ETHNIC REPORTING AND REPRESENTATION
Ethnic minority communities in Australia have struggled for fair and accurate representation in the news media since the beginning of national identity.
The fact that the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (better known as the White Australia policy) was the first Act passed by parliament after Federation illustrates the cultural frame within which the news media have worked. The Act restricted immigration to mostly northern Europeans and, although it began to be dismantled after World War II, it was not finally laid to rest until 1973. The policy’s influence on the news media is evident not only in the language and lack of balance in their content, but most obviously in the masthead slogan of the influential magazine the Bulletin, which proudly proclaimed ‘Australia for the White Man’.
As Australia’s international relationships and loyalties have developed and changed, media studies have consistently shown that news values of conflict, violence and otherness have dominated reporting. Members of German ethnic communities interned during World War I were racially characterised as ‘the Hun’, and Japanese were the ‘Yellow Peril’ in World War II. While there have been efforts to reflect a fairer representation of the nation’s diverse ethnic composition, in 2010 researcher Andrew Jakubowicz felt compelled to report that ‘the media for the most part reflect the interests, perspectives and responses of the cultural elite and the older established core culture’.
A significant attempt to redress the imbalance was the launch of the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in January 1978, built on the belief that all Australians should have access to high-quality, independent, culturally relevant Australian media. However, debate continues over the relevance and meaning of terms such as ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’. Issues such as the Racial Hatred Act 1995, the terms within it and what it is meant to address continue to consume the news media.
Government agencies and researchers devote considerable resources to understanding the issues. Concern over news media framing led the Howard Coalition government to partner with the Journalism Education Association of Australia and others to conduct two ‘sweeps’ (in 2005 and 2007) of print, radio and television reporting of ethnic minorities in the Australian community. The aim of the project was to ‘raise awareness in both the journalism industry and the general public of fair and appropriate reporting of issues concerning community diversity’.
The main conclusions of the 2005 survey were that ethnic minority (EM) communities were portrayed as ‘bad’, ‘sad’, ‘mad’ or ‘other’. In the 2007 Reporting Diversity research project, there appeared to be a return to a more ‘normal’ news agenda, with lower levels of EM content, but this only made these characteristics stand out more starkly. EM communities continue to be featured as ‘mad’, ‘bad’ or ‘sad’. EM talent was rarely featured in the role of expert, or in crowd scenes or vox pops. In subsequent years, little seems to have changed.
In a 2010 study of ethnicity and citizenship in Sydney, Kevin Dunn concluded that the news media’s treatment of ethnic minorities portrayed minority cultural groups as deviant, or as a threat to a stable cultural order. The Ethnic Affairs Commission of New South Wales (EAC) complained that media images of ethnic communities had become caricatures.
When criticised, journalists tend to take refuge in the fourth estate function of journalism, arguing that reflecting society to itself is crucial to its well-being. But this will benefit society only when the reporting is accurate. Interestingly, the inaccuracies begin with the ethnic composition of Australian newsrooms, which are overwhelmingly of Anglo-Saxon origin. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show nearly half of all Australians have at least one parent born overseas and more than 30 per cent of Australians are themselves born overseas, but the most recent study of Australian journalists’ characteristics by Folker Hanusch shows only 20 per cent were born overseas. The study shows only 4.3 per cent of journalists have some Asian background, compared with 7.2 per cent in the general population, while almost three-quarters (73.3 per cent) identify as having at least some Anglo-Saxon background. The demographic differences between journalists and the broader population make it difficult for journalists to understand, and to place in context, ‘the news’ with reference to ethnic minorities.
The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance Code of Ethics enjoins journalists to apply 12 standards, including: ‘Do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability.’ Similar rec- ommendations are made by organisations like the Australian Press Council and the ABC, while Stockwell and Scott’s (2000) All Media Guide to Fair and Cross-Cultural Reporting provides advice on a range of issues, including balance, accuracy, ethical awareness and the concept of ‘a fair go’.
However, slavish commitment to concepts of reporting such as balance can sometimes have detrimental effects. In two 2005 case studies for the Reporting Diversity project—of racial vilification in Toowoomba and of violent clashes in Newcastle, both involving Sudanese immigrants—results showed that reporting ‘both sides of the story’ may actually lead to imbalance.
Ethnic minorities are also disadvantaged by the Australian news media’s continuing love affair with conflict as the dominant news value; this approach often dispenses with the context that can provide a more sophisticated and accurate understanding of the events. Accusations of lack of context are supported by findings from studies like Vulnerability and the News Media (2008–12), which examined the way vulnerable groups in society were reported on in a range of Australian newspapers.
Stockwell and Scott acknowledge that most misrepresentations occur through ignorance. There have, however, been occasions when media intervention has not been inadvertent. Talkback radio host Alan Jones, for example, was found by the NSW Administrative Appeals Tribunal to have ‘incited serious contempt of Lebanese males’. While Jones is not a journalist, his audience members do not make that distinction.
However, some improvement is starting to be evident in the news media’s representations of ethnic minorities. The Vulnerability and the News Media study revealed a significant gap between what was reported and how vulnerable groups perceived the reporting. The study, in which ethnic minorities were only a portion of those studied, revealed few negative moments of vulnerability in its content analysis. Yet focus group interviews showed that vulnerable groupings, including ethnic minorities, feel they have been poorly treated by the news media. The lesson to be learnt from this study is that while the news media content may increasingly reflect advice in codes of conduct, in the process of reporting, journalists still have much to learn about how to engage with sources from ethnic minorities.
REFs: K. Dunn, ‘Embodied Transnationalism: Bodies in Transnational Spaces’, Population, Space and Place, 16(1) (2010); F. Hanusch, ‘Journalists in Times of Change: Evidence from a New Survey of Australia’s Journalistic Workforce’, Australian Journalism Review, 35(1) (2013); A. Jakubowicz, ‘Diversity and News in Australia’, http://andrewjakubowicz.com/ publications/diversity-and-news-in-australia (2010); H. Rane and M. Abdalla, ‘Mass Media Islam: The Impact of Media Imagery on Public Opinion’, Australian Journalism Review, 30(1) (2008); S. Stockwell and P. Scott, All Media Guide to Fair and Cross-Cultural Reporting (2000).