New report shows Australia’s media reckoning can’t come soon enough

23 Dec 2022

Last month, Media Diversity Australia (MDA)  released its second snapshot, Who Gets to Tell Australian Stories? 2.0 on Indigenous and cultural diversity in Australian television news. It’s the second time MDA has looked at the diversity of television news and representation on the small screen.  Journalist Rhianna Patrick tells us, more work is needed in this space, and asks - is mainstream media even a safe place for First Nations people?

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Media Diversity Australia’s (MDA) report Who Gets to Tell Australian Stories? 2.0 found some gains had been made since the inaugural landmark study in 2020. However it showed work still needed to be done in getting more Indigenous and culturally diverse staff into tv newsrooms, into on screen and behind the camera positions as well as into senior TV news leadership roles and into boardrooms.

The report states:

“…there is some way to go, with a serious need for media leaders to support meaningful and informed interventions to build a more representative industry.”

The findings have only added to the bigger questions I have around how meaningful change can really be made in a sector which continues to do the work of the colony.  

For example, in the early days of the British colony, the first newspapers were used as a way of keeping connected to what was happening ‘back home’. Aboriginal people were only mentioned if there was something worth mentioning that impacted the colony.  Indigenous voices are largely absent in these publications and this has continued through to more contemporary times. While coverage of Indigenous affairs has increased, there have been few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander journalists who’ve worked for these mastheads over the decades. 

Last year, The Age looked back at its 167 year history which found that while coverage has changed over the years, Indigenous people telling their own stories was a rarity.

I was around 6 or 7 when I decided I wanted to be a journalist. At the age of 10 or 11 I wrote out a very detailed timeline of what I needed to do in order to achieve that dream. I still have the piece of paper I wrote it down on. That plan also included who I knew I wanted to work for. When I got a job with them as an adult,  I honestly thought I’d work there for my entire career until I retired; that I’d be a “lifer”. That was not to be. 

If I knew then what I know now, I might have asked myself – Do I really want to work in a mainstream media organisation? How hard will it be to do my job as an Indigenous person? What kind of workplace will I be walking into and, ultimately, do I even want to be trained to tell stories and do journalism in a really non-Indigenous way?

The legitimacy of the investigation informing this report has been questioned by the ABC and Channel 7. Including the fact that these findings are based on only a ‘small slice’ of the media landscape that was monitored for just a two week period.

While I understand the importance of the Media Diversity Australia research, there needs to be a more far-reaching study of the media landscape which is properly resourced so that all facets of industry can also be investigated by an outside body, and that it includes content makers not just newsrooms. The need for better representation at all levels in media organisations across Australia is obvious to anyone who has worked in our industry, but I’m still left wondering if the recommendations in this study can address the underlying structural and systematic issues which ultimately underpin these findings whether media organisations want to acknowledge that or not.

Unresolved issues bubbling beneath the surface

I resigned in 2020 from a mainstream media organisation (after nearly 20 years with the same employer) because of what I’d experienced and buried while trying to do my job. Because of this I began questioning whether mainstream media is where Indigenous journalists are meant to be? Are we meant to be working full time for organisations that think everything will be ‘fixed’ by recruiting more Indigenous and culturally diverse people without addressing what really lies festering beneath it all?

To let my nerd flag fly a bit, I’ll use Ghostbusters 2 as an example.
I’ve always thought of these issues like the pink goo, what Ray (Dan Akroyd) and Egon (Harold Ramis)  refer to as “psychomagnotheric” or “mood” slime in Ghostbusters II which has been bubbling away underneath the streets of New York City. Left unchecked, this slime, accumulating from people’s negative energy, has grown  into a river of slime which Ray discovers while being lowered into an abandoned subway tunnel..  

I have felt like Ray – being gradually lowered into something  I had no idea existed until it was too late. Through microaggressions, constantly being ‘othered’, my role being undermined and made to look less, and overhearing colleagues minimise and make light of important actions here and abroad protesting racial injustice and police brutality. Through actions like these, I slowly realised  that what was being presented on the outside was not the reality inside the organisation. Sadly, I was also not surprised. 

 I completely understand why Indigenous journalists and content creators want to work in mainstream media. However, the conclusion I’ve come to is that I don’t think we should work for these media anymore. I did it because I wanted to get the skills I needed to ‘make it’ in the industry I had chosen from a very young age. But the trade-off in getting these skills is long lasting and not easily overcome once you walk out the other side. At the end of the day do they really deserve our labour, our voices and our expertise?

What would it look like if Indigenous journalists dipped in and out of working with mainstream media like they do with our stories and communities? Instead of committing all our time to these mainstream media, we could pursue something that feeds back to our own media. What would an autonomous model look like which allowed Indigenous journalists real power over the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories they wished to pursue? 

The ABC recently announced the formation of an Indigenous Reporting Team led by award winning Indigenous journalist Suzanne Dredge – who becomes the first Indigenous staff member on the news executive team in the same year the ABC celebrates its 90th birthday. 

While any announcement about an Indigenous led initiative is always welcomed news I do hope the team has the ability to operate in a culturally safe workplace, with appropriate support, proper resourcing and complete editorial control over the work they produce, and that it can be done without needless non-Indigenous interference. 

Even still, I’m not sure this announcement really addresses the underlying issues. Without entirely scrapping what exists in order to start again from a completely different place which puts self determination at its core, I can’t see how real change can happen without a major media reckoning.

Aboriginal journalists have shared their stories and trauma. Former SBS journalist, now screenwriter Kodie Bedford detailed how her treatment there, left her ‘suicidal’. Muruwari man and an award-winning journalist Allan Clarke spoke about how covering Black Deaths in Custody had led to breakdown. These stories prompted a few Australian journalists of colour to share their experiences and while it had some impact, it wasn’t the reckoning many of us were hoping for. However, this was an echo of what was happening internationally. 

This isn’t just a problem in so-called Australia

In 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement went global, I watched as Indigenous and broadcasters of colour quit major media organisations while others shared their experiences of newsrooms on social media around the world, most prominently in North America.  

CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Yukon Morning radio show host and Indigenous woman, Christine Genier resigned in June 2020 after making on air comments about the under-representation of Indigenous and Black voices at the CBC. 

In the UK in August 2020, DJ Sideman quit digital radio station 1Xtra after the BBC’s use of a racist slur during a news report where the N-word was used. 

On twitter in 2020, journalists of colour shared their experiences of working in newsrooms under #blackinthenewsroom which spoke to their experiences of racism and discrimination.

In August this year, the Native American Journalist Association (NAJA) barred The New York Times from its annual conference because of continued harmful coverage of Indigenous peoples. The paper also has no Indigenous journalists in its newsrooms despite being one of the largest newspapers in the world. After being told they weren’t welcome, NYT asked for its $55 NAJA membership fee back. 

For me, this is significant, because it’s a group of Indigenous journalists pushing back against a mainstream media organisation and telling them  they need to do better. It’s a way Indigenous communities can take back their power and their narrative. A way to let the media know what your expectations are if  they want to do a story in your community without an Indigenous journalist doing the reporting. But I’m also acutely aware this is not always possible for Indigenous journalists in so-called Australia to do, as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cohort here is still small in comparison to those in North America.  

As a young journalist, you learn there’s this unwritten rule that you don’t betray  fellow journalists or call out underpar reporting. It’s just not done. But where does that leave us as an industry if we’re not willing to uphold values and ethics in our practice? How do you make change when the sector itself normalises silence of harmful reporting which contributes to harmful stereotypes, colonial narratives and assumptions of First Nations people

For me, I can no longer see a way forward working full time within the walls of non-Indigenous media organisations which pushes colonial narratives. It does not align with who I am as a Torres Strait Islander journalist or the way I now wish to do my work.

Two years after leaving my role in mainstream media, I’m still triggered at times by the content made by my former employer. I still find it incredibly difficult to watch, listen or read the content it produces. Even reading the Media Diversity Australia report triggered me for two days. It meant this article took longer to write because I no longer have the capacity to work through it all. Now my eyes have been opened to what I had been going through for so long but didn’t have the words to describe or label what it actually was that I was going through. While I’ve chosen to share that experience, I’m also not looking for your sympathy or platitudes. What I want is real change. 

Despite this, I still dream of a strong, independent and well resourced Indigenous radio and media sector where our stories are told by us in our own way. However, in order to flip the power dynamic, we need to ensure we’re not losing skilled Indigenous journalists or broadcasters who come out the other side of mainstream media and leave the sector altogether. We need this skill base but we need to ensure Indigenous journalists are supported  after the workplace trauma some of them will come out with. Or better still, those applying for  jobs in mainstream media get told the truth about the environment they’re walking into in the first place. 

While I no longer believe real change can come as an Indigenous person working within a mainstream media system, I recognise our job and career options as journalists, presenters and broadcasters are limited at the moment.. However I will say this to non-Indigenous people working in media: If you work in a media organisation which has Indigenous staff, think about how you can become a better ally.: And when I say ‘ally’, I mean someone who hasn’t nominated themselves as an ally, because that’s not how allies work. For example, when I hear someone call themselves an ally, I’ve got to be honest that it doesn’t make me think that you really are if you’ve chosen to use that word. Because a real ally doesn’t need to make a point of it, they just continue doing the work as they always have.  If an Indigenous person uses that word to describe a non-Indigenous person, that has more weight for me because it shows that the person has clearly done something solid for an Indigenous person to refer to them in this way. 

If you’re a non-Indigenous staffer working in mainstream media, how are you using your voice to advocate for Indigenous staff who choose to work in your organisation? If you see or hear racism, call it out. Don’t leave it for the lone Indigenous voice on the floor to be the one doing the work. 

When advocating with Indigenous staff, how are you making sure that you’re not taking up space or disempowering their voices? 

Have you left platitudes of “sorry this happened to you’ after seeing a twitter thread or article by an Indigenous person without doing the real work to back up your words? 

How are you going to use your influence as a non-Indigenous media worker to internally help create a better and safer workplace for Indigenous and culturally diverse colleagues?  

Your first step might be to sit, listen and really understand what is being said, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you, because this truth telling needs to happen and it needs to happen now. 


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