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A new study highlighting systemic racism in the Australian media has called for stronger guidelines to regulate against both overt and covert prejudice. By Santilla Chingaipe.

Reporting racism

South Sudanese community leader and lawyer Maker Mayek (centre) being interviewed by Channel Seven.
Credit: AAP Image / Julian Smith

A fortnight ago, police in Victoria carried out a series of raids across the state that saw 57 young people arrested as part of a crackdown on youth crime. Dubbed Operation Liege, it led to 15- to 21-year-olds being charged with several offences, including carjacking, home invasion and street robbery.

Victoria Police were quick to point out the offenders came from African Australian, Caucasian and Pacific Islander backgrounds. However, most news outlets – including the ABC and The Age – pictured handcuffed African youths in the images accompanying stories relating to this incident. Few, if any, photos chosen showed those arrested from other racial backgrounds.

Lawyer Maker Mayek says the initial reports misidentified those arrested as all being of African descent.

“It was reported that all the 57 arrested by the police were of African background and then it came down to 60 per cent,” he says. “We investigated that further and we’re told it’s only seven [youths from African backgrounds arrested]. Yet it was all young people of African background that were splashed all over the newspapers.”

The fear of African crime, a popular anxiety that has built over years in Melbourne, reached its peak in January last year. Politicians seized on high-profile incidents to claim that “African street gangs” were on the rise because certain nationalities – in this instance South Sudanese – were overrepresented in crime statistics.

Statistics showed that, overall, crime in the state was declining and South Sudanese people made up a small proportion of the population and of convicted criminals – but statistics didn’t matter. The sensationalised media coverage of the so-called “African gang crisis” seemed to have its own momentum.

Mayek says there has been a marked impact on the community in the years after the media-led “African gangs” campaign.

“Mothers have come to me complaining about their children being targeted; people being followed around the supermarket,” he says. “There have been a lot of complaints about real estate agents refusing to lease homes as soon as people identify themselves as ‘African’, or South Sudanese in particular. Regardless of your situation, the real estate agents refuse to rent you properties.”

Research reflects this. In interviews with Monash and Melbourne University researchers, South Sudanese youths aged 15 to 23 said they “felt racial profiling by Victoria Police had intensified” in the wake of the intense media coverage of “African gangs”. Victoria’s equal opportunity and human rights commissioner found the number of racially motivated incidents increased by 34 per cent in the first half of 2018.

Now a new study, conducted by the University of Technology Sydney and anti-racism group All Together Now, has found that racism is a systemic issue in the Australian media – with more than half of race-related opinion pieces in the mainstream press deemed negative in their treatment of race.

Of the 281 media pieces sampled during a 12-month period, 57 per cent were found to be “negative” when discussing race. Slightly more than a third of the pieces analysed spoke inclusively about race. These were written and produced by journalists from various cultural backgrounds. In contrast, of the pieces that were negative when discussing race, 96 per cent were written or produced by media commentators with an Anglo-Celtic or European cultural background.

The study monitored race-related commentary in The Age, The Australian, The Courier-Mail, The Daily Telegraph, the Herald Sun and The Sydney Morning Herald newspapers. It also looked at television shows that included Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes and A Current Affair, Channel Seven’s Today Tonight and Sunday Night, Channel Ten’s The Project and the ABC’s 7.30.

It found there were more race-related pieces in newspapers than on television.

“The research showed that the overwhelming negative race-related opinion pieces came from three sources – The Australian, The Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun,” says All Together Now’s Jennifer McLean. “Of those, the Herald Sun was the most repeat offender.”

The study analysed the pieces through a framework to determine inclusive, negative or neutral discussion of race – “neutral” was defined as not placing unnecessary emphasis on race, not singling out individuals or groups based on their race or not vilifying communities based on an individual’s actions. “Inclusive” was defined as giving a platform to the marginalised group to share their story.

McLean says the researchers found the groups talked about negatively in the media to be predominantly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, African Australians and Muslim Australians.

Muslim women are most often targeted by negatively racialised social commentary, and the main perpetrators are mainstream newspapers. The report says that, when discussing race, 70 per cent of pieces used covertly racist techniques – defined as dog whistling, irony, decontextualisation and ignoring the history or struggles of a community or group.

“With the Muslim community, which was the most frequently targeted, we saw a lot of dog whistling, conflating Islam with a group that is unAustralian. ‘Us and them’ narratives were very pervasive and [were] equating Muslims with something to be afraid of,” says McLean.

Karen Farquharson is a professor of sociology at Melbourne University and has spent years researching racism in the Australian media. She says she’s unsurprised by the report’s findings.

“Based on research I’ve done, non-white migrants are portrayed really differently than white groups by the media, in negative ways,” she says.

Farquharson argues a factor that contributes to this is the reluctance to acknowledge the existence of racism in Australian society.

“The Australian media is dominated by Anglo-Celtic people and they’re coming from that particular positionality which might not have a lot of empathy for people from migrant backgrounds,” she says. “There’s been quite a lot of research from the University of Western Sydney around denial of racism, and white people do deny that racism exists.”

The UTS report makes a number of recommendations to peak Australian media bodies, including on how to strengthen regulatory frameworks.

“Some of the codes talk about overt racism, but there’s no mention of covert racism. Our research found that 70 per cent of racist material deployed tactics of covert racism. It’s really vital that that’s addressed,” says McLean.

The report highlights the need for guidelines that ensure journalists report on race ethically, while upholding editorial balance. It calls on the Australian Press Council to update its binding statement of general principles to include a general principle that requires publications to not place gratuitous emphasis on race, religion, nationality, colour, ethnic origin and country of origin. The report says this previously existed but was removed from current codes.

The Press Council acknowledged the report and says it would consider its suggestions but has not made any commitment to amend its principles.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the national body that represents journalists, says it has been considering how journalists report on race-related issues in an ethical way, spurred on by the Christchurch mosque attack earlier this year. A spokesperson told The Saturday Paper the MEAA is currently working on guidance notes to complement a code of ethics, due to be released before the end of the year.

“It would run as a sidenote to the code of ethics and it covers everything from how to report on race, how to report on immigration, reporting on racist organisations, not platforming racist organisations, and asking how do you report on extremist violence,” the spokesperson adds.

The report also calls for the MEAA and the Press Council to regulate against both overt and covert racism. The MEAA spokesperson concedes their updated guidelines won’t cover “covert” racism.

“In the whole context of the guidelines, it does in a subtle sort of way address that. It doesn’t refer to ‘covert’ racism. But it has a whole range of points that people should consider when reporting on race issues.”

The spokesperson says the guidelines are explicit about certain things.

“There’s advice to avoid outdated terms such as half-caste or native or coloured. And to instead ask people how they want to define and describe themselves and how their race should be described.”

Farquharson believes it’s harder to police “covert” racism.

“A lot of the reporting that you might think about as racist, or that the report portrays as racist, is ‘covert’ racism as opposed to ‘overt’ racism. It’s really easy to say we don’t allow ‘overt’ racism, but ‘covert’ racism is much more difficult to regulate because there’s plausible deniability there,” she says.

Farquharson argues that increasing the representation of people from culturally diverse backgrounds within the media – a recommendation of the report – would be a positive.

“Australia is a very white society and this is reflected in its media organisations, [which] could do a lot better job to recruit people from non-white backgrounds, because they’d at least be people in the newsrooms that would be saying ‘that sounds a bit racist’,” she says.

Media Diversity Australia is a non-profit organisation that advocates increased representation of culturally diverse people working in the media. Its co-founder and director, journalist Antoinette Lattouf, says media organisations need to better reflect modern Australia.

“There is hunger for more representative commentary; commentary that better reflects and better explores the complex layers of our multicultural community. Too often we have white men in ivory towers commenting on communities they probably never interact with unless it’s their Uber driver. I think that’s really problematic,” says Lattouf.

The report also calls for an extension in the time frame to lodge complaints. The authors argue that “while a 30-day time frame may have been appropriate before online news was available, media pieces are now often accessible online for lengthy periods after being published or broadcast”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 9, 2019 as "Reporting racism". Subscribe here.

Santilla Chingaipe
is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.