Would monitoring our media stop another Sunrise Panel?
By Carolyn Fernandez
With the increasing importance of isolationist populism globally – and we need look no further than Brexit or the election of Donald Trump as examples – it is easy to assume that media attention given to racist causes is on the rise. Recently, it would appear as though mainstream and leftist media outlets have more readily given a platform to those on the far-right, as an inevitable result of the growth of these political movements globally. Channel 7, Triple J, and even NPR in the US have all come under fire online for hosting members of the alt-right movements, which are closely related to right-wing populism.
This view is held by the Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, who at the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva commented: “And, unfortunately, there are signs that racial intolerance and prejudice are on the rise. There has been a deterioration of public discourse in Australia on matters concerning race and immigration. There has been, if you like, a normalisation of bigotry and discrimination that is beginning to creep into the Australian civic culture [...] And, we have found in recent years that far-right political groups are enjoying regular and sympathetic platforms on mainstream media.”
However, the normalisation of racism and bigotry are not “just beginning” to creep into civic culture. The declaration of Terra Nullius in 1788 normalised racism within Australian law, politics, and our social environment. It took over 200 years for Terra Nullius to be rejected by the High Court, yet Indigenous Australians continue to fight for their basic human rights. This ongoing struggle was seen in the Northern Territory intervention in 2007, in which the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act 1976 (Cth) was suspended. This move was deemed discriminatory by UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya, and considered unnecessary even by Indigenous groups in support of the intervention.
Within our media too, racism appears to be part of our “normal”. Even our most mainstream media sources have seriously infringed professional codes of conduct. In 2015, when 4,000 protesters rallied at Flinders St. Station against the closure of Indigenous communities, the Herald Sun dismissed them as a “Selfish Rabble”. A more recent instance was the Sunrise ‘debate’ about the adoption of Indigenous children, in which commentators favourably likened calls for the adoption of abused Indigenous children to a second stolen generation, detailed by Masrur Jordan in Tharunka’s Viral issue. Another substantial recent example was , the Uluru Statement of the Heart, a missed opportunity for the Government to create a strong, Constitutionally-protected platform for dialogue with First Australians.
Public discourse on race and immigration can’t be characterised as “deteriorating” if it was never healthy, and it should come as no surprise when so many of our elected officials fail to lead us into more constructive dialogue. So where do we go from here? How can we repair our public discourse after years of bigotry and fake news? Is that even possible?
One answer comes from an organisation called All Together Now, a not-for-profit which seeks to combat racism in Australia through “innovative, evidence-based and effective social marketing that is positive, provocative and courageous.” One of their most recent projects involved the development of a media monitoring methodology, in partnership with the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).
Media monitoring has been theorised as a way to counter discrimination and promote a more equal society. In the 1980s and 90s, media theorist Tuen A. van Dijik wrote about media monitoring as a way to promote standards of conduct within the media in how it deals with minorities:
“[…] media monitoring is not a form of control, let alone a limitation of the freedom of the press. Its aim is not to impose or advocate prohibitions, but to persuade media workers to adopt or enact recognised professional standards of quality, balance, fairness and social responsibility […] such standards have become especially important if the media are to play a positive role in the development of egalitarian multicultural societies in which the human rights of immigrants and minorities are respected.”
Following the work undertaken by other NGOS such as Race Forward and Haas Institute in the United States of America (USA), and the Runnymede Trust in the United Kingdom (UK), All Together Now aims to gain a better understanding of race-related reporting in the Australian media. The organisation defines racism as “unjust covert or overt behaviour towards a person or a group on the basis of their racial background. This might be perpetrated by a person, a group, an organisation, or a system.” The theoretical basis for their research was inspired by Haney Lopez’s research on racial bias and coded racism:
“Coded racism works by invoking racial stereotypes— for instance, that whites are innocent, hardworking, endangered, and the “real” Americans; and that people of color are predatory, lazy, dangerous, and perpetual foreigners. The coded part comes in that politicians deploy these stereotypes without expressly mentioning race.”
Following these theories, All Together Now ran a media monitoring project to assess race-based reporting in Australia. The project sampled 124 opinion-based reports from The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald, Herald Sun, Daily Telegraph, A Current Affair, 7:30 Report, 60 Minutes, and The Project. This included both online newspapers and TV programs, from mid-January 2017 until mid-July 2017.
The project categorised these reports as depicting either positive, neutral and negative perceptions of race:
“Race is a social construction, and these constructs are used by those in power — and through the media — to generate a social hierarchy. Given that the media is often the only interaction people have with racial backgrounds other than their own, these interactions are powerful instances in which perceptions of race are formed and shaped. They could be positive, neutral or negative perceptions.”
It’s important to note the obvious gap in this analysis — non-traditional news and reporting avenues, such as social media, were not analysed. The basis for this decision was that traditional media and mainstream news sources are known to be strongly preferred by the public. Australia wasn’t exempted from the fake news phenomenon, and according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, Australians are more skeptical than ever of their newsfeeds and are more willing to trust traditional media as a result. Whilst our trust in the media as a whole is at just 31%, our trust in ‘traditional news media and journalism’ is on par with the rest of the world at 61%. There has been a spike in public trust in traditional media - last year it was only at 46%. Given that the public recognises the difference between trustworthy sources of information and a rogue Twitter thread, it’s important that these well-known and credible publications are meeting these increasingly high expectations.
The main findings of All Together Now’s media monitoring study, however, showed that many of these mainstream sources are not meeting these expectations — 62 out of 124 race-based reports analysed had negative depictions of race, meaning that the report’s title, content, images, or tone of voice expressed racist views. Although the definition of racism used by the organisation is known (and detailed above), it is unclear how these were judged to be present or absent in a particular report, and whether a consistent, or objective, approach was taken across all 124 analysed articles.
News Corp online newspapers (like the Daily Telegraph, The Australian and the Herald Sun) had the most negative portrayals of race. Over the six-month period, A Current Affair broadcasted nine negative race-related reports. Muslims were the most mentioned group in opinion pieces and were portrayed negatively in 63 percent of reports. Western superiority, fear-inductive narratives (such as “us vs them”), and denial of Islamophobia were all themes heavily present in the opinion pieces analysed. “Nationalism” was also included in negative race-related reporting, but what the organisation means by ‘nationalism’ isn’t defined by the report, so it is unclear whether the term implies superiority over other nations.
The recommendations stemming from the report mainly focus on reprimanding journalists and publications that publish negative depictions of race. The report recommends strengthening media regulations and the ability for audiences to make complaints. It also suggests that news agencies should support journalists who discuss race sensitively.
Can this solution actually work as a preventative measure to improve public discourse, or is this merely a punitive measure? In other words, would journalists be more cautious in the articles they produce if they, and the publications they work for, faced consequences for poor race-based reporting? The answer to this is unclear. It is also unclear, given the opacity of All Together Now’s media monitoring report, the basis upon which we would determine whether a report had a “negative” portrayal of race.
It should be noted that complaints are already taken into account by the ACMA. However, the approach of ACMA has been to investigate matters of community concern, whilst All Together Now appears to be calling for a wider range of complaints to be taken seriously. It was recently reported that the Australian Communications and Media Authority is finally investigating whether Sunrise breached the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice 2015 after NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge lodged a formal complaint. The ACMA said that “a significant amount of community concern has been expressed about that broadcast,” and it had commenced a formal investigation.
How Sunrise is reprimanded for their conduct may influence how they treat Indigenous and race issues in the future. Given that it took six days of protests and community outrage for Sunrise to try and fix the issue by hosting an Indigenous panel of experts on the issue (the closest Sunrise has come to a genuine apology), the idea that strengthening regulations on, and monitoring of, the media is the solution to much more covert expressions of racism seems far-fetched. Nevertheless, while it might not be a quick solution to negative depictions of race, given how much trust we put into our mainstream sources of media, it’s important to stay vigilant and critical of the narratives we are told.
B Carmody, ‘Channel Seven ‘crossed a line’ with neo-Nazi interview’, in The Sydney Morning Herald. 15 January 2018, viewed on 7 April 2018, https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/channel-seven-crossed-a-line-with-neonazi-interview-20180115-h0iidf.html
S Langford, ‘People are furious that Triple J decided to give airtime to a white nationalist’, in Junkee. 15 August 2017, viewed on 4 April 2018, junkee.com/triple-j-white-nationalist/118108
K Mcevers, ‘We’re Not Going Away’: Alt-Right Leader On Voice In Trump Administration’, in NPR. 17 November 2016, viewed on 4 April 2018, https://www.npr.org/2016/11/17/502476139/were-not-going-away-alt-right-leader-on-voice-in-trump-administration
T Soutphommasane, ‘Remarks at UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Thematic Discussion on Racial Discrimination in Today’s World’, in Australian Human Rights Commission. 29 November 2017, viewed on 4 April, https://www.humanrights.gov.au/news/speeches/fighting-racism-australia
Mabo v Queensland (No 2) (1992) 175 CLR 1
‘UN human rights envoy James Anaya: NT intervention is racist’, in The Weekend Australian. 28 August 2009, viewed on 22 April 2018,
Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (Dulwich Hill) 2011, Support NT communities to shape their own development, viewed on 22 April, https://antar.org.au/sites/default/files/nt_community_development_future_8_september_2011.pdf
M Watson, ‘The Herald Sun Has Dismissed 4,000 Indigenous RIghts Protesters As A “Selfish Rabble”, in Junkee. 11 April 2015, viewed on 10 April, junkee.com/the-herald-sun-has-dismissed-4000-indigenous-rights-protestors-as-a-selfish-rabble/54833
‘Our Vision’, in All Together Now, viewed April 7, http://alltogethernow.org.au/about-us-2/
T.A Dijk (1999) ‘Media, Racism and Monitoring’ in K. Nordentreng and M.Griffith (eds) International Media Monitoring. Cressmll, NJ: Hampton Press, p 312
H Lopez (2016) Race and economic jeopardy for all: a framing paper for defeating dog whistle politics. Washington: AFL-CIO, p 15
All Together Now (2017) Who Watches the Media? All Together Now, Sydney, accessed 7 April 2018. http://alltogethernow.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/ATN-Who-Watches-The-Media-FINAL.pdf
Edelman Trust Barometer, ‘2018 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report’, in Edelman. January 2018, viewed on 7 April 2018, https://cms.edelman.com/sites/default/files/2018-01/2018%20Edelman%20Trust%20Barometer%20Global%20Report.pdf
E Reynolds, ‘Sunrise under investigation for ‘racist’ segment’, in news.com.au. 30 March 2018, viewed 4 April 2018, http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/tv/morning-shows/sunrise-under-investigation-for-racist-segment/news-story/4f527c6fece509d5d438916c52fa2c39?from=rss-basic
Disclaimer: The views presented in this article represent the views of the author and not UNSW United Nations Society.
Carolyn is in her fourth year of B Laws/Media (Communications and Journalism). When she's not studying, she's probably looking for dogs on campus.