Cause or effect? How media affects indigenous people

17 March 2009

I began reflecting on the significance of how the media covers Aboriginal health last April as I sat in a conference room overlooking Sydney's Darling Harbour and listened to people talking about the need for researchers and Aboriginal people to find news ways of working together and critiquing the traditions of Aboriginal health research.

I heard about the mistrust that had built up, and of researchers who took but did not give, who imposed their own world view, who appropriated Aboriginal people's stories for their own ends, who endlessly described the problems rather than developing and testing solutions, and who used language and methodology in a way that stressed the negatives and neglected the positives. "We're tired of being told that we are helpless, hopeless and useless," one Aboriginal academic told the conference, convened by the Coalition for Research to Improve Aboriginal Health.

I was there as a paid scribe and later wrote in the conference report: "Public and professional discussions and reports about Aboriginal health are often framed in negative terms. This impacts upon the self-esteem of Aboriginal people, as well as the attitudes and beliefs of the broader society. It also affects the willingness of Aboriginal communities to participate in research, and thus the usefulness and relevance of that research."

It struck me that all of these problems of research also applied to my own industry. Concerns about how the media covers Aboriginal affairs are not new, not in a country where a lauded magazine such as the Bulletin could declare on its masthead, right into the 1960s, "Australia for the White Man." This shamefully recent history was recorded by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which noted that "Aboriginal people generally claim that they have had a very bad deal from the media."

In 1970s Perth, not long after the Bulletin changed its masthead, an idealistic young doctor called Fiona Stanley collected newspaper articles about Aboriginal health for a year, and found that 90 per cent of them were negative. It was, she thought, proof of the media's inherent racism. Now heading the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, which employs many Aboriginal researchers, Stanley remains angry about what she sees as the unrelentingly negative coverage and the sense of hopelessness it engenders among individuals and policy makers and within the broader community.

She says there is mounting evidence, from work at her institute and elsewhere in the world, that Indigenous children's self esteem, resilience and educational outcomes depend on how they believe the dominant culture perceives their culture. "The more that the dominant culture reports negative stories about Aboriginal people, the more that Aboriginal children feel bad about being Aboriginal," says Stanley.

Positive stories matter at many levels, she says. For years, researchers at her institute published academic articles about the benefits of swimming pools for Aboriginal children's health, with relatively little impact. But just one positive front-page story in the Australian "resulted in swimming pools being put in all over the place."

Says Stanley: "I have these fantasy conversations with Rupert Murdoch and say, 'you could actually turn around Aboriginal people if you could change the way you report, even if you just made just 50 per cent of your articles positive, you could reduce suicide rates.'" But winning coverage for the positive stories - "I can give you umpteen communities that I've been to where the kids look great, the swimming pools are working, the houses are fantastic and the mothers are just wonderful" - is an uphill struggle, says Stanley. Even for someone with her public profile.

As I sat in that Darling Harbour conference room hearing earnest pronouncements about closing the gap in Aboriginal disadvantage, I thought about how media reporting had contributed to public health advances in other areas - from tobacco control to road safety and alcohol. And I began to wonder whether Australia has any chance of achieving real change in Indigenous health if there are not some systematic and constructive efforts, by both Aboriginal health advocates and the media, to develop a more useful public debate.

Melissa Sweet is a freelance health journalist. She has honorary appointments in the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney and the School of Medicine at Notre Dame University (Sydney campus).

This is an excerpt from an article originally published in "The Inside Story". Read the full story here.

Contact: Media Office

Phone: 02 9035 5404