‘Star Pupil’ vs ‘Unwanted Baby’: Language in the media coverage of Zachary Rolfe’s trial

1 Apr 2022

The coverage on the Rolfe trial could make a reader question who is the one really being judged – the deceased or the police officer standing trial?

A sign reading Yuendumu at the community football oval

Readers are advised that the following article contains the names and images of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons. The following article also contains highly offensive and prejudicial language. While this language may cause offence, it has been reproduced here for the purpose of discourse analysis and critique.

On 10 March, police officer Zachary Rolfe was acquitted of the murder of Kumanjayi Walker after a five-week trial before the Northern Territory Supreme Court. The long-anticipated trial in relation to the 2019 shooting of Walker has left his family and the Yuendumu community shattered.

Since the verdict, family and supporters have faced a further challenge in the form of reporting an incomplete account of matters, use of language within reporting that is discriminatory and other unethical reporting practices on the Rolfe trial by the Australian corporate media.

Walker was not the one on trial and yet some of the articles preceding the trial attacked his character. If reporting on an alleged crime perpetrated against Walker, how would such reports be of relevance?  Further, some of these media reporting on him didn’t include character statements offered by his family for more balanced reporting.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have long critiqued news reporting on deaths in custody, including in the form of studies, media and complaints under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

When it comes to reporting on deaths in custody, the choice of language is important. It has the potential to shape the reader’s understanding of events as well as broader contexts, such as police/community relations. It evokes certain emotional responses around individual culpability and blame. It can re-traumatise bereaved families and communities – especially when the perspectives and official media statements of families have been systematically ignored and sidelined.

The coverage on the Rolfe trial could make a reader question who is the one really being judged – the deceased or the police officer standing trial?

Australian corporate media reporting on the Rolfe trial

Sky News referred to Walker as a “violent Aboriginal offender” from the “volatile Aboriginal town of Yuendumu”.

Seven News Spotlight announced the release of an exclusive interview with Rolfe. Channel Seven has a reputation in the Yuendumu community for failing to obtain permits, allegations of failing to respect court suppression orders and being in contempt of court as well as sensationalist reporting generally.

The Australian has commissioned multiple articles, including a ten-part exclusive series from a freelance journalist which vilifies Kumanjayi Walker. These articles have featured such headlines as, “Kumanjayi’s girlfriend breaks silence” and “Yuendumu nurses’ terror: Walker ‘a very scary man’”.

An article since removed bears the headline, “Unwanted Son Never Had a Chance” and elsewhere “Fears for Kumanjayi began when he was a newborn.”

By contrast, pieces on Zachary Rolfe feature titles like “Private schoolboy fell in love with policing before being charged with murder over death of Kumanjayi Walker” and “Murder-charge NT cop Zachary Rolfe in first interview over Kumanjayi Walker shooting: ‘I did what I had to do’”.

The Australian has received feedback on social media from many users claiming that their coverage on Walker was bordering on defamatory. The editorial board of the Australian responded with another editorial with the headline “Indigenous distrust flares despite hard facts.”

In this article they commended the all-white jury in the Rolfe case of having reached “the correct verdict”. Indigenous journalists and independent media outlets have slammed the coverage by The Australian as “a national disgrace“.

The language used when reporting about Rolfe 

I used Factiva to complete an analysis of the language used in the Australian news reporting in the week following the Rolfe trial, from 11 March 2022. Factiva is a database which allows you to search all news media by time/region/source. It can be a useful research tool for discourse analysis. My review focused on mainstream news outlets with a national audience: Herald Sun, Sky News, The Australian, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Telegraph, ABC Australia, Nine News, news.com.au and Seven News.

Based on my analysis, the descriptors used to describe the police officer included:

  • “Constable Zachary Rolfe”
  • “decorated cop”
  • “former soldier”
  • “the recipient of various medals”
  • “Northern Territory Police Constable”
  • “hero cop”
  • “well respected”
  • “decorated former Australian Army officer”
  • son of prominent business identities and philanthropists”
  • “star pupil at Canberra Grammar”

The race of the police officer is left unstated in every article published by the Australian corporate media. By contrast, articles published by international news outlets nearly always made reference to Rolfe’s race. For example, an article published by CNN refers to Rolfe as a “white police officer”. An article from the Washington Post bears the heading: “White Australian police officer acquitted in killing of Aboriginal teen, a case that gripped the country“.

The language used when reporting about Walker

Meanwhile, the Aboriginality of Walker was invoked and repeated ad nauseum in every article we have reviewed so far. The Walker family and the Parrumpurru Committee have made media statements describing Kumanjayi as a “joyful young man” who “loved animals, who loved his community and homelands, his partner, his family and loved music”. Inexcusably, these accounts are nowhere to be found in the corporate news accounts of the trial.

The following descriptors are used to describe Mr Walker, including an insensitive and irresponsible tendency to conflate Aboriginality with criminality:

  • “Kumanjayi Walker”
  • “young man”
  • “Aboriginal man”
  • “Indigenous man”
  • “the 19 year-old”
  • “Aboriginal teenager”
  • “Warlpiri teenager”
  • “unwanted son”
  • “high risk arrest target”
  • “offender”
  • “high risk offender”
  • “a scary man”
  • “violent Aboriginal offender”

Additional information the readers are provided with is: “always in trouble”, “too much drinking”, “failing to thrive”, “nits”, “scabies”, “chest infection”, “ear infection”, “special needs”, “dysfunctional child”. These sensationalist and insensitive descriptors were more likely to appear in mainstream press and this is damaging language that not only impacts the grieving family and community, but perpetuates the stereotypes that reinforce Australia’s misinformed narrative about us as peoples .

Compared to the positive descriptors used to refer to Rolfe, the same dignity and respect is not afforded to Walker. By contrast he was racialised, vilified and criminalised. A 2,759 word feature in the Australian details Walker’s complete state medical and criminal records. Another analysis focused on Walker’s “problems with the law” rather than the legality of the officer’s actions leading to his death.

Another editorial in the Australian condenses a description of Kumanjayi Walker to one sentence:

“…the Warlpiri teenager was a violent and deeply troubled person who was often impossible to be around.”

Patterns with other criminal trials 

These patterns are consistent with previous news reporting on Australian police officers standing trial in relation to Indigenous deaths in custody. For example, these patterns are consistent with an earlier study I conducted on Australian news reporting on the criminal trial of former police officer Chris Hurley in the death of Mr. Doomadgee in Palm Island, in 2004.

In that case, the former police officer was referred to as a ‘gentle giant’ or ‘Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley’ (always capitalised) whereas the deceased was invariably referred to as ‘drunken’, ‘Aboriginal’, ‘Indigenous’ or ‘the 36-year-old Aborigine’.

By contrast, Australian journalists used the following synonyms and descriptors to describe deaths in police custody abroad:

  • “Mike Brown”
  • “Michael Brown”
  • “good kid”
  • “Friendly”
  • “Brown’s father”
  • “his father”
  • “his mother”
  • “his family”
  • “Dreams”
  • “Aspirations”
  • “Young”
  • “Future”
  • “Proud”
  • “potential”

Other descriptors included: Black, teenager, unarmed, gentle giant, tragedy,  accused, allegedly, killed.

Black media coverage of the trial

The discourse analysis above concerns the coverage of the Rolfe and Hurley trials by the Australian mainstream media. By comparison, the reporting of Black media followed court reporting rules and respected the Warlpiri protocol.

This reporting followed court reporting rules, but didn’t seek to paint Rolfe in a heroic light, or Kumanjayi as a criminal. For example, an Op-ed by Dr. Hannah McGlade’s focused on systemic issues in the trial, such as all-white juries in legal proceedings. An article published by NITV centered the voices and demands of family members, who are calling for no more guns in Aboriginal communities. A report in the Koori Mail details the court history of the case and the charges and includes quotes from the Walker family and the Parumpurru Justice Committee.

The consequences of biased reporting and double standards

Reading through the coverage of the Rolfe trial in the Australian corporate media, one could be forgiven for forgetting who was in fact facing charges of murder, as well as two alternative charges of manslaughter and engaging in a violent act causing death.

It is rare for police to face criminal charges in relation to Indigenous deaths in custody. The fact that Zachary Rolfe was brought to trial at all is a testament to the leadership and resolve of the Walker family, the Parrumpurru Committee and the Yuendumu community. Their statements are readily available via social media, though these messages have not been honoured by the Murdoch and corporate press.

These negative reports on Walker were unnecessary and disrespectful to him and his family who were grieving. These reports making claims to his alleged dysfunctional life appeared to be rationalising  his death as a consequence of this alleged dysfunctional life rather than the actions of Zachary Rolfe. The person who was actually on trial for murder did not see the same scrutiny.

The media has a responsibility for the logical consequences of its reporting practices, including the rise in popularity of Rolfe and the spread of misinformation about the nature and prevalence of violence of policing. There is little to no discussion about the nature and scope of the duties of police officers, the training that they receive and where the training is not followed, the demonstrable lack of consequences in many cases. The reporting is something that fits within a construct and failing to understand the origins and the impact of this is a disservice to the public.

This is especially important when defamation laws in Australia make it so difficult to be able to report on these people in the lead-up to, and during the court proceedings. Even now, there are limitations to the language we can use when reporting on this case, for risk of defamation of Zachary Rolfe. However it begs the question why some outlets who have reported on Kumanjayi Walker the way they have, have not appeared to fear this same repercussion?

Words don’t exist in a vacuum. They have lived consequences for families and communities. Prejudicial language is not only felt violently by our people, but it has the power to influence perceptions of events and spread of misinformation which is a disservice to the public.

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