Politics & media

Mainstream media coverage of Aboriginal issues

Australian media frequently skew their reporting of Aboriginal issues towards common stereotypes, infuriating Aboriginal people. Most media get away with their downputting and ignorant treatment—except one columnist.

Selected statistics

Proportion of Aboriginal people who believe the media presents a balanced view of Aboriginal Australians [22].
Proportion of non-Aboriginal Australians who believe the media presents a balanced view of Aboriginal people [22].
Percentage of test persons who were successfully framed by media messages [37].
Surveyed proportion of articles about Aboriginal health that were negative; that were neutral: 11%; that were positive: 15% [37].
Page out of a total of 84 pages on which the Sun Herald reported about "critically endangered" Aboriginal languages [20].

The 1990s: Aboriginal issues are “problems for the majority culture”

A systematic survey of mainstream media in 1992, including television, news, and radio, found that almost all media studied was not diverse enough, excluding stereotypes. [32]

The discussion about Aboriginal land rights during this time were presented as “problems for the majority culture” and almost as a potential threat to the population as a whole [32]. Unfortunately this mindset is still prevalent in a lot of older Australians.

In 1994 a study found that most editors saw their readership as white, and some conceded that this perception affected their news coverage. With most stories directed at white audiences, papers established a clear sense of conflict between “us” (non-Aboriginal Australians) and “them”. [32]

Towards the end of the 1990s only one quarter of relevant articles contained any Aboriginal voices.[32]

There's no news like bad news.—Jonathan Pryce as media baron Elliot Carver in 007 James Bond's 'Tomorrow Never Dies'

If it bleeds it leads.—Mantra of the media industry'

The 2010s: Selective reporting influences Australians

“If it bleeds it leads,” I was once told by a journalist. We are naturally attracted to shocking news and the media serves this attraction. Unfortunately they forget that media also has to be balanced.

Framing is another technique the media uses successfully. When the media attempts to frame you they try to influence how you organise, perceive, and communicate about reality. By simplifying reality media focuses on a subset of relevant aspects of a situation or issue (called ‘emphasis frames’). This type of framing is very evident in media’s reporting about Aboriginal people and alcohol, for example.

In an experiment, 78% of test persons were successfully framed by the stories that they watched. “The need to question the media is really important,” said journalist Ray Martin who reported about the experiment. [37]

Don't take at face value what we're telling you.—Ray Martin, journalist [37]

Black lives don’t matter

In 2015, a white male with his car hit an 8-year-old Aboriginal boy on a bike, killing him. The man did not stop. He received an 18-month suspended sentence and 6 months in home detention. Media carried on as usual.

But when AFL player Adam Goodes threw an imaginary spear in the same year, there was “wall-to-wall media coverage” about the incident. Aboriginal journalist Amy McQuire wrote at the time [34]:

“The fact that a man walks away with such a light sentence over the death of an Aboriginal child, and Australia stays largely silent about it, says a lot about the different laws in this country – one for black, and one for white. If this was a white kid in a different city, you can bet it would be on the front pages of newspapers around the country. And the fact that this week, we again as a nation would rather debate the latest Adam Goodes controversy, says even more about our unwillingness to confront the real problem in this country – the institutionalised racism that privileges non-Indigenous Australia over the First Peoples of this country.”

Media extensively covered the one-punch death of white teenager Cole Miller, but the one-punch death of Aboriginal man Trevor Duroux went almost unnoticed.

No wonder that there is a perception among Aboriginal people that for the media black lives don’t matter, or at least nowhere near as much as white lives.[34]

Aboriginal issues are not ‘quirky’

When SBS got under pressure to increase its advertising revenue and ratings in 2015, executive producer of SBS World News, Andrew Clark, wrote to staff directing that stories about “Middle East, indigenous, asylum yarns” which were “of less interest to viewers” should be moved out of a crucial time segment.

Instead, so the manager, “great picture stories, quirky (how could that have happened) yarns are preferable”. [33]

Although the broadcaster justified the measure as a “placement” and not “selection” issue, it tells you volumes about how attractive Aboriginal news are to both viewers and media.

The media has a responsibility to tell the country what is happening in a way that connects Australians. If you see that people are not listening to the truth, find another way to tell the story.—Jeff McMullen, foreign correspondent and strongly pro-Aboriginal journalist [1]

Australia’s media is not diverse enough

Australian media, and in particular the print media, is extremely concentrated with only 3 owners – News Limited, Fairfax Media and APN News and Media – holding approximately 98% of the sector, and two of these owners, News and Fairfax, together holding about 88% of the print media assets in the country [25].

Both the US and the UK also have 3 major corporations, but they only control 26% (US) and 62% (UK) of the circulation [25].

This limits the variety of original news and opinion average Australians consume every day.

It limits in particular how much and in what tone Australians hear about Aboriginal people.

As Sydney-based Ray Jackson, president of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, puts it: “Our media tends to make our issues only front page news on Aboriginal matters when it can be spun into a report whereby all those lazy, drunken, etc, etc, can be blamed for the mistakes of government and their departments.” [26]

“Indigenous Australia has long had a troubled relationship with the mainstream media,” says Brooke Boney of SBS News who cites Aboriginal radio host, Tiga Bayles as saying that media “put a slant on it to make [Aboriginal people] look bad”. [27]

Even established media organisations can get it wrong. The tax-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation had to pay Aboriginal woman Rosalie Kunoth-Monks more than $130,000 for defamation [27].

No surprise, then, that Aboriginal people are hesitant to talk to mainstream media. “The media does not look at us in a good light at all and hence my hesitation to speak to mainstream media. I keep to myself,” says Ms Kunoth-Monks.

A 2015 survey of more than 350 articles about Aboriginal health, published over a 12-month period, backs her up. Almost 75% of these articles were negative, 11% neutral and only 15% positive [4]. The problem is that reiterating negative stereotypes lets people expect them the next time they read about these topics and fuels prejudice, misconceptions, racism and ignorance.

Boney asks: “The question that Indigenous media observers have to ask: is this genuine lack of understanding of Indigenous stories or a lazy reliance on old racist stereotypes?”

We should, and will, create channels in print, digital and broadcasts to amplify the story of Indigenous excellence.—Jason Glanville, CEO, National Centre of Indigenous Excellence [29]

Bomb attack or prank?

The facts: An explosive device was hurled at a group of people in the One Mile community, on the outskirts of Broome. A woman picked up the object as it exploded, suffering serious injuries. Two other people, including a 13-year-old girl, were also injured.

This should be headline news all over the country, shouldn’t it?

Not in Australia. The Chinese national press agency Xinhua covered the attack, yet most of the Australian media ignored it.

In similar circumstances, papers usually use labels such as “potential hate crime” or “terrorist attack”, but in this instance the event was downplayed to a “prank that’s gone seriously wrong”.

It is telling that news from Aboriginal communities rarely gets covered unless the government cites a “national emergency” to justify deploying defence forces into communities.

It is also telling that on the rare occasions when we hear about violence on the communities, it tends to focus on internal community violence and not violence perpetuated upon a community by outsiders.

Video: Aboriginal representation in the media

Watch Francis Kelly talk about the history of the Warlpiri Media Association, learn about BRACS, ICTV and NITV.

Reporting tips for journalists

Following are tips and pitfalls journalists need to be aware of when reporting on Aboriginal affairs:

You need background knowledge

Journalists, writers and editors need to have background knowledge about Aboriginal cultural protocols and cultural context so they 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.

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 [18].

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?” [31]

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 [12]

“I had a huge fight”

Columnist for The Age, Martin Flanagan, reveals how hard it can be to have authentic articles published:[5]

“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 judgments, 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.”

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.

An analysis of a year’s worth of newspaper articles about Aboriginal health during the 1970s found that 90% of Aboriginal health-related media articles in WA print media were negative. 40 years later, this trend had not changed much - in 2012, 74% were negative.[35] And a 2015 survey of more than 350 articles about Aboriginal health found almost 75% of these articles were negative [4].

Research has found that the psychological consequence of a skewed truth created by negative bias in the news can make people perceive the world more dangerously and risky that it actually is. A continuous stream of negative news makes people passive, desensitises them from the issues presented and can lead to total disengagement [36], a symptom Australia’s society already displays towards Aboriginal people’s struggles.

It is the duty of media to offer a balanced view. 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.” [7]

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 [36]

Get the Aboriginal perspective

Media need to tell both sides of the story, even if one side is not convenient. 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 [14], 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 [29].

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]

Embrace divergent Aboriginal views

It is easy to assume Aboriginal views are similar across Australia, and many media portray them that way. But this is not the case.

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.

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 [13].

Here’s a shocking example of how trivial, unimportant events push out real news Australians need to hear [23]:

Should you report a blip or a national problem?
 The blipThe 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 storyTrivial“Our greatest national problem” [23]
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 daynone

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 [11].

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” [24].

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 [24].

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

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. [32]

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 [21]

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.” [2]

Respected strongly pro-Aboriginal journalist, Jeff McMullen, believes media should invite non-Aboriginal people more to “be more like traditional custodians” [24]:

“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 [15]

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 [3].

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.

Journalist accused of racial vilification

Nine high-profile, light-skinned Aboriginal people in 2010 took Herald Sun newspaper columnist, Andrew Bolt, to court claiming racial vilification over articles he had published. [8]

He had described the complainants ‘fair-skinned’ and ‘professional Aborigines’ in the articles headlined ‘It’s so hip to be black’ and ‘White fellas in the black’. The articles suggested the group was ‘rorting the system’ and gaining benefit by identifying with only one aspect of their cultural heritage.

I certainly don't accuse them of opportunism, even if full-blood Aborigines may wonder how such fair people can claim to be one of them and in some cases take black jobs.—Andrew Bolt in his article 'It's so hip to be black' [10]. Note the use of derogative terms.

The plaintiffs claimed the publications breached the Racial Discrimination Act. They did not seek financial compensation, but merely an apology from Mr Bolt’s employer and the removal of the offending articles. One of the articles was still online in May 2011.

In October 2011 Justice Bromberg ruled that Andrew Bolt and his employer, the Herald & Weekly Times, had in fact breached the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 [30].

Mr Bolt admitted that the Aboriginal people he had mentioned in his article were of Aboriginal descent and genuinely self-identified as Aboriginal people. But he denied that they were offended by the articles [9].

Justice Bromberg disagreed and found that the articles “contained erroneous facts, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language”. As a result Mr Bolt’s conduct was in breach of section 18D of the Act.

Mr Bolt admitted to having failed to contact any of the people mentioned in the article, that some of his mainly online sources may have been incorrect, and that he had erred in places.

In his judgement the justice noted “that young Aboriginal persons or others with vulnerability in relation to their identity, may be apprehensive to identify as Aboriginal or publicly identify as Aboriginal, as a result of witnessing the ferocity of Mr Bolt’s attack on the individuals dealt with in the articles.”

It is important to note that the judge’s ruling is not about the freedom of speech, as Mr Bolt and his supporters tried to point out. The case was about Mr Bolt’s conduct and manner and the way he had written the articles.

I rejoiced in the success of the case against Mr Bolt because I felt it was a win for those of us who were tired of being made to feel ashamed of our heritage; for those of us who have been told, after revealing we are Aboriginal, "Well, at least you don't look it."—Deahnna Richardson [28]

We are not saying that you can't talk about racist issues. What the judgement clearly said was that it's how you handle it. You cannot be malicious; you must handle it based on truth and fact, not fiction and racism.—Pat Eatock, Aboriginal pensioner and activist, one of the group who filed the case against Andrew Bolt [9]

Justice Bromberg 'got' that Aboriginality is a lived experience, not just something where people can flick a lever and say you are or you aren't.—Mark McMillan, Aboriginal lawyer and one of the people mentioned in the article [9]

How can you complain about inappropriate media coverage?

If you believe any media has put Aboriginal people or culture into a wrong perspective you can report it to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

Contact ACMA to complain about something you’ve seen on TV, heard on the radio or seen on the Internet.


View article sources (37)

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[2] 'Riding The Black Cockatoo', John Danalis, Allen & Unwin, p.189
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[37] 'Is Australia racist?', SBS documentary 26/2/2017

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:

Aboriginal culture - Politics & media - Mainstream media coverage of Aboriginal issues, retrieved 26 April 2017