Solutions for a more diverse Australian media

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A “whitewashed” Australian TV panel discussing a hot-button Indigenous issue (Screenshot: Seven Network)

Chinese-Australian journalist Isabel Lo was full of optimism when she joined the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) in 2005, her first job in the Australian media.

As part of the launch team for the ABC’s new 24-hour TV channel, News 24, she found herself part of a diverse group of journalists.

But her hopes that the Australian TV industry had embarked on a new path – one that would more accurately reflect the country’s multicultural population and audiences – were gradually dashed.

“We had a photo documenting that [launch] year,” says Lo. “When I looked at that photo years later, about 80-90 per cent of our colleagues from a diverse background had not just left the ABC, but left the industry altogether.”

Lo’s experience mirrors that of many Australian journalists from cultural and ethnic minority backgrounds. Growing up, they see mainly white faces on TV, and hear and see Anglo-Celtic names and voices. Working in their industry themselves, they find that colleagues with a multicultural heritage are few and far between.

Isabel Lo (Photo: Media Diversity Australia)

They also face obstacles as they seek to scale the career ladder. As former Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane notes: “People are very familiar with the idea of a glass ceiling that exists for women in work and in the professions.

“There is plenty of evidence to suggest that an equivalent ceiling exists for those who come from minority non-European and non-white backgrounds.”

In 2017, Lo co-founded Media Diversity Australia, a national not-for-profit organisation, with a media colleague, Antoinette Lattouf.

It was when the two women looked at that ABC photo from 2006 that they decided to comprehensively investigate the issue.

Media Diversity Australia co-founder Antoinette Lattouf (Studio 10)

Why was the media so “whitewashed” in one of the world’s most multicultural countries, where almost half of citizens have at least one parent born overseas, they wondered.

What exactly is the problem?

The results, detailed in the recent landmark report Who Gets To Tell Australian Stories, were stark. They found that representation in the media –  both of journalists, and of the people featured in stories – is highly skewed towards Anglo-Celtic voices and perspectives.

Examining a two-week period across a selection of free-to-air TV channels, researchers established that over 75 per cent of presenters, commentators and reporters had an Anglo-Celtic background.

Data: Who Gets to Tell Australian Stories report

The finding illustrates a lack of diversity in media jobs and in Australian storytelling – and seems likely to reflect wider issues of cultural acceptance and societal attitudes.

The Australian media does recognise the problem. In recent years, numerous organisations have tried to address it through a raft of initiatives. But there is still much progress to be made.

A broader, more systemic approach is required, believes Soutphommasane. “Certainly, having diversity and inclusion policies helps to ensure that organisations think more consciously about this. But having a policy in place won’t, in and of itself, solve the problem.

“There won’t be one organisation which will have the power to change the media industry – it will require efforts and significant leadership across the Australian media industry.”

The Who Gets To Tell Australian Stories report found that 75 per cent of ethnic minority journalists surveyed perceived their cultural background as a barrier to both accessing front-of-camera roles and  to career progression.

Data: Who Gets to Tell Australian Stories report
Data: Who Gets to Tell Australian Stories report

It’s not just a perception. Recently, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander journalists have been speaking out about experiencing racism at Australia’s dedicated multicultural public broadcaster, SBS (Special Broadcasting Service). Diversity and inclusion are part of SBS’s charter.

A former screen writer, Kodie Bedford, tweeted that after being awarded a cadetship (trainee position) at SBS in 2008, she was always introduced as “the Indigenous cadet journalist”. She suffered from “micro-aggressions, forms of paternalism and racism” from a colleague, she wrote.

Former SBS and ABC journalist Helen Vatsikopoulos points out that, without diverse representation, the media presents stories from only one perspective. As she explains:

“We essentially get the news and analysis through the lens of mainly white Anglo- Australians.

“The complexity of our people is therefore not examined or reported on, and if it is, then it’s usually through the prism of an Anglo-Australian understanding where the migrant populations are ‘the other’.”

The effect of this? “Sub-standard journalism,” says Lo.

Lo adds:“Journalism is about shining light into dark places, holding the powerful to account and informing the public. We can’t do that effectively if we, the storytellers, come from just a certain segment of society. We’re doing ourselves a disservice here.”

What initiatives are being trialled?

Mamamia, a leading Australian news, opinion and lifestyle website targeted at women, is one of a number of news organisations trying to tackle the problem.

It has launched an initiative called Project Enlighten, which was inspired by feedback from its audience and also from within the company following the Black Lives Matters protests.

Former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane (Photo: Australian Human Rights Commission)

A team of 14 women from across the company meets fortnightly to discuss representation on the site, covering everything from the stock imagery used to larger goals such as achieving 50 per cent diversity in podcast guests.

Emily Vernem, who leads Project Enlighten, says the 50 per cent goal is already being hit, and “it’s quality content as well”.

Vernem, an Indian-Australian, reflects: “I feel like a lot of media companies are … [just] playing the diversity card.

“They forget that we’re normal people as well. We’re smart, we have talents.

“They [diverse Australians] can be beauty influencers, and they can just talk about beauty and be brown. Being brown doesn’t have to be their ‘thing’.”

SBS, too, is trying to address an issue that is clearly a problem for the public broadcaster, despite fewer than one per cent of its reporters having an Anglo-Celtic background.

In an effort to influence the industry more widely, the company launched an online training program in 2019 aimed at helping media organisations to better understand diversity and to promote more inclusive workplaces.

What emerges from these and other initiatives could have a profound effect on Australian society, as well as on the next generation of Australian journalists.

Zathia Bazeer, a 23-year-old journalism student, recalls how, “growing up, I never really saw people that looked like me on TV … I just couldn’t find someone from my background, and so I wondered, would I make it [in the industry]?”

As she looks ahead to jobs in the business, the Sri Lankan-Australian fears being pigeonholed. “Will I just be the person to talk about race, and, you know, is that going to be my only thing?”

The way forward

Bazeer, who speaks Tamil at home with her family, believes that real change will come when more young people from diverse backgrounds enter the industry. 

Indeed, that is her motivation for studying journalism. As she explains: “I can talk about my experience, and I can talk about other people’s experiences, and do it the right way.”

Lo suggests that, paradoxically, one solution may lie in the media business’s well-documented financial woes.

Her argument to companies is: “OK, your profit is going to be affected by this because, looking at the breakdown of audiences in Australia, they are very diverse. Do you think people are going to buy this stuff?

“You need to convince advertisers that it’s not good enough, and they will take it back to publications.”

As for public broadcasting, Lo observes, “It’s as simple as saying, ‘You’ve got to be held accountable to the taxpayer, [and] the taxpayer is diverse’.”

Soutphommasane, a researcher and writer on the Who Gets To Tell Australian Stories report, believes it is imperative to set targets, implement strong leadership, and collect and measure tangible data.

“A big reason why we conducted the report was to create a baseline or benchmark,” he says. “Getting the data matters because data enables organisations to set targets, to set goals for where they want to be … and then supporting those targets with sustained leadership and advocacy.”

Soutphommsane adds: “This is deeply challenging work … It challenges people’s perceptions of their own fairness and their own understandings of merit.”