News agency

It’s not just the Herald Sun. It’s a media that is fragile and defensive, built on unquestioned values. It’s the uncomfortable realisation that we can be wrong – that the ethics we hold dear as journalists were honed in rooms of men, drawn from the same class, the same race, the same schools. These values didn’t change even as the newsrooms changed, and the newsrooms didn’t change enough. And now, in an age of insecurity, we rely on a confidence that was based on unchecked privilege – and we are mostly too scared to check it further.

Newspapers are built on an expectation of truthfulness. They are embarrassed by their errors, undermined by their fallibility. Largely, this has served them well. It has created a culture of earnestness and accuracy. It has also made journalists protective – unwilling to challenge the assumptions of their craft, lest their whole purpose crumble.

A cub reporter knocks on the door of a grieving woman for the simple reason that cub reporters have always knocked on the doors of grieving women. This intrusion is uncritical and unremarkable, its purpose lost somewhere between the spot that waits for the story and the audience there to read it. Infrequently do we worry about the woman. Some of us will say she wanted to tell her story. Journalism is like nature: it’s what we’ve always done.

It is not surprising the Herald Sun cannot hear criticism about Mark Knight’s depiction of Serena Williams. For them, the matter is uncomplicated: “Mark Knight cartoon not racist or sexist.”

They maintain that racism is a question of intent. They believe an act can be stripped of its context and an image denuded of its history. They feel the authority to make these assertions for the simple reason that they have always had it. They are not impeded by their own overwhelming whiteness in this task; they are emboldened by it.

The Murdoch press is a caricature of racist provincialism. They publish Andrew Bolt and sanctify Bill Leak. But the rest of the media suffers many of the same issues. We struggle to hear criticism. We deify our work. We fluctuate between victimhood and privilege, unable to reconcile our power with our lessening means, keen to defend what it is we do, the great social import of this work, and yet in doing so overlook the occasions on which we transgress. The Herald Sun is not alone in this; the ABC is just as guilty.

Earlier this year, National Geographic conducted an inquiry into its own racial biases. It commissioned University of Virginia professor John Edwin Mason to lead the process. The editorial announcing the issue was blunt: “For decades, our coverage was racist. To rise above our past, we must acknowledge it.”

Mason found a magazine alive with cliché and condescension. He found views that reflected their time and did nothing to lead readers beyond it.

“Americans got ideas about the world from Tarzan movies and crude racist caricatures,” he said afterwards. “Segregation was the way it was. National Geographic wasn’t teaching as much as reinforcing messages they already received and doing so in a magazine that had tremendous authority. National Geographic comes into existence at the height of colonialism, and the world was divided into the colonisers and the colonised. That was a colour line, and National Geographic was reflecting that view of the world.”

The media as a whole – The Saturday Paper included – could benefit from similar work in this country. It need not be historic, unfortunately. There is enough in this past fortnight to fill a newspaper with apologies.

Until we do this work, we will continue to report from the past and find ourselves in conflict with the realities of our present. Looking across at this week, we are no longer the first draft of history: we are its unsold reprints.

We need greater diversity. We need greater curiosity about our purpose. We need a willingness to confront the fact that we can be wrong and that we are. There is no use pretending this is limited to the more grotesque excesses of our craft: it is present in the unrepresentative everyday of our entire industry. We ask questions of everyone but ourselves.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 15, 2018 as "News agency".

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