Australia’s Media Has To Share The Blame For Our Racist Culture

Australia has big problems, and the media doesn't help.

Australian Media, Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, Pauline Hanson

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

Across the Australian media this week there’s been a big, important discussion about how we got to this point. That discussion has largely focused on failures of politics and policing, both in the United States and Australia. But there’s another contributing factor that’s had less focus: the media itself.

Put simply, there are large and powerful sections of the Australian media whose business models are built on promoting a racist ideology.

There are so many examples that may have sprung into your mind when I said that. Perhaps you thought of the campaign to drive Yassmin Abdel-Magied from Australia for daring to question Australia’s refugee policies on Anzac Day, or the ‘African Gangs’ scare campaign run by News Corporation and promoted by right-wing politicians.

You might have thought of the misogynist radio broadcaster who incited a race riot, yet still had prime ministers lining up to kiss his ring when he retired last week. Maybe you thought of the columnist who breached the Racial Discrimination Act, yet who still denies the Stolen Generations in his daily columns and nightly TV show.

Maybe you thought of the breakfast TV programs that resurrected Pauline Hanson’s political career, or the youth broadcaster that invited a far-right racist on so that we could ‘hear both sides’. And these are just the big examples — what we might call the Greatest Hits Of Australian Racism. Every day our media is full of smaller examples that chip away at our multicultural foundations: the stereotypes, racist cartoons, and editorials that undermine our social fabric.

There are big, structural problems facing Australia’s media industry right now. Audiences are declining, content is becoming less valuable, and revenue is being hoovered up by the tech giants. But there are also huge structural problems in our newsrooms and corporate offices that mean we’re failing to properly serve our audiences. There are enormous barriers to entry preventing diverse voices from working in our newsrooms, which means the content we produce isn’t representative of the audience we’re meant to serve.

It’s time Australia’s media industry had an honest discussion about our failings. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but over 11 years working for media companies large and small, local and international, I’ve seen the problems first hand, and I’ve almost certainly contributed to some of those problems myself.  

The Unbearable Whiteness Of Our Newsrooms

Australia’s newsrooms are incredibly white. Painfully white. We see it all the time when journalists gather for a group photo to protest the latest round of redundancies at a competing newsroom.

The whiteness of Australia’s media industry permeates every level, from the boardroom to universities. I once sat on a roundtable about diversity with 25 people, only one of whom wasn’t white — and she was the moderator.

Sadly, on this score, Junkee is barely any better than most newsrooms, and as the Managing Editor I have to accept some of the blame for that. The answer might seem simple: “hire more people of colour”, and I wish it was that easy. It’s wonderful to be able to commission a diverse group of freelance writers or offer a scholarship to Indigenous journalists, but it feels like a drop in the media ocean, and the tide is running out. Meanwhile young, white, middle-class journalists have a level of access that’s simply not available to everyone.  

The problem begins well before the job is advertised. For too many journalists, the path towards a career in journalism begins at private school, into a sandstone university, and onto a cadetship or entry level job at a city-based publisher.

Surprisingly often, that first job comes from a family connection. I once knew a guy who landed a coveted cadetship at one of the country’s most prestigious papers because he happened to live next door to the Editor in Chief. Not to put too fine a point on it, but as a journalist, he sucked. He’s now left the industry.

Imagine what that cadetship could have done for a kid from the bush who wanted to tell their community’s story. But making that leap from the regions to the city is hard. If you’re a person of colour, come from a lower socio-economic background or a regional area, you’re shut out before you’ve even graduated high school. 

It means the perspectives in our newsrooms are incredibly homogenised. Across my career I’ve worked in offices from Walsh Bay under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, to Channel 7’s Martin Place newsroom, and all the way up to News Corp’s headquarters in Surry Hills. I realise this reveals the sheltered life I’ve lived, but the truth is I can have a long, rewarding career at most of Australia’s largest publishers, and never have to leave the Sydney CBD. If I ever need a seachange I’ll go to Ultimo. This problem will only get worse as budgets tighten and newsrooms become more centralised.

Every day our media is full of smaller examples that chip away at our multicultural foundations: the stereotypes, racist cartoons, and editorials that undermine our social fabric.

The result of the industry’s sheltered view has never been more clear than this week. Any digital producer can tell you that whenever you post a story about Australian racism on Facebook, the comment section quickly fills with claims that our supposed xenophobia problem is exaggerated, a relic of the past.

But how can that be true when people of colour — especially Indigenous Australians — are standing up so clearly to tell us that yes, we do have a racism problem, and no, the racism problem is not confined to the one week that the media has decided to talk about it? It’s a failure of the media to fill its newsrooms with people of colour and other diverse voices.

If the people reading the news to me on TV are white, and the guy on the radio has a white sounding name, and the picture in the paper is of a white dude, that’s not a sign that white people are just better at journalism, it’s a sign that we’ve failed to hire newsrooms that truly reflect the Australia we’re meant to serve. Of course Australians think racism is a thing of the past — we only ever show them a white utopia on our screens. 

And what do we end up with? A Channel Nine reporter this week ended an interview with a Black Lives Matter protester by claiming that Australia doesn’t have the same understanding as Americans of the “history of police violence”. Try telling that to the 432 Indigenous Australians who have died in police custody in the last 30 years.

It would be easy to blame the individual reporter for their ignorance, but the problem is much more ingrained than that. When we talk about destructive media personalities, it’s easy to conjure up the marquee names — Bolt, Hadley, Jones, Ackerman, Blair. Or the attention seekers like Joe Hildebrand and Kerri-Anne Kennerley, whose business model is built on stoking outrage and riding the wave. To one degree or another, all of these people deserve the criticism thrown their way. 

But almost every journalist I’ve worked with has been hard-working, diligent and committed to telling important stories fairly and accurately. The failure often doesn’t belong to an individual. It comes collectively, as an industry that hasn’t opened the door to enough voices that don’t look and sound like our own.

That Channel Nine comment may have never made it to air if there were more diverse perspectives in our newsrooms, or — if you can even imagine such a thing — if Channel 9 had actually been able to send a person of colour to report on protests about systemic racism. 

Australian Media Is In Big Trouble

The pandemic has been a bloodbath for Australian publishers. BuzzFeed News and 10 Daily have closed down completely, and the Vice newsroom now consists of just two people.

Other publishers, like News Corp’s Whimn have shut down, and the Australian print magazine industry is on its knees. News Corp is sacking hundreds of regional and local journalists and is closing down almost all of its local print papers. Regardless of what you think of News Corp, that’s very bad news for a lot of communities. 

Fortunately, there are organisations doing good work and seeing good returns. The Guardian’s continued growth is proof that there is an audience for solid journalism in Australia, and its unique funding model has allowed it to weather this storm better than most. 

The ABC does great work in so many ways, big and small, but its fortunes will always be tied to the ebbs and flows of the political tide.

Of course, all media organisations make mistakes. The ABC ran a ludicrously soft profile on Steve Bannon, and Triple J’s ‘Hack’ gave a platform to convicted racist Blair Cottrell, both under the guise of ‘open and honest debate’. On balance, you’d have to say that the ABC gets it right more than it gets it wrong. But arguably, it’s even more dangerous when the ABC gets it wrong. We trust our national broadcaster more than its commercial rivals, and when they tell us that someone like Steve Bannon is worth listening to, more people will listen, and some of them will like what they hear.

On the other side there are some large commercial outfits that do untold damage to the nation’s social fabric.

Racist commentary and outrage is a large part of News Corporation’s business model. There may be many ‘good’ people who work there, doing good things and fighting the good fight, but their good work is drowned out by every racist front page and homophobic cartoon that appear almost every week. At a certain point, no matter how ‘good’ you are, you’re part of the problem.

Channel 7 is less blatant but just as insidious. There are so many of examples of Sunrise guests promoting violence against people of colour or praising the stolen generation — Seven was eventually forced to apologise for those comments, but not before Sunrise literally blocked out Indigenous voices of protest. Sunrise resurrected the career of Pauline Hanson, which led to a proud racist and islamophobe, in the form of Fraser Anning, finding his way into the Senate.

There is no ‘debate’ when it comes to racism, and you can’t ‘debunk’ fascism. Every time you try, you’re only doing their work for them. 

They do this under the guise of promoting ‘free debate’ and ‘letting the audience make up their own minds’, but those arguments stopped holding water a long time ago. By now, any competent observer of the media landscape can see that giving a platform, no matter how critical, to the voices of racism and white supremacy only serves to promote those voices.

There is no ‘debate’ when it comes to racism, and you can’t ‘debunk’ fascism. Every time you try, you’re only doing their work for them. 

And then there’s Nine. Again, it’s less obvious than its peers, but they too give Pauline Hanson a regular platform on ‘Today’ — in fact, they jumped at the chance to have her on the show after a very public breakup with David Koch, and now she’s a regular for both. Twice the racism at no extra cost. And just this week, after Donald Trump’s goons gassed and shot at peaceful protesters, Nine framed Trump’s march to his photo opportunity as a “stunning show of defiance”. That’s a hell of a way to frame an act of fascism.

And of course, if any of these people are finally deemed too ‘controversial’ for mainstream TV, they can land a gig on Sky After Dark.

Our ‘Debate’ Is Only Going To Get Worse

This habit of ‘both siding’ debates infects legacy media publishers.

Just today, The New York Times is under fire for publishing a piece by right-wing US Senator Tom Cotton under the headline “Send In The Troops”. The paper’s opinion editor is defending the piece, saying publishers owe it to their readers to present “counter arguments” — but that argument just doesn’t hold up in an age of alternative facts and rising right-wing populism around the world. We are all entitled to opinions, but no one is entitled to a front page column in the New York Times, and to pretend you’re doing a service to the reader by presenting it as such is negligence. As journalists, everything we publish is a choice.

The paper’s own journalists are bravely speaking out against the decision to publish the piece. It’s rare for journalists to speak out so boldly against their employer, and it’s hard to imagine it happening at the NYT outside of the particular moment we currently find ourselves in.

These examples of journalistic malfeasance vary from deliberate acts designed to stoke fear, sell papers and drive ratings, to genuine mistakes that were undoubtedly made, at least in part, because most of the people working in our newsrooms can’t possibly fully understand the issues they’re reporting on.

Regardless of the reporters’ intent, these incidents all contribute to a culture of racism that permeates our media, and that culture inevitably infects the wider society. If you wonder why many Australians refuse to accept our nation’s own racist history, look no further than the media they consume — overwhelmingly white, committed to a form of political debate that hasn’t worked in decades, and buckling under the pressures of a business model that is crumbling before our eyes.

And while legacy publishers struggle to adjust to the new world, the reality is that the smaller players — The BuzzFeeds, Junkees, and Vices — haven’t been able to fill the gap. Junkee is a youth publisher, we’re not perfect but we try our best, but even if we reached every young person in Australia, it would leave millions of people reliant on the big foundational players, and those players are in big, structural trouble. 

I fear for a day when 90% of the media that Australians consume comes from a handful of very large organisations whose main concern is their bottom line. We know that the best way to drive traffic or keep people’s attention is to make them feel a negative emotion.

This model is fundamentally broken. It rewards the wrong people — the people who know how to get under your skin and cause a reaction.

This Sunday, 60 Minutes is interviewing celebrity chef Pete Evans, who is quickly morphing from a kooky pseudoscience spruiker, into a strange mix of anti-vaxxer and right-wing conspiracist. The only possible result is that Evans picks up more followers to his cause. Why would Nine do that? I know from experience that Pete Evans drives online traffic. He’ll also drive ratings for Nine. Is giving him a platform going to do any good for society? Doesn’t matter, as long as you win the night’s ratings.

This model is fundamentally broken. It rewards the wrong people — the people who know how to get under your skin and cause a reaction.

Smaller players do their best to break through, but it’s really, really hard. Starting from scratch and building an audience that could be considered ‘mass’ is next to impossible, and there are plenty of failed media ventures to prove it.

The gap between those big behemoths and the smaller players is being filled by the likes of Facebook, Youtube and Twitter — where the volume of misinformation and negative emotion is turned up to 11.

It’s a recipe for disaster.

Journalists Have To Lead The Change

I hope that some of my media colleagues read this and take some time to reflect on their role in it all.

Much of what I’ve written above hasn’t come to me like a bolt from the blue. It’s been a slow realisation over 11 years of working in the Australian media. Personally, I know I’ve committed many of the sins I’ve talked about in this piece.

At News.com.au, I got very good at tweaking a headline, phrase or image to illicit a reaction that drove more traffic. At Junkee, I’ve failed to hire the diverse enough team that I’m criticising others for here. I often avoid publicly criticising a piece of journalism because it’s written by a friend or former colleague who I don’t want to offend. I will almost certainly continue to make mistakes, but I’ll try to do better, and I guess I’m writing this in the hope that others will commit to at least trying as well.

This is my attempt to contribute to the debate without crowding out the many other voices that need to be heard a lot more than mine right now.  This argument has been made time and time again by people of colour who have worked in Australian newsrooms — you don’t have to search hard to find the horror stories — but it has to come from other voices as well. 

Undoubtedly, some of my professional colleagues will dismiss what I’ve written out of hand (if they read it at all, my ego isn’t so big that I think the industry hangs off my every word). Australia’s journalists are so notoriously thin skinned we should be in a medical textbook. It’s really quite remarkable — our skin is somehow incredibly sensitive, yet impervious to criticism. More often than not, a genuine, good-faith criticism of a high profile journalist on Twitter will be met not with introspection, but with virtual foot stamping, blocking, and a closing of ranks from fellow journalists — I know I’ve done it.

Yet our profession is one of Australia’s least trusted for a reason. And if our audience doesn’t trust us, we have failed. And if we can’t genuinely engage with criticism, how will we ever grow? 

As individual journalists, it’s time to acknowledge that the standard we walk past is the standard we accept. I don’t begrudge anyone for wanting to hold onto their job in an industry that’s increasingly unstable. We all have mortgages to pay and mouths to feed.

But I’ve also experienced that biting feeling at the back of your mind when you know that, no matter how pure your motives may be, you’re contributing to an organisation that’s doing more harm than good. You justify it in many ways. You tell yourself that you’re one of the good ones who needs to stay and fight for what’s right. It’s completely human and understandable, but I’m not sure it cuts it anymore. 

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. The decline of the media industry has been discussed and debated ad nauseum for decades now. It really would be quite remarkable if some guy from Junkee figured it all out. Some things are out of our control — like a global pandemic — but some things are very much in our control, like the ability to say no to a story intended to divide people or stoke outrage, the ability to promote more diverse voices, and the ability to not give a platform to the voices that want to divide us.

No one person is going to change things overnight, but if we don’t change at all, pretty soon there’ll be none of us left. 

Rob Stott is the Managing Editor of Junkee Media. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_Stott.