Addressing deficit reporting is more than just telling positive stories

27 Oct 2021

Oftentimes deficit discourse is 'fixed' by counterbalancing but this is not the whole picture and Luke Pearson discusses the complexity and origins of this issue.

It is by no means new to suggest that the media engage in deficit discourse when reporting on Indigenous people and issues.  

A commonly offered solution to this is to tell more positive stories.

 It’s not a bad idea either.

Representation matters.

It is important to celebrate success.

To showcase Indigenous excellence.

Where it falls over in practice is that it fundamentally misunderstands what is meant by deficit discourse.

Deficit discourse is not synonymous with ‘negative stories’.

It is not a weight to be weighted and then proportionately counterbalanced – it is the apparatus that is used to do the weighing in the first place.  

It is the lens through which Indigenous people and stories are viewed, so even a story focussed on success can still engage in a deficit discourse.

Because deficit discourse is not just the individual stories we tell, it is the cumulative world-building effect on the sum total of all such stories – it is what we tell readers about the nature of the world where these stories take place.

Is it a world where success is measured solely through the lens of effective assimilation?

Or is it a world where one person’s success is proof that the meritocracy is real and therefore racism doesn’t exist and all other Indigenous people just need to be more like this one?

Is it a world where the real story of Indigenous success is the white people who helped them along the way?

Or is it a world where Indigenous people are the passive victims of the inexhaustible march of colonisation; sad but inevitable, and with no real agency or solutions worth exploring?

Is it a world where police are heroes so therefore cannot possibly do wrong? Where Indigenous people are criminals and well, don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time!

Deficit discourse in media is the inherent othering in choosing to label some people more than others and in different circumstances.

Most editorial style guides will say that you should only include someone’s race if it is relevant to the story, or if the context warrants it.

But why is it so much more common to see it warranted, to see it deemed relevant to the context, to mention someone is Indigenous than it is to mention that someone is white? So much so that if a story doesn’t specifically mention someone’s race, there’s an expectation on the part of the reader that the unraced person is white.

The impacts of deficit discourse cannot be understated.

It is the difference between a world where Indigenous people are being held back by the colony and are fighting against it or where we are being held up by it and should be grateful for it.

Deficit discourse is homogenising Indigenous peoples through generic tropes and stereotypes to the point that you can unqualifiedly call someone an ‘Indigenous leader’ because in this objective world in which journalists are reporting from it’s totally okay for journalists to be the decider of who is and is not an Indigenous leader – which is totally a thing that we have.

It is a world where the deficit is not merely the bad things that happen to Indigenous people, the deficit is in Indigenous people and the bad things happen to us because of that inherent deficit.

Deficit discourse is the inevitable outcome of, and tell-tale sign for, a firm belief in white superiority and Indigenous inferiority.

And no, celebrating individual exceptionalism while weaponising it as proof of the nonexistence of racism isn’t gonna cut it here either.

It is not such a scathing indictment on the specific institution of journalism as it may seem though when one realises that this is the nature of all institutions that developed and consolidated their guiding principles during a time where the assumed world in which they inhabited, was one where it was a given fact that white people were superior. It was not a belief that was relegated to the fringes, it was foundational to the legal and moral legitimacy of the colony.

To counter deficit discourse is to acknowledge that Indigenous disadvantage, where and how it exists, exists as a direct result of the punitive and inhumane policies and practices justified by an innate belief in white superiority and Indigenous inferiority. It is to acknowledge this and then to tell your story in a way that does not intentionally ignore the inevitable, if not outright openly intended, a consequence of successive government policies that continue to be built around these core beliefs.  

It is understanding that it is this discourse itself that is an obstacle to improving outcomes, not the supposed ‘deficit’ implicit in Indigenous people.

Countering deficit discourse is denying the white saviour their applause and their award for redirecting Indigenous funds away from Indigenous control; it is denying them the ability to claim sainthood for demanding much less in the name of charity than what Indigenous people demand in the name of justice, and keeping most of it for themselves anyway.  

For media, it is denying white saviours a sympathetic puff piece or a platform for them to lobby for policies that have a clear purpose of working against Indigenous aspirations.

It is so much more than that too though. It strikes at the very heart of what it is to be objective in journalism.

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