After #BLM, Aussie newsrooms became more white
Humans are hardwired to avoid discomfort and pain, so I’m going to start with some good news to ease you into this. There are small pockets of progress in terms of Indigenous and cultural diversity in the media, as revealed in the “report card” Who Gets To Tell Australian Stories? 2.0.
It’s important to give credit where it’s due, and in the two years since the inaugural research was released, most free-to-air television networks have made some representation gains. This has been on screen or on the board of directors or among television news leaders. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the public broadcasters have the largest appetite for change and the most policies in place.
You were probably waiting for the “but” and here it is. Unfortunately, any headway was ad hoc, usually small, most concerningly inconsistent, and the overall industry picture is, somehow, more white.
Mainstream television news media, a pillar of our democracy, has managed to become more Anglo-Celtic in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter and despite the latest census showing modern Australia is more culturally diverse than ever.
It’s quite a feat to resist both a global movement and significant national population change – but the white stronghold on this industry is not only firm, it’s a systemic problem that isn’t going to shift if I kindly say: pretty pleeeeease.
From an analysis of two weeks of television news and current affairs, Indigenous representation overall went from 1.2 per cent in 2019 to 5.4 per cent in 2022. But for two commercial networks, this was based on a single Indigenous journalist used widely across the network. What happens if that one First Nations journalist leaves? Or finds the mental and physical load too much to be the only person carrying the conversation?
Nine’s Brooke Boney recently penned an impassioned but weary plea: “I look back at pieces I’ve written for this very masthead about the value of our lives and realise I was asking for the same thing years ago.”
Network Ten’s Narelda Jacobs has not only had to grieve the alleged murder of her nephew Cassius Turvey in a racially motivated hate crime, but she’s been at rallies, across various local and international news bulletins, in a bid to convince people that this 15-year-old’s life mattered. In addition to doing his day job, the ABC’s Tony Armstrong has to manage incessant trolling and racist emails, one of which led to the police being engaged. Simply for being an Indigenous voice.
Researchers couldn’t identify a single Indigenous person on air at Seven, and it’s the only network that hasn’t diversified its breakfast show, which continues to be 100 per cent white.
Of course, it’s not just who is on our screens that matters. When we analysed network board directors and television news leaders, the root of the problem becomes clearer. The ABC board includes not a single First Nations or non-European leader. The boards of Nine Entertainment and SevenWest Media each have just one face of non-European background. While SBS has representation on its board, there are big diversity gaps in its TV news leadership. Ditto for Nine and Seven, where gender representation is also a problem. Those calling the shots and framing the narrative don’t look or sound like the Aussie audience.
My ancestry is non-European. We make up a quarter of Australia’s population, yet on commercial television we get around 1.3 per cent screen time. This means our population is 19 times greater than the number of us telling our stories on those networks.
Why does it matter? Why are we counting this? Forget diversity and representation being the right thing to do; it’s the commercially smart thing to do because you need to appeal to audiences. Our research also gauged audience attitudes and news consumption patterns. Non-Europeans had the least trust in news and were the most likely to switch off.
When trust is lacking, the impacts can be dire. Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show Australians born in North Africa and the Middle East are 10 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those born in Australia. From unfair lockdowns imposed on local government areas “of concern”, to parts of the media not fully interrogating why our most multicultural suburbs were over-policed and demonised despite the chief health officer advising against it, I witnessed members of my Middle Eastern community become increasingly hostile towards mainstream media. They then became more vaccine-hesitant and had a greater propensity to turn to dubious sources of information online.
While the report measures the scale of the problem, crucially it provides many solutions based on international best practice. As a priority, the Australian Communications and Media Authority should look to its British counterpart, Ofcam, which annually collects data from TV and radio broadcasters on the make-up of their workforces. These metrics are publicly available and, crucially, also measure age, disability, sexuality and socio-economic background.
Measuring the scale of the problem not only increases accountability but is a way to track and acknowledge progress. Meaningful change takes time, but let’s start by doing more than offering vague platitudes and non-measurable pledges to do better.
Antoinette Lattouf is a broadcaster, columnist and author.
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