not enough to change professional practices or address systemic racism. Both feelings and self-awareness need to be added to the mix.
...cultural safety could be adapted for the media sector, as a proactive response to the rising use of Indigenous issues as clickbait.
I’ve written before about how cultural safety is creating visible change in health and education sectors. And I’ve suggested previously that cultural safety could be adapted for the media sector, as a proactive response to the rising use of Indigenous issues as clickbait.
Janine Mohamed, CEO of Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives (CATSINaM), one of the many advocates of cultural safety in Australian health, has written and spoken of the potential benefits if media also applied the principles of cultural safety. CATSINaM even suggested cultural safety be adapted for media in their submission to the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism.
In very basic terms, cultural safety is both a method of interpersonal communication and a model of systemic change. It encourages health, education, justice, media, and other sectors that have embedded systemic racism, to critique workplaces and workforces.
To practice cultural safety is being committed to knowing thyself. It involves understanding the ongoing impacts of colonisation, systemic racism and discrimination.
To practice cultural safety is being committed to knowing thyself. To be conscious of your own values and worldviews, and aware of how you benefit from power and privilege, especially white privilege and systemic racism. It involves understanding the ongoing impacts of colonisation, systemic racism and discrimination. Facts plus feelings strengthens awareness.
Understanding white privilege and respecting others’ autonomy, in addition to the before-mentioned media guidelines, would enable media to build better working relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, communities and organisations.
Cultural safety would help media recognise strengths, expertise and successes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities, as opposed to perpetrating myths and using deficit language.
Cultural safety would help media recognise strengths, expertise and successes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities, as opposed to perpetrating myths and using deficit language. It could stop some members of the media resorting to derisive railroading of conversations; which is a misuse of power and privilege for no positive benefit.
The media and public need to be more aware of the negative impact of cycles of racism, and subsequent pushback, that has become the norm in Australia. Instead of giving uninformed people attention, we all need to amplify the voices of First Peoples and others that are targeted by unethical media practices.
In the midst of constantly pushing back the flood of biased, and sometimes disingenuous, opinion pieces and segments by culturally incompetent media, and dealing with the online abuse their opinions often spark, let’s remember to also focus on the positives.
Change is happening. Like daybreak, it is unstoppable. In the darkness, listen to the birds – they know the sun is on its way. Until then read, watch and listen to blak voices in media.
Karen Wyld, freelance writer, consultant and author is a Martu woman living on Kaurna country in South Australia.