Why who gets to tell Australian stories matters

| August 22, 2020

I have been an educator at universities for 15 years – previously working 10 years in the finance industry and then community sector for six years. As the first member of my family to attend university from a working-class background – dad carried bricks and mum ironed for a living – I found universities strange, confusing places and never felt I belonged.

Despite wanting to be a researcher and educator, it was something I could never imagine achieving.

In search for an academic identity, I tried to position myself as a ‘serious’ researcher, attempting to distance myself from both my first in family and low socio-economic status background. I wanted to prove to my well educated, high achieving colleagues I belonged.

After working at a number of years at inner city universities, I accepted a position at Western Sydney University (or Western). Western is an institute that prides itself on both being a world-class research driven university as well as attracting a diverse student body: high achievers, mature age, first in family, those from refugee backgrounds, low socio-economic students are all part of the mix.

It was after a couple of years at Western that my perspective dramatically altered on my own search for identity. Following a class, a group of students from culturally diverse backgrounds approached to thank me for the class, with one saying: ‘Hey James, you are the first ‘wog’ teacher I have ever had… I want to be like you when I grow up.’

(For non-Australians readers, the term ‘wog’ is historically an insult hurled at migrants from southern Europe and the Middle East.)

On reflection, I realised that throughout my own undergraduate and postgraduate university journey, the number of ‘non-Anglo’ educators I was exposed to were few. Without even realising it, this was something that shaped my view of myself and the world around me.

Australia as a multi-cultural society

Australia is often held up as the multicultural successful story. It is something that, despite some pockets of anti-immigrant rhetoric, remains a source of pride for most Australians.

In a number of landmark studies, however, we see how the diversity of our multicultural society finds its limits. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Leading for Change reports (2016, 2018) highlighted the lack of cultural diversity represented within the senior leadership positions of Australian corporates, politics, government and universities.

Building on this, a report released by Diversity Arts Australia likewise found a lack of diversity across Australia’s cultural sectors. As a co-author of this report, I was surprised to find that this lack of diversity extended both on stage and screen, as well as in creative and decision-making roles. Even more surprising was some of the hostility expressed towards us for daring to investigate this matter.

This week, another important research report was released this time through Media Diversity Australia (with Macquarie University, Deakin University, Sydney University and Western Sydney University). The focus here was the lack of diversity on our news and current affairs media in Australia’s five free to air stations.

The report, titled Who gets to tell Australian stories?, included three quantitative data components – an examination of a two-week blocks of programs, a survey of television newsroom staff, and an analysis of television networks’ leadership and board teams. A fourth qualitative data set involved in-depth interviews with senior managers at those stations.

The research found that Australia television news and current affairs programs across all channels are overwhelmingly curated, framed and presented by journalists and commentators from an Anglo-Celtic background.

As one of the authors, we found more than 75% of presenters, commentators and reporters are of Anglo-Celtic background – compared to 58% of Australian population. In contrast, only 13% have a European heritage (compared to 18% of the Australian population), 9.3% non-European (compared to 21% of the Australian population) and 2.1% Indigenous background (compared to 3% of Australian population).

It was also found that apart from SBS, the three commercial channels and the ABC lack fair representation of journalists from non-European background. Channel 7, Channel 9 and regional channels (Win Canberra, Seven Tasmania, Southern Cross, ACT, Channel 9 Darwin, Prime 7 ACT and Win Hobart) have almost no journalists from an Indigenous or non-European background.

This lack of cultural diversity is particularly acute in regional television network workforce which is concerning as it acts as a pipeline to train young journalists.

The results have deep and important impacts on the future of the news and current affairs workforce as we also found that 77% of respondents with diverse backgrounds believe having a diverse cultural background is a barrier to career progression.

This lack of diversity is translated into stories

The study also examined more than 19,000 news and current affairs items from Australian free-to-air metropolitan and regional networks that were broadcast over a two-week period in June 2019. It found a lack of diversity in the stories, the issues examined and just as important, in the way they were examine.

It should not come as a surprise that this means that the media misses important stories. For example, many seemed surprised that the ‘no’ vote in the when the same sex marriage postal survey was strongest amongst many migrant communities with strong religious convictions. This was a reflection of the mainstream media’s inability to connect with these communities – something driven by the lack of diversity.

Likewise, when talk shows tackling the complexities of race relations, racial profiling, the lived experience of discrimination, exclusion and representation, we are often confronted with an all-white panel. While there are experts from all backgrounds, the decision to amplify voices who do not have direct experience or connections with impacted communities is not only problematic but means that these multifaceted challenges are rarely unpacked.

Journalists are aware of the problem and are themselves concerned. As part of the research, more than 300 television journalists completed a survey examining their perception of cultural diversity (which was made available in June 2020). More than 70% of participants rated the representation of culturally diverse men and women in the media industry either poorly or very poorly

As such, it should not be surprising multicultural Australia is disenchanted with mainstream Australian television and seeks news from social and online media.

Where do we go?

The report ends with a series of recommendations including the systematic collection of diversity data, establishing cultural diversity targets, and prioritising diversity in the recruitment and promotion of newsroom staff.

As a democratic society, we are reliant on a strong and representative fourth estate to balance power relations and hold the powerful to account. In a multicultural society, only a more inclusive approach will lead to greater relevance to the population.

This report provides a blueprint to achieve this at a time when the traditional media is facing unprecedented challenges. For those who dismiss what is being proposed, they risk being propelled towards irrelevance – and we will all suffer from that.