Perceptions, pre conceptions and visibility pt 2

Posted on May 17, 2008


The Media Report, Radio National,

Salam Café grab: MUSIC/APPLAUSE

Salam Café presenter: … welcome to the first program of its kind in the world, ‘Salam Café’. It’s a jam-packed history-laden evening tonight. We’ll talk US politics, we’ll talk Aussie values, we’ll talk kebabs.


Antony Funnell: That’s the beginning of a program called Salam Café which has just begun on the SBS after several years on Community TV.

It’s a comedy panel show which looks at ‘the funny side of life as an Australian Muslim.’

Now its style of humour won’t be to everyone’s taste, but what’s interesting about the program is that it’s different. Young Muslims get their face on television for reasons other than terrorism.

Tomorrow at the University of New South Wales in Sydney the National Reporting Diversity Project is hosting a forum, or ‘open space meeting’ as they call it, between media and community representatives.

The theme of the meeting is ‘Beyond Blame: How can Australia’s media best reflect the diverse faces and voices of Australia in news reporting?’

Now one of those involved is Perth-based academic Dr Gail Phillips, who’s just finished a new round of research into the way in which Australian television represents people from different ethnic backgrounds. We’ll hear from her in a second.

And I’d also like to introduce another journalist-come-academic, this time from Canberra, Julie Posetti. Julie is currently writing a PhD thesis on the coverage of Muslim women by Australian broadcasters.

Julie Posetti and Gail Phillips, welcome to you both.

Both: Hello, HI, Antony.

Antony Funnell: Gail, let’s start with you, and before we get to the research side of it all, tell us about the National Reporting Diversity Project and tomorrow’s meeting.

Gail Phillips: Well the Reporting Diversity Project has been going since 2005 with funding from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, and the idea was to look at the way in which people from different ethnic backgrounds were actually represented in the different news media, and the idea was to actually do a proper longitudinal analysis to actually get some data to back up what a lot of people may suspect anyway in terms of the adequacy of representation of non-Anglo people in the news media. But also to be able to develop some sorts of protocols that both industry and journalism educators might be able to use, in order to see whether there were training issues that could be addressed, whether there were actually ways of opening people’s eyes to certain traits in the news media that could be relatively easily addressed, and by a slight tweeking could result in a more equitable representation.

Antony Funnell: And tomorrow’s meeting, who’ll be involved in that, and without being negative, in a sense would you be preaching to the converted in a way? That the people who’ll come along to the meeting will be people who’ll be largely in agreement with the fact that we don’t have many minorities represented in our media, and that we need to have more of them?

Gail Phillips: Well the meeting is arranged in such a way that in fact the people who decide to come are the people who should be there, and the things that will be discussed are the agendas that those people themselves will suggest. We don’t know really what’s going to come out of it but it’s all part of the package that involves not just us doing research, but consulting quite widely with both the communities and the industry itself.

We’re not interested, most of us are academics who actually come from industry; we’ve taken the opportunity now that we’re working in universities, of actually being able to analyse our craft in a way that we weren’t able to when we were involved ourselves in the daily grind of journalism. And the idea is that what we can pull together will have some relevance for all concerned.

Antony Funnell: Now Gail Phillips, you’ve been doing research into ethnic representation on Australian television since 2001, and back in 2005 you released your first Reporting Diversity study. Have things changed? Are there any trends of significance to note?

Gail Phillips: Well when we first started in 2001, it was pre-9/11, so inadvertently what was done is a bit of a pilot study that we had no idea would go any further, actually revealed a relatively benign news environment. By the time we did the study in 2005 it was post-9/11, and coincidentally the two weeks that we selected in November of that year, coincided with the counter-terror raids that took place in Sydney and Melbourne. That was Day 1 of our survey. And what you actually saw reflected in those two weeks was an agenda that was totally different; it was dominated now by the war on terror, whereas the US and the UK had featured prominently in the news agendas of 2001, both in relation to their politics, and in relation to the sort of gossip and trivia that is very often used in news bulletins. By 2005 the skew was towards the Middle East, and certainly the whole tenor of our domestic news was much darker, and with the actual terror raids what you had suffusing those two weeks was a lot of both over and more veiled anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Antony Funnell: And what about now? What about over the last couple of years?

Gail Phillips: Well we were lucky enough to get further funding to be able to do another survey in 2007, and I was very pleased that we were able to do that, because by 2007 I assumed that we would be getting to a much less distorted agenda, and that was actually the case. So the amount of representation of non-Anglo Australians in the news was down to the sorts of levels that we had noticed earlier, and there was much less of a scare and fear factor involved. But it seemed therefore, it promised, that there would be a more normal snapshot of what we actually had on our news. And what we actually saw was that whereas in 2005 you had non-ethnic Australians represented as what we summarised as ‘mad, bad, sad or un-Australian’, what we saw in 2007 with far less representation of non-Anglo Australians, was that even more so did they tend to feature in news stories where they were represented as ‘mad, bad, sad or un-Australian’. So there was less content involving non-Anglo Australians, but that threw into relief even further the fact that they were there as aliens or deviants rather than as a normalised part of Australian society.

Antony Funnell: OK, Julie Posetti, let’s bring you in now. And your research has focused on Muslim women and the way in which they’re covered, specifically by the ABC’s flagship current affairs programs, AM, PM and The World Today, programs that I have to say both you and I have worked on in the past.

Julie Posetti: Indeed.

Antony Funnell: Why did you choose to focus on radio and on those particular programs?

Julie Posetti: Well first of all, not a lot has been done internationally on radio analysis when it comes to reporting ethnic minorities, but particularly when it comes to reporting Muslims, and Muslim women among the most marginalised representatives of a very marginalised community in many Western societies. And radio has such extraordinary power as people listening to this program will know. The capacity to cut through stereotypes and to unite across difference, there’s a sort of blindness about radio that I find interesting, and I think that has the potential to contribute to social cohesion. It also of course on the flipside, has the capacity as we’ve seen in international conflicts. Take Rwanda for example, historically we’ve seen radio used as a device to inflame racial tension. So there are two sides to this radio coin.

I wanted to look at radio current affairs programs because of the quality journalism that is provided by those programs on the ABC. They’re quite unique, or they are unique in the Australian landscape at least, and these programs offer the opportunity for more long-form radio reporting. Radio News and talk format programs tend to be much more about hit-and-run journalism if you like, whereas radio current affairs has a capacity for more in-depth analysis and a contribution to a broader understanding of a whole range of issues, something that hopefully can accommodate reportage of minorities.

Antony Funnell: But do they have the influence say, on the broad audience, that say talkback radio has?

Julie Posetti: Well that’s a really good question, and one of the aspects of this reporting diversity project, if I can backtrack momentarily, is actually looking at talkback radio and the way in which audiences respond on issues around cultural diversity and the influence that those programs then have. Perhaps you could argue that the mainstream audiences for these programs being smaller, means that large groups of Australian society are not being targeted by AM, PM and The World Today, but what we do know from established research, and there was a very large study done in 2001, that found that AM was one of the most influential news sources in the country. So we know that AM, PM and The World Today are agenda-setting programs in terms of both the way they impact on policy and the way they impact on other journalists. And I think that’s a really fundamental point for us to consider in the context of this project.

Antony Funnell: And the bad news is that even at the quality end of the electronic journalism spectrum, at least, you found that Muslim women are still seen as objects of suspicion, is that correct?

Julie Posetti: Yes, well more so that they tend to be marginalised as ‘other’. You know, often coverage of Muslim women comes down to issues around the veil. So, you know, do they wear the hijab, do they not? And that tends to translate as being either representation of these women as being oppressed, and particularly in the international context that’s how they’re portrayed, or they are seen as threatening, you know, the suicide bomber model. Fred Nile for example raising issues around women potentially hiding bombs under their burkhas which was one of the stories that The World Today, PM and AM covered extensively, and also this other notion of the ‘exotic’. I mean those are the ways that Muslim women internationally tend to be stereotyped, and these programs were not immune to that, and that’s not surprising, given that the international media landscape and what I perceive to have been a bit of a transition from this kind of exotic representation of Muslim women post-September 11, to representation that gets down to a kind of shorthand for extremism equals ‘Muslim woman’ because if she is wearing the hijab or any other traditional dress, seen to be physically distinct, and kind of symbolic I guess of Islam.

One of the problems with the ABC radio current affairs programs coverage of Muslim women was that the majority of the stories that I examined – and this was for a period of 1999 to 2006 – the majority were stories about foreign characters, foreign women in far-off lands, you know reinforcing this idea of the kind of alien experience, rather than focusing on Muslim women in our own communities as news sources, as characters worthy of contribution beyond issues to do with gender oppression and veiling.

Antony Funnell: Is there a point to be made that perhaps the reason why Muslim women or ethnic minorities don’t get good coverage is that our traditional media is about serving mass audiences, you know, playing to the majority, and that in that framework, traditional media will always marginalise minorities. What are your thoughts on that?

Julie Posetti: Well I think that’s true across the board in minority media representation. But there are issues at play here when it comes to a group that is being particularly vilified. I mean one of the themes in the stories that were covered by these programs, and this is a positive thing, was the call to report violence against Muslim women which emerged on the streets around Australia in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, September 11, and Bali for example.

So there’s real consequences for the vilification of Muslim women in terms of media representation and that can be that that negative representation translates to violence on the streets. So I think journalists have a social responsibility to go beyond trying to reflect in some proportionate way. You know, if there are 2,000 Muslim women in the audience, we only do X number of stories. I mean we all know that that is not the way that you approach news and current affairs production. And while some people might hold the view that as a white, middle-class journalist my audience is white and middle-class, I think we need as journalists, to stretch ourselves and get beyond that, and face the reality that we are living in an incredibly diverse society. I mean this is not news, I realise, but I think sometimes we have to challenge ourselves to really push past ingrained stereotypes and prejudices which are actually limiting to our journalism practice.

Antony Funnell: And Gail Phillips your view: is traditional media beyond change in this area? And I’d also like you to comment on the niche market aspect of new media; does that offer hope?

Gail Phillips: Well the general view is that new media does offer hope simply because it can allow numerous niches to be addressed. But the idea that then you’re divvying up content into niches presents its own problems. I see it actually as a business argument, this need for us to at least focus on just how diverse we are, because to me it seems looking at television news the way I have been doing over these years, they’re not actually addressing the audience out there, the audience that’s actually watching television is more diverse than you would guess from the way in which the Australian public is represented in news. And to me it’s a clear kind of argument that if news audiences are dwindling, it may very well be because people don’t recognise the Australia that appears on their screens.

We’ll very often see crowd shots for example, that are a bunch of traditionally Aussie people, so that when you actually see a crowd shot that features the diversity of our public, it’s the exception rather than the rule. Why is that so? When there are choices being made in relation to selection of talent, the largely Anglo news rooms are going to tend naturally, you would expect, to go to people who are more like them than to venture into what may appear alien environments in order to get people from different communities to be used as legitimate spokespeople, not just in stories that are relating to their own ethnic group, but as legitimate commentators for Australian society as a whole.

So when we look at things like crowd shots, when we look at the kind of people that are approached for vox pops, when we look at the range of people that we go to or don’t go to when we’re seeking expert talent, when we look at who’s given speaking parts in stories, very often people from different ethnic backgrounds are spoken for, rather than being able to do the speaking themselves. And most importantly, the whole idea of expanding our reporter base. Greg Dyke famously commented on the ‘hideous whiteness’ of the news rooms in the BBC, well I think when we look at the composition of our news rooms in Australia, you could argue that they also are at the very least just beginning to reflect the diversity, and the more diverse you actually have your news room staff, the more this opens the way for you to broaden your reach, broaden your depth, and broaden your range.

Antony Funnell: All right, well we’ll look forward to the next part of the longitudinal study I guess to see how things might be changing.

Dr Gail Phillips and Julie Posetti, thank you very much for joining us.

Both: Thanks, Antony.

Antony Funnell: And Gail Phillips is an Associate Professor at Murdoch University, while Julie Posetti is a lecturer in journalism at the University of Canberra.

Now Julie’s research isn’t yet publicly available, but if you want to find out more about the Reporting Diversity Project itself, simply go to our website.

While you’re there, you’ll also find information about a national conference coming up in Brisbane next week, focusing on the use of information technology by charities and non-profit organisations. It’s being organised by the group, ‘Connecting Up’.

Next week on the program, New York University’s Clay Shirky. He has a new book out called ‘Here Comes Everybody’ and he’ll talk with us about the impact of online collaboration. That’s next week.

The Media Report’s producer is Andrew Davies. Technical production by Peter McMurray. I’m Antony Funnell.


Dr Gail Phillips
Associate Professor in Media and Journalism, Murdoch University

Julie Posetti
Lecturer in Journalism, University of Canberra

Further Information

Information on the Reporting Diversity Project


Antony Funnell


Andrew Davies

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