Media (mis) representations of Indigenous Australians
- Published: 12 December 2010
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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.