Black stories through a white lens

8 December 2020 | Posted In: #137 Summer 2020,

A new book shows how Australia’s mainstream media distorts the Aboriginal narrative.

When the Black Lives Matter movement re-emerged powerfully this year, it encouraged a cultural reckoning about how Black stories are told, reaching deep into Australia’s mainstream media. Once more, research showed just how unselfconsciously white Australian media is. Our study of 45 years of mainstream print news reportage of Aboriginal self-determination found the media overwhelmingly reports from and assumes
a white standpoint.

What emerges from our research is the degree to which a white lens distorts Black stories. Aboriginal political aspirations for treaties, self determination and agreement-making have been met with procrastination and denial from successive Australian governments — and, as we discovered, Australian media. This matters because reporting shapes the way Aboriginal political worlds are understood and talked about in public discourse.

Our study systematically examined the history of media coverage of moments where Aboriginal people have claimed their rights. We began in Darwin, Larrakia country, in 1972, just prior to the victory of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party in the federal election. The Larrakia nation’s attempt to deliver a petition to visiting Princess Margaret was symbolic of the growing confidence of the national land rights movement. Yet, in the reporting surrounding this, activism was described as failing and change was considered unlikely, unpopular, and unnecessary.

Fast forward to a crucial event in 2017, when more than 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives came together in the red centre of the country. After decades of consultation, inquiries, reports and recommendations, the Aboriginal polity arrived at a cohesive position and communicated the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Initially, the reporting appeared sympathetic. But it dissolved once more into
constraining narratives after the immediate rejection by then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and the systematic reassertion by most media that reform was doable only if it did not challenge the subordination of Aboriginal sovereignty.

Over 45 years of Aboriginal people explaining and agitating with patience and persistence, the media almost always failed to take Aboriginal efforts seriously. We found a failure to understand key concepts, such as the distinction between treaty, agreement- making, Makarrata and compact. If it were not for the Aboriginal media’s effective communication of Aboriginal demands, the historical record would be much impoverished.

The coverage we reviewed in our study revolved around three dominant and repeated narratives. The first, what we termed a “White Mastery narrative”, sees Aboriginality as a problem to be solved through assimilation, and Aboriginal political demands as an obstacle to a cohesive society. Present in the reporting on the Larrakia petition, it re-emerged around the time of Prime Minister John Howard’s emphasis on “practical reconciliation”.

The second, which we termed the “irreconciliation narrative”, was strongest in reporting on Aboriginal demands for a treaty through the 1980s. Here, great sympathy was undercut by the idea that Aboriginal calls for self-determination are impossible, “irreconcilable” demands, unpopular with the Australian populace. This narrative promotes a politics of procrastination on the one hand, and hopelessness on the other.

The third, which we termed the “subordination narrative”, seeks to reposition Aboriginal desires for self-determination into frames of disadvantage and deficit. It sees the socioeconomic uplift of Aboriginal people as the most pressing concern. In this narrative — if addressing statistical inequality and “closing the gap” means subordinating Aboriginal self-determination — it’s justifiable. The three dominant narratives
demonstrate how a white lens distorts Black stories.

Another narrative, which we called the “sovereignty/nationhood narrative”, only appeared in glimpses. It recognises the growing depth and strength of the Aboriginal polity and acknowledges aspirations to self-governance as legitimate. In particular, it validates the Aboriginal polity as an equal negotiating partner with the state.

Over time, there were increasing invitations for opinion pieces in the mainstream media from Aboriginal voices. The Aboriginal polity engaged more deliberately with the media. Yet the media’s focus remained on parliamentary fracas, scandal, and conflict. In the reports we examined — predominantly from Fairfax/Nine and News — we could not identify a single Aboriginal journalist at work. We also examined Aboriginal media, such as Koori Mail or Land Rights News, for example. We found that, with far fewer resources, these outlets achieved nuanced and complex representations of the Aboriginal polity.

It should be a given for mainstream media outlets to place Aboriginal journalists at the centre of any attempt to tell Black stories. That, on its own, however, is not enough. Australia’s media landscape requires a transformation that needs to go much deeper than issues of representation. By understanding how the mainstream media has failed, we can also see the pathways to telling the Black stories that can change Australia’s future. It is only by reconsidering its white standpoint that the media can give due justice to Black stories.

The full findings are published in a book titled Does the media fail Aboriginal political aspirations by Amy Thomas, Andrew Jakubowicz and Heidi Norman (AIATSIS Research Publications)

A podcast based on the book — Black Stories Matter — is also available

You can read Inner Sydney Voice magazine in full here in flipbook and PDF formats