Media

Reporting tips for journalists: How to write about Aboriginal culture

Writing about Aboriginal culture, especially as a non-Aboriginal journalist, can be treacherous. Here are a few tips that can help you navigate this challenge.

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You need background knowledge

As a journalist, writers or editor, it is essential to learn about Aboriginal culture. You are most likely holding on to some form of guilt and shame about what happened to Aboriginal people after invasion, but the good news is that knowledge can help you overcome these feelings, as Sydney Morning Herald journalist Debra Jopson found out.

"I remember on one of the teleconferences that everyone had to go through [as part of an Aboriginal studies course], this terrible emotional angst of talking about what happened at colonisation," she recounts. "The tutor almost became like a counsellor. I sometimes think that in some ways you need to go through that process... in order to really understand how a lot of Aboriginal people feel and to get a sense of what needs to be done." Debra believes she gets on well with Aboriginal people because of this process. [1]

Background knowledge about Aboriginal cultural protocols and cultural context is also essential so you can respect the people being reported on. Journalists should also know about the communities and go beyond the 'surface' of the story.

But this takes time and costs money. Protocols may vary from region to region. And some media are just not interested in getting the truth, preferring the quick headline.

When papers report the death of an Aboriginal person, for example, some customs prescribe that they should not print photographs of the deceased, or mention their full name. Some media have already implemented guidelines and codes of practice on such issues.

Show and embrace Aboriginal diversity

It is easy to assume Aboriginal views are similar across Australia, or that an Aboriginal person has a nuanced and well-rounded view. Many media expect and portray them that way and do a poor job at representing Aboriginal diversity. Images often feature brown-skinned and painted Aboriginal people, refuting the fact that most Aboriginal people live in urban areas.

But if Aboriginal people cannot see themselves represented in media they will identify less with the content and feel more separated and segregated.

"We’re never gonna reach a stage where the people in this country are on equal footing if we don’t show those people on our screens," fears Rachael Hocking, a Warlpiri woman, journalist and television presenter with NITV. [2]

Some high-profile Aboriginal leaders might carry more favour with the government of the day—because they opine in support of the government and don't give any trouble. What they say is also 'safe' and easy for media to digest.

Grass-roots Aboriginal people's opinion might not be further apart, but reporting that is harder and fits less into people's heads. But this, however, would be exactly what is necessary.

As with every group, Aboriginal people's views are diverse and need to be explored.

One of the problems with the media is that they imagine a homogeneity, as if the rest of Australia can have a range of views whereas with us [Aboriginal people] there must only be one particular view. — Stan Grant, Aboriginal journalist [3]

Mind your words

It is crucial that you get your words right as many can cause offence. In 2007 Tourism Australia published an advertisement depicting a white person saying that once you stand out there in the Kimberley, you 'own' the land, which attracted criticism from Aboriginal people who believe that the land owns them [4].

Another trap is to adapt the language of disadvantage. Jason Glanville challenges you to write in a positive way instead:

"Language is important. At the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence (NCIE) we like to use language that talks to ‘liberating possibility’. This is about making sure that even in the most difficult of circumstances, the human spirit can thrive and do better, achieve and be safe and happy. It is a different kind of aspiration. Every generation, Indigenous or not, wants something more, wants something different, and it’s no different for this generation of young blackfellas. So why talk about disadvantage and exclusion when we can talk about innovation, excellence and opportunity?" [5]

If you also target Aboriginal people, check if you use words that have no or little meaning to them. "I feel 'reconciliation' is an empty word," says Yalmay Yunupingu, an Aboriginal artist and teacher in the Northern Territory, "'consultation' and 'negotiation' are empty words, 'freedom' is an empty word, and 'promise' is also an empty word. These words are often being used in speeches, newspapers and TV" [6].

Showing no respect for the grieving families involved or the cultural sensitivities of Aboriginal people,... newspapers allowed their lust for a front page with shock value to over-rule any sense of decency towards the people involved. — Statement by the Central Land Council and Northern Land Council [7]

"I had a huge fight"

Columnist for The Age, Martin Flanagan, reveals how hard it can be to have authentic articles published:[8]

"Over the years, I've found Aboriginal people great – if, occasionally, unnerving – to work with. In about 2000, I did a story for a Sydney magazine on Aboriginal leader Patrick Dodson. In addition to being a former Catholic priest with a command of the Western intellectual tradition, he is also an initiated tribal man. The potential for misunderstanding is never greater than when you're doing cross-cultural journalism. I kept ringing Patrick in Broome to clarify matters. Eventually, I got an answer: 'Patrick trusts you'. The problem was that I didn't trust myself – my judgements, I mean.

"Once the article was finally written, I had a huge fight with the magazine, which repeatedly sought to shape the article in ways that distorted its meaning. I eventually got it published as I had written it. When I next met Patrick, I said, 'I had a huge fight getting that article published', and he replied in one word: 'Yes'. Of course, I thought, you've been fighting for 200 years to get your story heard. I'd fought for a couple of weeks and thought that was tough going."

Be brave not to offer solutions

It is tempting to shy away from topics considered too hard to solve: health, racism, compensation, recognition, self-determination and others.

But journalists also have a mandate to inform the public about these topics. There's neither a need to dumb down the issue, nor to offer solutions. Instead, do your best to help people understand.

Warlpiri woman Rachael Hocking, herself a journalist and TV presenter, knows this challenge all too well.

"It’s important to interrogate the issues – don’t shy away from talking about racism. Journalists need to delve into the problems to get to the crux of things. Out of that might not come a clear-cut solution but at least what you’ve given the public is an understanding, and from that solutions can be bred. It’s about contributing to an informed discourse in Australia.

"We got so much feedback from people who said they’d never heard that stuff before. I’m always shocked by how little people know." [2]

It’s about contributing to an informed discourse in Australia. — Rachael Hocking, Warlpiri nation, journalist and TV presenter [2]

Avoid framing readers

Journalists may be required to adhere to a certain view the publication has they are writing for. The goal is to influence how readers think about a certain story.

If possible, avoid framing your readers and report Aboriginal issues in a factual, balanced way and let readers make up their minds themselves.

Are you only reporting the negative?

One of the biggest traps is to report about Aboriginal affairs only if something negative has happened. This perpetuates the negative perception of the general population.

In the 1970s, Fiona Stanley, then a young doctor, analysed a year's worth of newspaper articles in Western Australian print media about Aboriginal health and found that 90% of Aboriginal health-related media articles were negative.

Not that this has changed much. 40 years later, in 2012, 74% were negative.[9] And a 2015 survey of more than 350 articles about Aboriginal health found almost 75% of these articles were negative [10].

Research by Simon Holding at University of Sydney from 2005 to 2009 found news stories about Aboriginal health were commonly about petrol sniffing, child abuse and alcohol. The news about Aboriginal health, Simon concluded, tends to deal in stereotypes and to be unrelentingly negative.

It wouldn't be very flattering if you relied on the media for an understanding of Aboriginal people. — Simon Holding, senior research assistant, University of Sydney [1]

Should the media focus more on stories which are forward thinking, problem solving, and seeking out success?

Yes
71% 
No
17% 
Don't know
12% 

SMH poll, 1,433 votes [11]

The relentless barrage of negative stories impacts the people they're about. Research found that negative bias in the news can make people think the world is more dangerous and risky than it actually is. People become passive, no longer care about the issues presented or become totally disengaged [12], an attitude many Australians already have towards Aboriginal people's struggles.

Fiona Stanly has found mounting evidence from her continued work that Aboriginal children’s self esteem, resilience and educational outcomes depend on how they believe the dominant culture perceives their culture. "The more that the dominant culture reports negative stories about Aboriginal people, the more that Aboriginal children feel bad about being Aboriginal," she says. [1]

Even if you made just 50% of your articles positive, you could reduce suicide rates. — Fiona Stanley, Head of the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research [1]

Another thing to bear in mind is that negative stories can trigger the trauma Aboriginal people already have or associate with the topic.

It is the duty of media to offer a balanced view. Don't just report on breakthroughs and crises, seek out positive news and give it equal exposure.

Summer May Finlay, a Yorta Yorta woman who works in Aboriginal health and is a PhD candidate, wants media to change the conversation:

"I know from my own experience there is a profound disconnect from the way the media describes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to my own lived experience of our strengths.

"Whenever I read about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it’s almost like it’s a bad thing. I'm a proud Aboriginal person, I love being Aboriginal, and I couldn't imagine ever being anything but an Aboriginal person.

"We need a national conversation that recognises and celebrates the strengths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities.

"I've had the luxury of travelling to communities around Australia, and I see these strong, passionate, caring, generous peoples. I don’t see that reality reflected in the way we’re described in the media." [13]

Aboriginal people are tired of being told that they are "helpless, hopeless and useless". [1]

It's time for you to switch to constructive journalism and solutions-focused news.

If the purpose of the news is to engage and inform people in order to empower them, then the inherently negative tone of much of the news is a barrier to achieving this. — Jodie Jackson, positive psychology researcher [12]

Get Aboriginal perspectives

Media need to tell both sides of the story, even if one side is not convenient. Don't just rely on police and court reports, these help reinforce negative views.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority found that an episode of Channel Seven's Sunrise program in March 2018 breached the industry code of practice as it contained strong negative generalisations about Aboriginal people as a group, breached broadcasting standards for accuracy and provoked serious contempt. In it an all-white panel had discussed the adoption of Aboriginal children and child abuse. [14] The media company eventually accepted a court-enforceable undertaking, which included staff training and a review of its in-house processes.

When an Aboriginal man burnt an Australian flag in protest of "the atrocities committed against [his] people under the colours of that flag" on Australia Day 2008 media coverage focussed on the act of burning the flag [15], because 'bad news' sells papers and boosts ratings.

"What you see on the commercial [TV] stations is negative, most times they will focus on the riots. That is the only time you see them focusing on Indigenous issues and that is really sad," says Karla Grant, executive producer and presenter of the Living Black program on SBS [16].

Pat Turner, inaugural CEO of National Indigenous Television, agrees. "We simply do not see Indigenous faces on screen. And the stories we do see are framed by news values – conflict and negativity." [17]

Jason Glanville, CEO of the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence, knows that Aboriginal people have thrived and found extraordinary ways to express themselves in arts, business, academia, science and education.

"Yet the coverage of Aboriginal people I saw in the media showed only the deeply negative things my grandmother and her generation experienced. It left out their good humour, positivity, resilience, capacity for excellence and determination to contribute," he says [18].

The bias against Aborigines by mainstream media also warrants a national investigation due to the noticeable prominent focus on negativeness and almost complete absence of any positive reporting on Aboriginal peoples. — Neil E Gillespie, CEO, Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement Inc, Adelaide [19]

Do you show respect?

While you are researching your next story, make sure you respect, acknowledge and, if necessary or appropriate, reward your sources. If you are not doing this you contribute to the mistrust of many Aboriginal people that already exists towards media.

Freelance health journalist Melissa Sweet has heard "about the mistrust that had built up, and of researchers who took but did not give, who imposed their own world view, who appropriated Aboriginal people’s stories for their own ends, who endlessly described the problems rather than developing and testing solutions, and who used language and methodology in a way that stressed the negatives and neglected the positives." [1]

Showing respect is also self-serving for you. Many Aboriginal people are reluctant to work with journalists because they so often portray them as always fighting and lacking leadership.

Respect includes avoiding to present niche perspectives just in order to maximise views (click-bait).

If you want to feature a wide range of Aboriginal views you need to invest time to develop respectful relationships and trust, recommends Dr Tamara Mackean, an academic and president of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association. [1]

Fact

Aboriginal singer Dan Sultan's song No More Explanations is about journalists who are asking about his lineage and not about his compositions.

Two dudes from the Territory

Aboriginal journalist Stan Grant recalls the following story in early 2019: [3]

"[Prime Minister] Scott Morrison was visiting the Northern Territory and there were some representatives from the local communities and the Northern Land Council.

"And when they send the transcript out about what Morrison had said and what the local people had said, here was 'Scott Morrison, Prime Minister' and, quote, the Aboriginal people, two men, were referred to as 'Dude 1' and 'Dude 2'. And that's on the transcript sent around!

"My wife said: 'Do the 'dudes' have names?'"

Which news is more important?

Aboriginal stories compete with other daily news. "Getting Indigenous voices heard in mainstream media has always been difficult because we've been competing with 'news of the day'", says Catherine Liddle, a news bulletin host [20].

Simon Holding, a senior research assistant with the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, analysed more than 17,000 health-related stories appearing on Sydney’s five free-to-air television stations. He found only 255 stories on Aboriginal health, ranking this category just behind wild animal attacks (286 stories). [1]

Here's a shocking example of how trivial, unimportant events push out real news Australians need to hear [21]:

Should you report a blip or a national problem?
  The blip The national problem
What was the story? Opposition leader Tony Abbott produced a 24-second silence when asked about a "shit happens" comment he made after learning of the death of a soldier. Prime Minister Julia Gillard updates on the Closing the Gap report, saying that it will take 30 years to close the gap, but also reporting that 3 of the 5 targets were on track.
What was the educational value? none
  • Closing the gap for Aboriginal people takes much longer than expected.
  • Infant mortality rates were on track to be halved by 2018.
  • Halving the gap in education was also on track.
  • Halving the gap for Aboriginal students by 2020 was on track.
  • Halving the gap in employment outcomes by 2018 was on track.
Scope of story Trivial "Our greatest national problem" [21]
Where was the story broadcast? Radio: 116 news and talkback mentions TV: 21 news stories Radio: 115 news reports & talkback references TV: 21 news reports
National newspaper coverage (Sydney Morning Herald) Front page, another story the next day none

If you want to report it, fund it

"The greatest restriction on media access to Aboriginal land has been the historic disinterest and lack of appropriate budgeting for stories on Aboriginal land by media outlets themselves," finds Wali Wunungmurra, chairman of the Northern Land Council in the NT [22].

Is your employer censoring content?

Most Australians are unaware that media censor content deemed "too hot" to broadcast. Content is toned down and entire films are not shown to the public.

On the government-funded ABC, managers toned town the first all-Aboriginal TV show, Basically Black, because "the striking critique, particularly the attacks on racism, were judged unacceptable". It's author, Gary Foley, is still considered "too hot for Australian mainstream television today" [23].

The anti-Intervention documentary, Our Generation, was judged Best Campaign Documentary at the London International Documentary Film Festival in 2011, attracting large audiences at overseas screenings but it could not get an airing on Australia’s national network. Instead, its producers had to travel the country renting cinemas and halls to screen it [23].

The government’s funding of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) maintains a constant influence over its editorial content.

No wonder journalists don't dare to investigate government under-spending, incompetence or lack of action after receiving report after report stating the grim reality of Aboriginal affairs.

Australians don’t want to be challenged over their breakfast cereal over the horrendous conditions that Aboriginal people live in. — Chris Graham, editor, National Indigenous Times [1]

Watch out for stereotypes

At other times, respect falls victim to time, bad and good stereotypes or sensationalist reporting.

Many systematic content reviews of mass media have found that the race of criminal offenders is mentioned more often when the offenders are Aboriginal. [24]

The whole point to all my writing is to portray the positive stories about Aboriginal people, because everyone else is doing a great job with the negatives. — Anita Heiss, Aboriginal author [25]

Aboriginal people are sick and tired of how media portray them. Jason, an Aboriginal character in John Danalis' book, Riding The Black Cockatoo, summarises their feelings:

"[The misuse of images by media] happens one hundred times a day to us; ever notice that whenever they show a negative story on the news about Aboriginal people they nearly always run it with pictures of blackfellas sitting under a tree, as if that's all we do.

"And most of the time the pictures they use don't even relate to the people in the story, could be some mob from the other side of the country. I used to get angry, but if I got upset every time it happened it would kill me. It's better to laugh and stay strong." [26]

Respected strongly pro-Aboriginal journalist, Jeff McMullen, believes media should invite non-Aboriginal people more to "be more like traditional custodians" [23]:

"The Australian mass media attempts to strangle the Aboriginal voice. Media monopolies manipulate the mainstream view, trapping Aboriginal people in stereotypes of victimhood and hopelessness.

"Mass media is the principal propaganda machine marketing a neo-liberal vision aimed ultimately at dispossessing the First Australians of their land and distinctiveness.

"The mainstream media’s message does not invite non-Indigenous Australians to be more like the traditional custodians but instead insists that Aboriginal culture is the problem and Aboriginal people must change."

We don't hear about [the Aboriginal struggle] because it is overshadowed by all the negative impacts that are splashed across the media and gives the impression that is what all Aboriginal people are like. There seems to be a build-up of discrimination. — Jennifer Cousemacker, Aboriginal Studies student [27]

For an example of how media portray Aboriginal people see my chapter on alcohol consumption.

The riot that was none

In August 2007 a report on news.com.au described "two days of rioting" in the 300-strong Aboriginal community of Oombulgurri. The story was picked up by other News Corp media sites, among them the Perth Now (see image below).

But the report was inflated. There was no riot.

The Oombulgurri Council said that the 'incident' was in fact a one-hour gathering of people on one night. It confirmed police intervention in a domestic violence case with one female being arrested, and also confirmed that her de-facto attempted to forcefully enter the police post. Three family members tried to obtain information in relation to the arrest.

But it said the majority of the crowd were curious community members onlooking "as experienced in any other small town". It rejected the suggestion that the actions of a few were the actions of the community.

"Inaccurate reporting of these matters only worsens the feeling of isolation felt by many remote communities, further damaging efforts to achieve positive outcomes," the council said [28].

Newspaper article headline.
A headline to serve a market, not the truth. In a statement the council of the "remote Aboriginal community" clarified that there was no riot.

References

View article sources (28)

[1] [1a] [1b] [1c] [1d] [1e] [1f] [1g] [1h] 'Is the media part of the Aboriginal health problem, and part of the solution?', Inside Story 3/3/2009
[2] [2a] [2b] Reconciliation News, Issue 40, October 2018, p.19
[3] [3a] The Point, Episode 1/2019, 23/1/2019, NITV, www.facebook.com/NITVAustralia/videos/2244445959165117/, retrieved 12/2/2019
[4] 'Connection to the land', reader's letter, Koori Mail 394 p.23
[5] 'Liberating Digital Possibilities', Jason Glanville, in: Making the Connection: Essays in Indigenous Digital Excellence, Telstra Foundation, 2014, p.35
[6] 'A Keynote Speaker: Human Rights and Social Justice Award', Yalmay Yunupingu 24/6/2014
[7] 'Media giant criticised over NT report', Koori Mail 432 p.8; the statement came in response to newspapers publishing the photo and full name of a deceased Aboriginal person.
[8] 'The delicate art of the interview', SMH 13/6/2015
[9] 'Portraying Positive Stories In Aboriginal Health', Right Now 15/9/2014, rightnow.org.au/writing-cat/article/portraying-positive-stories-in-aboriginal-health/, retrieved 12/4/2016
[10] 'Media portrayal of Indigenous people overwhelmingly negative', The Wire 14/7/2015
[11] 'The readers' panel', SMH 29/7/2017
[12] [12a] 'How solution-focused news can empower people', Positive News, www.positive.news/2017/society/24721/solution-focused-news-can-empower-people/, retrieved 10/2/2017
[13] 'Help change the conversations around Aboriginal health, with some #JustJustice', Crikey 16/4/2015
[14] 'Sunrise breached racial contempt rules with Indigenous children discussion – watchdog', The Guardian 4/9/2018
[15] 'Flag burns as people march', Koori Mail 419 p.38
[16] 'Living Black out to 'raise bar'', Koori Mail 397 p.27
[17] 'Big dreams for new TV service', Koori Mail 396 p.5
[18] 'On page and screen, indigenous good gets lost in the bad', SMH 12/6/2014
[19] 'Justice for our peoples', reader's letter, Koori Mail 394 p.24
[20] 'And now for the news...', Koori Mail 419 p.17
[21] [21a] 'Issues sidelined for a circus', SMH 12/2/2011
[22] 'Alliance set for meeting, public rally', Koori Mail 435 p.7
[23] [23a] [23b] 'The Way Ahead: The Aboriginal Voice', The Tracker, 28/2/2013
[24] 'Media portrayals of Indigenous Australians', Wikipedia, retrieved 13 October 2014
[25] 'Anita Heiss', interview, SMH Spectrum 6/4/2012
[26] 'Riding The Black Cockatoo', John Danalis, Allen & Unwin, p.189
[27] 'Voyage of discovery for top student', Koori Mail 417 p.49
[28] 'Oombulgurri rebuts news riot report', Koori Mail 409 p.35, media article: www.perthnow.com.au/news/six-charged-over-aboriginal-riot/story-e6frg12c-1111114310322

Harvard citation

Korff, J 2019, Reporting tips for journalists: How to write about Aboriginal culture, <https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/media/reporting-tips-for-journalists-how-to-write-about-aboriginal-culture>, retrieved 24 July 2019

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