Issue 21 / 16 June 2014

THE media’s focus on disadvantage and disparity when reporting Indigenous affairs has come under fire in the latest issue of the MJA, with experts saying it is a form of colonialism with damaging health impacts. (1)

Melissa Sweet, a health journalist and public health lecturer at the University of Sydney, joined Indigenous academics in condemning mainstream media practices for portraying Aboriginal people as passive, powerless victims.

“The media industry can learn from efforts to decolonise health care research and practice, with a view to producing journalism that better serves the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”, the authors wrote.

They called for more reporting of “strengths, capacity and resilience” among Aboriginal people rather than problems, and “more emphasis on solutions-focused reporting and coverage that humanises rather than portraying Aboriginal people as ‘the other’”.

“A mainstream media discourse that acknowledges the strengths, culture and knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples may bring benefits for the social and emotional wellbeing of individuals and communities, as well as encouraging a focus on culturally appropriate and safe health care practices and services", the authors wrote.

Claiming deficiencies in media coverage had led to a “narrowing of policy options in Indigenous affairs”, they suggested decolonising journalism could result in healthier policy outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

Dr Chelsea Bond, who lectures in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies at the University of Queensland, agreed colonialism was alive and well within the Australian media.

She gave the example of the ABC’s discredited Lateline episode about a paedophile ring in Central Australia in 2006, which led to an inquiry by the Northern Territory Government and ultimately to the NT Emergency Response. (2) (3)

Another example was conservative columnist Andrew Bolt’s article questioning the right of fair-skinned Indigenous people to call themselves Indigenous. (4)

“For many non-Indigenous Australians, their relationship with us is through media reports about us, rather than lived social interactions”, Dr Bond said. “So, persistently negative portrayals of Aboriginal peoples and communities will perpetuate a bigger ‘gap’ in the minds of non-Indigenous Australians.

“Indigenous people are sick of being represented as sick and dysfunctional”, she said, saying such representations impacted on peoples’ sense of identity, social and emotional wellbeing and, as in the case of the NT intervention, led to policies that directly affected their lives.

However, Dr Bond said the media was not solely to blame, as journalistic practices reflected the values and assumptions held in the broader Australian community.

A spokeswoman for ABC News defended the organisation’s Indigenous reportage, saying it was subject to the same approach as other news.

“We plan for and produce stories on the basis of their newsworthiness”, the spokeswoman said. “There are many factors we consider when assessing newsworthiness — for example, is the story new, is it timely, does it raise important issues, are the pictures compelling, is there a strong human interest factor, is it relevant to our audiences?

“Consistent with that approach, we do not set out to cover Indigenous stories because they focus on either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ news arising from Indigenous communities.”

The spokeswoman said the ABC was committed to increasing the on-air representation of people from Indigenous and ethnically diverse backgrounds.

“We know we have more work to do to improve diversity both on-air and within our workforce. ABC News is currently looking at ways to achieve this”, she said.

Dr Bonita Mason, a journalism lecturer at Curtin University in WA, said the media was an industry which struggled to work cross-culturally.

“A journalist will want an immediate response and a short sound bite, but Aboriginal Elders will want to take time to develop trust before telling their stories”, she said.

While it was not journalists’ role to do “PR work” for Indigenous communities, she said it was frustrating that even good news stories about Aboriginal Australians were so often presented as “individual achievement against the odds”.

 Journalism schools are also trying to improve Aboriginal affairs reporting and cultural competence among students. Curtin University, for instance, has a project encouraging students to get to know Aboriginal people through local organisations before writing their stories.

Luke Pearson, who runs the social media project @IndigenousX, said the health profession and other industries were “light years ahead of many media organisations when it comes to respectful inclusion of Indigenous views and voices”.

“I imagine this is largely due to a lower rate of representation within the organisations, but also a lack of interest or effort in addressing institutional racism is rife within media organisations.”


1. MJA 2014: 200: 626-627
2. ABC Lateline 2006; Paedophile rings operating in remote communities
3. Department of Social Services: Northern Territory Emergency Response
4. Herald Sun 2009; Column – The new tribe of white blacks


Does the media focus too much on disadvantage and disparity when reporting on Indigenous issues?
  • Yes - it's a form of colonialism (47%, 27 Votes)
  • Maybe - most media reporting is negative (29%, 17 Votes)
  • No - it's usually newsworthy (24%, 14 Votes)

Total Voters: 58

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5 thoughts on “Media accused of “colonialism”

  1. CKN Queensland Health says:

    I agree with Dr Bond and the authors.  Of course all stories need to be factual (in some cases they have been shown not to be) but the decision as to what is ‘newsworthy’ can lead to a focus on negative stories which then lead to distorted, or biased views being formed by viewers.  

    I see this in lecturing medical students.  Well-meaning students frequently  chose assignments on problematic alcohol use in remote Aboriginal communities, in preference to other health topics.  Problematic alcohol use is higher in Indigenous Australians, most certainly, but many are not aware that more Indigenous Australians are actually NON-DRINKERS non-Indigenous Australians, and that smoking causes far more of the health gap than alcohol does (17% vs 4%) (Vos 2009).  This bias has consequences, like the treatment of elder-in-residence of Griffith University, artist and composer Aunty Delmae Barton, who in 2006 had a stroke at a bus stop, was slumped in a pool of vomit,  but was ignored by hundreds of commuters for 5 hours until 2 Japanese men came to her aid.

    Focusing only on negative messages can lead to worse outcomes for Indigenous Australians. 

  2. Dr David De Leacy says:

    Dr Bond unfortunately seems to fail to understand the prime function of the fourth estate and concept of the separation of powers within evolved democracies: i.e. that there are important and fundamental differences between polemicist reporting and fact based reporting, the former being totally incompatible with the democratic process. (eg China, Eygpt or any dictatorship with their so called Ministries for Information).  Indeed, Dear Old Aunty (the ABC) has been hammered over the last few years (under its current mangement by Mr Scott) for its widely perceived bias (funded at tax payer expense) towards left wing socialist agendas and its associated selective reporting of the conservative side of politcs. Dr Bond seems to want organisations like the ABC to go even further down that pathway. It is impossible to have a meaningful poltical discussion on any issue in the wider community if ‘facts’ are to be eshewed for dogma because they are not to everyones liking.

    Dr Bond, do you really want the media of this country and the ABC in particular, to be nothing but a ‘Pravada-like’ entity?  I.E. a captive mouthpiece of a single idiological power elite.

    Might I add that all of the comments above to me appear to be based on factual knowledge derived from the press of this country or government figures. The poltical issues facing all minorities (and indeed even majorities) in our country need to be faced squarely and openly by people armed with verifiable facts. More power to Mr Mundine and Mr Pearson. 

  3. Ian Bernadt says:

    There are about 600,000 Aboriginal Australians and about 2000 Government organisations and NGO’s (State and Federal) dealing with Aboriginal welfare,housing,legal matters,health etc. with an annual budget of about 11 billion dollars based entirely on Aboriginal race and not need.

    About 400,000 Aboriginal Australians are integrated into Australian society according to The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA)  with increasing home ownership,kids at school etc.. The steady improvements in Aboriginal health and education are directly related to this increasing integration into the Australian community.This is the good news.

    Aboriginals are human beings and Australians. The only “colonialism” is the policy of treating them as a seperate race.

    Aboriginal history and culture going back thousands of years should be a compulsory subject in the school syllabus.Sharing cultures enhances integration and reconciliation.

    The remaining 200,000 Aboriginals in the remote and other areas should have the opportunity of private home ownership (according to the late Prof. Helen Hughes of the IPA) which would break the cycle of ill health,truancy and poor housing.

  4. Andrew Nielsen says:

    I agree with the academics.  I’m sick of the way many Aboriginal people live being made public and embarrassing Australia overseas.  We need to keep that out of the public eye.  I heard someone on the radio today reporting that 80% of incarcerated people in the Northern Territory are indigenous.  That kind of information needs to be kept quiet.  If that information is not kept quiet, people might want to address issues of unequal access to jobs and services, but think how making that public would make the indigenous people feel.  If you live in poverty, it needs to be kept secret – otherwise you will feel bad.  

  5. Jon Hunt says:

    “Indigenous people are sick of being represented as sick and dysfunctional” which is probably true, but having worked in the field there seems to be more of this in Aboriginal communities than elsewhere. That is not to say it is their fault or that there are not any positives. If you want positives you need to address the negatives do you not?

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