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Media (mis) representations of Indigenous Australians

People practising ancient rituals in the heart of Australia escaping the clutches of modernity, or dole bludging alcoholics who beat their children? There’s no middle ground in media representations of Indigenous Australians, as Erin Stewart explores.

13 December 2010

The Northern Territory Intervention in 2007 was a controversial move by the then Howard government. While some say that the move was helpful and kept children safe, there are also said to be no true benefits of the move and even that it fails to enshrine the human-rights of Aboriginal people.

One of the ways in which the intervention has disadvantaged or even damaged Aboriginal communities is the way it changed media reporting on Indigenous people. Media reports began to shift focus during this time to construct an image of these communities as being desperate and crime-filled.

Media representations of Indigenous people have often been stereotypical and simplistic. Reports also often fail to incorporate the voices and opinions of Indigenous people.

In 1994, Jane Dunbar published a study in Australian Journalism Review on how the Mabo land rights case was reported. While newspaper editors described themselves as balanced and fair on the case, Indigenous people did not, believing that most newspapers in Australia were racist and as they targeted white readers, catered all coverage to them.

Frances Peter-Little talks about the idea of ‘the savage and the noble’ and suggests that either one of these stereotypes is used to describe Indigenous Australians, particularly in relation to television reports.

When Indigenous people are represented as ‘noble’, news features and articles may talk about their connection with the land, describe the concept of ‘dreamtime’ and talk about Aboriginal communities utopias as void of all the superficiality of modernity.

‘Savage’ is pretty much the opposite: they talk about Indigenous people as though they are somehow behind in development, they talk about children leaving school too early, about disease, about alcohol and crime. Far from being a utopia, the communities are presented as being in crisis.

Television programs in the past that have focused on the ‘noble Aboriginal’ include Walkabout, a show in the 1950s that documented an Indigenous family walking over the continent; World Around Us, which in the 1970s often featured Indigenous guides showing the host around Australia; and the 1980s television series called Bush Tucker Man which documented edible wildlife in Australia and the diets of natives.

In these representations, Indigenous people are shown to be the holders of ancient knowledge and live in almost a different time to the majority of Australians, and certainly within a different context.

Additionally, this stereotype of Indigenous people is pervasive beyond the television. Even our acknowledgement to country (said in the opening of most official ceremonies) idealises the status of Aboriginality:

Today we stand in footsteps millennia old. May we acknowledge the traditional owners whose cultures and customs have nurtured, and continue to nurture, this land, since men and women awoke from the great dream. We honour the presence of these ancestors who reside in the imagination of this land and whose irrepressible spirituality flows through all creation.

Meanwhile, the impact of the intervention is that, post-2007, Indigenous communities are almost always described as ‘savage’.

A simple news headline search reveals the kind of media coverage that was going on about Indigenous people post-Intervention.

Aside from the recent suggested move to recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution and stories which talk about the failure of the Intervention, stories about how Indigenous women have children earlier than non-Indigenous women and are more likely to smoke during pregnancy, difficulty Indigenous people have finding jobs and being educated as well as stories about disease, alcohol and crime are the norm.

Even where other issues, such as the intervention are covered, it’s consistently white people giving their opinions on the issue, and not Indigenous Australians themselves. They are muted and continually in the midst of crisis.

The reality of what goes on in remote communities is lost in reports of this nature. Most Australians haven’t spent any time in remote communities do not have the ability to challenge the things they hear and see about Aboriginal people.

While the reality of the communities may well tell a terrible story, Indigenous people are neither savage nor noble.  And thus, both stereotypes are absolutely harmful and stand in the way of truth – what problems actually exist in these communities? But what strengths do they have as well?

Based on media reports, the answers are impenetrable.

Erin Stewart is an associate editor at The Scavenger.



0 #5 Brett Burnard Stokes 2010-12-28 20:22
Thanks, Hannah and Erin,

I am struggling with these issues.

After the apparent progress of 1967 referendum, Mabo case, reconciliation and Sorry Day ...
the tragedies and the confusion/lies continue.

I want to be better informed.

I feel like reading this page has been a big step in a positive direction, thanks and best wishes.
0 #4 Erin Stewart 2010-12-17 00:13
Wow Hannah, thank-you so much for sharing that, I'm so glad you decided to post your experiences. I think the issues you talk about highlight how complicated the situation is but also you talk about issues that rarely, if ever, get any space in the media. So again, thank-you.

I am probably best described as an agnostic on the intervention. I don't feel that I know enough about the situation to judge, pretty much because of this problem of media reporting. I also think that what might be right for one community might not be right for another community although the act of deciding what's right for a community is also rife with complications, after all, who gets to decide on these things anyway? I think that more information that actually gets to the heart of things, features actual voices of people in the communities and isn't just full of tired and harmful stereotypes is necessary.
0 #3 Hannah 2010-12-14 10:22
Hi Erin,
I normally don't bother commenting on stories about the intervention but you seem agnostic about it, which is good.
In '98 my mother did a term out at Titjikala community (on Maryvale Station, 109km south of Alice Springs, tribes/language s are pitjinjara, arrunda and luritja) I was 9. In 2003 mum returned to working on community.
This time at Mt. Allen (down the road from Yuendumu. Mt Allens other names are Yulamu, Alpirakina and Wari-Wari, it's 300km NW of alice. tribes/langauge s are walpiri and amatjira) where we stayed until '06 to return to Tijikala for 2 years. So I spent my teen years out there, homeschooling (although mt allen did have a secondary class I wasn't allowed to attend due to being a native english speaker) and it's so frustrating with the media down south. It either vilifies or canonises "the aboriginal people", a term I find supremely racist in and of itself (much like "aboriginality" .)
I do not ask if white people can "speak european" or assume that the dutch and the germans are one and the same since you know, same skin colour and same continent. And despite much printing no one actually goes out and see's what's happening. I went to see the talk of Man Bites Murdoch with its author, plus Paul Barry, a gentleman from crikey and a lady from the Australian. At one point the lady from the australian bragged about covering the miners in chile, I wanted to stand up at the comments time and say "give the girl a wooden spoon, she can get people over seas but not to central australia".
But I digress, although leaving comments at 2am does tend to facilitate that. None of the media cover issues that will effect outcomes, why is the average stay for a teacher on remote communities in NT only 3 months? How do you expect kids to learn with that type of turnover? Paricularly from teachers with no ESL training. Why were all the translaters of native langauges fired? Don't get me wrong, communities are filthy, horrible places that reduce people, I don't think they have much of a future but I do think people should be given a chance.
At the moment due to a complete lack of culural understanding more blunders are made and ignored. One issue that kept popping up was jobs on community, but traditionally you can't own anything. Seriously. We had Cassidy Stockman, the last surviver of the last recorded aborginal masscre in australia (out at coniston station). He died sleeping on a towel because a member of his family had asked for his bed. And he couldn't say no, literally, there is no word for it. Failure to hand over results in beatings.
So if you're working in the shop and a family member (keeping in mind skin group systems means your related to almost half the community) asks you for something and doesn't pay, well, you hand over because otherwise it's boot-meets-face -time when you go to sleep in your overcrowed dorm style room. Oh, and the houses they build, too, too weird, just dumped a bunch of suburban homes out there and then wonder why they get trashed and burnt down.
What really got me though are the kids. I helped in mums classroom, do one-on-one reading with them, or they'd follow me on my walks. Jenny, Cheyanne, Robin. The girls my age didn't speak any english (oh, a favored trick of the department to get rid of teachers who make a fuss is to get community members to sign a petition, the issue has been resolved a number of times by getting the same community members to sign another petition saying they want the teacher to stay. The things you can do when people can't read) and it was embrassing for them to be seen talking to me, a white girl. But I read a lot so it didn't really matter, plus walks in the bush and the kids.
I used to think, growing up, that they would be so, so so damn amazing. That nothing would hold them back. Stupid really. Jenny really tried to get the reading thing, although since the favored method of teachers on communities (who aren't told that only the white staff on community can speak english) is to use the American Tourist Method of teaching. This involves saying something, and then saying it again LOUDER meant that she hadn't got very far. But she tried speaking english with me, explaining things, telling me stories, being a kid, and she was bright.
She was married at 12 years of age and after that I didn't want to know what happened to anyone else. Mum taught lower primary there, all her students are under 10 years old and 2 of her kids were flown to adelaide, since their bodies were to small to give birth to the babies they were carrying.
In all the time I was out there I knew only one healthy child. Did you know 80% of aboriginal children in NT have a hearing problem that will impact on their education? Do you know WHY? Runny noses. If you don't teach a kid to blow their nose then the snot backs up, putrifys in the eardrum and then bursts through it, dripping onto their shoulders. We called it rotton ear, cos it, well, smells rotton. Most of the health problems are caused by malnutrition and (mostly) bad hygiene.
Camp dogs are a issue too that the media is strangely silent on, despite the major health and safety problems they pose.
I want to know why arranged underage polygamous marriages are never discussed, and not "it's a part of their culture" as that's utter bollacks and racist to think that because a girls born black she's cool with being a 4th wife, having all her abstudy money stolen and have the shiza beaten out of her by the older wives, never mind the rest of what marriage to an middle aged man entails. I know there are lots of aboriginals in urban areas who don't have the same problems, it's not a race thing but people to make out that it's an "aboriginal" thing because, you know, all native australians are the same, or look the same anyway, it is an issue of corrupt places where there is no hope and no choice.
The police don't care, too many stabbings and riots to take care of (Mt allen was pretty quiet, although there were domestics every night, titjikala had small riots every thursday, you just had to be home before 2pm, so no an issue), FACSIA don't care and DEET doesn't care. Staff out there burn out and nobody listens to them, and since the locals don't speak english and no ones willing to get interupetters in it just gets worse.
Ever dealt with a nurse whose having a meltdown? 3 year old girl, labia cut off with nail scissors by bored teenagers, if calls the cops the family will move her and she won't get medical attention (haast bluff, '07), or a 9 year old who weighs 10kg and the family won't stop by the clinic to pick up her liquid food? (titjikala, '06) smaller things like watching a 6 year try and force a 3 year old into giving him a blow job and the toddle knowing what to do (titjikala, '07)? Smelling kids in the same clothes they've been living for the past month and have them run up and hug you and trying to get away because you can't deal with any more skin infections that they all carry? It gets to be normal after a while, because it's not just one thing, it's 300 things. The council embezzels money (Ron Hagan who was chairman when I was at Mt Allen took a record $4million to the casnino), the kids are always so hungry but you can't feed them or you end up with all of them at the back fence, the mentally disabled boy kills his carer at a nearby community after spending a couple of months skinning camp dogs alive (Santa Tersa '07), fairly normal. (although after homeschooling for a decade then going to a boarding school was super abnormal, I'd never been involved in a gossip session wherein there was no mention of starpicket fence posts and their application as nulla nullas)
But the people down here who try and turn all that in to politics and games, that damn socialist allience to urban bogans no better than they ought to be, they're all so horrid. It's like they don't see the people, only their projected ideas. Sorry, ranting, will stop now!
0 #2 Lexi 2010-12-13 13:56
Great article - our media's editorial ethics need to be updated. If there were disputes between two legal parties, they would give both an opportunity to have their say in a news story - but the stories are always from the outside looking in to Aboriginal communities. And "Aboriginal" means either living in remote settlements, or living on "The Block". They always fail to look at the amazing indigenous people employed ina wide range of industries across Australia.

As an aside, there is very little drama on Australian TV that reflects Aboriginal people - not just in a positive life, at all. Only Aaron Pederson, Debra Mailman and Ernie Dingo have made it onto commercial TV and then they are not cast in characters that reflect on their background in the same way, say, the son of a migrant might. SBS has broadcast a couple of great series though...
0 #1 trolmolly 2010-12-12 00:34
How can you solve like these horrible crimes? Get a degree in Criminal Justice from "United Forensic College" search online.

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