• A New York Times' page containing articles about Indigenous Australians labelled "Aborigines". (The New York Times)
In 2018 there is still a disturbing number of media outlets using outdated and offensive terms when reporting on Indigenous Australians.
Robert Burton-Bradley

5 Mar 2018 - 8:55 AM  UPDATED 5 Mar 2018 - 10:03 AM

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have different ways in which they like to be referred to, but all can agree on a few basics when it comes to language, 'Aborigine' is offensive and Indigenous, when referring to First Australians, is a proper noun.

However major media companies operating in Australia and internationally including Reuters, Australian Associated Press, News Corporation titles; The Australian, the Herald Sun, and several others persist in using 'indigenous' as a common noun when referring to First Australians, and some the offensive term 'Aborigine'.

Shortly after receiving questions from NITV News about their style guides in relation to First Australians, both AAP and Reuters said the matter was now under review.

"AAP is aware that some Australian media use upper case "I" for Indigenous/indigenous and some do not," a spokesman for the company said in a written statement.

"AAP's style is currently under review."

The New York Times has recently started changing its style in articles produced by the Australian bureau but online articles with "indigenous' lower cased do still appear on its website, while a section for Indigenous Affairs on its website is still titled "Aborigines'.

The Time's  Australian bureau chief Damien Cave told NITV News that the publication had been moving away from using "indigenous" in locally produced stories but said other Times editors did not always do so.

"When we opened the Australia bureau last May, we were not uppercasing "Indigenous" - in line with our style for other indigenous groups around the world," Cave said in a statement. "But after hearing from Australian readers who explained that this was the stylistic norm here, and an issue of respect, our bureau pushed The New York Times to change the standard style for anything referring to Indigenous Australians."

News Corporation did not respond to any of NITV News' questions.

How you refer to First Australians is a complex issue and requires a nuanced understanding and respect, says Yorta Yorta woman and public health professional Summer May Finlay who has campaigned extensively on the issue of language and naming of First Australians, recently helping to get Urban Dictionary to remove racist definitions of the word Aboriginal.

"We use the term "Australian" with a capital "A", and when you don't capitalise Indigenous, you're using it as a descriptive term. I see myself as saying, "Australian by passport, but I'm a Yorta Yorta woman and therefore Indigenous to this country, and so therefore I deserve to be called by a proper noun," she tells NITV News.

Aboriginal is preferred by some, and others Indigenous, because Aboriginal does not include Torres Strait Islanders who have a separate and distinct identity. However these terms are still broad and nondescript when referring to a people with more than 250 unique languages.

"What people don't understand is that when you're using 'indigenous", you're actually using a generic term that refers to any Indigenous people around the world," says Ms Finlay. "It's also a word that you use for plants and animals, and obviously there's a distinction between plants, and animals, and human beings that I think people seem to often forget when they're not capitalising "Indigenous".

Writer Nayuka Gorrie describes in a piece she wrote for NITV last year the position of power held by those who decide the name of a person place or thing. "Naming conventions can be inherently colonial," she wrote.

The word 'Aborigine' is now accepted as an outdated term that carries racist and derogatory stereotypes due to its past colonial connotations, much like the word "homosexual", and is no longer socially acceptable.

While not as offensive as an outright racist slur, says Gorrie, 'Aborigine' is "not quite right" either.

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"It is a cringe word, not a kill word, so we can’t do much about it. To complain would be met with derision about excessive political correctness and censorship."

The word "Aborigine" draws a strong response from Finlay who says: "It literally makes my skin crawl."

She says that by adopting the attitude that this is a technical debate about correct usage of the English language that: "The organisation is just not respecting that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people might want to be called something differently."

"Saying things like, 'Yes, but this is the English language. We're strictly correct,' is just disrespecting us as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is as if they feel as a news outlet, they feel that they had a better grasp on the English language than what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do. So therefore it's their right to tell us what we are called."

Wire service Reuters and News Corp's The Australian and Herald Sun frequently use the word "Aborigine", while the New York Times still calls a section carrying stories on First Australians "Aborigines". AAP does not use the term 'Aborigine'.

The New York Times said it was trying to limit the use of the word and was open to its readers' views on the subject.

"We generally steer away from that term and use Aboriginal Australian, or whenever we can, we refer to a person's specific group," Damien Cave told NITV News.

"We're trying to listen to our audience in Australia on these kinds of things and make sure that our coverage reflects the local agreed-upon standards, and does everything possible to maintain an attitude of respect."

Ms Finlay says she has approached both AAP and News Corp - about changing their style guidelines but has not had any success.

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"I have been involved in writing to both of those organisations and they've refused to change their style guide," she says.

"News Corp has ignored the letters. We got a response from AAP, and that was also about a particular article, which we thought was racially charged, and let's just say the response was not as collegial as we had hoped," she said.

Finlay says the issue is one of education and increasing people's awareness of Indigenous Australians.

"I think on some level it's just ignorance, and people just don't understand because this is not what people are taught. They're taught in schools about Aboriginal people and then they're just given generic definition of what that means."

"I think that people don't often understand that there were lots of nations in Australia prior to invasion, and that it was much like Europe," says Ms Finlay.

"So, I think when we actually start using the English language appropriately to refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people are actually going to start to understand more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a diverse group of people."

Finlay says she is actively involved in education within the health industry as part of the Public Health Association of Australia.

"People don't change things just because they're told to. So yes, they do need to have an understanding. One of the things they're doing at the moment is we're running a terminology webinar to bring people up to speed around why some of the terminology is offensive and what is considered appropriate terminology. So in the roles that I have worked in, we develop a style guide and then we educate people on why that style guide is important," she says.

"People forget that language is arbitrary and meaning is a slide based on society's choices about what words mean."