Monthly Archives: May 2013

Racist or Just Ignorant?

Published in Vibewire, 29 May 2013.

Click here to see the original.

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A young spectator’s racist slur to indigenous AFL player, Adam Goodes, has sparked debate about racism in society.

13-year-old Collingwood fan, Julia, shouted “Way to kick the ball ape” before being escorted out of the MCG stadium in Melbourne. Goodes said at a press conference that he was “shattered” by her remarks. “It’s not the first time on a footy field I’ve been referred to as a monkey or an ape, ” he said. “It felt like I was in high school again, being bullied.”

For many people, the fact that Julia is only 13-years-old has proved to be particularly shocking. Adam Goodes said, “When I saw it was a young girl, I was just like ‘really?’. I was just like ‘how could that happen?’”

North-West indigenous footballer, Kent Jackson, told The Advocate: “The fact that the slurring came from a 13-year-old girl really hits home and shows you how deeply ingrained into our culture this sort of thinking is”.

Those who defend the young girl argue that she was unaware of her actions. Among her defenders is Adam Goodes himself. The Aboriginal AFL player said: “It’s not her fault. Unfortunately it’s what she hears, it’s the environment she’s grown up in that makes her think it’s OK to call people names.”

In defending the girl, many have pointed to the complicity of her environment in fostering her ignorance. The girl’s mother, Joanne, told Nine News, “She’s only a 13 year old young girl that lives in a country town, that doesn’t really get out that much, going to the cities”.

Collingwood president, Eddie McGuire, told ABC radio that he had spoken to the girl; she “didn’t even know that it was racist”, he said.

It is questionable, however, whether ignorance can always be used to excuse racism. As a young girl, perhaps she did not know any better. Perhaps she is merely the product of a society that never told her that calling Aboriginal people “ape” is unacceptable.

But at what point are we as people to be held responsible for our own education? After all, racism itself is often rooted in ignorance and a misunderstanding of other cultures. Would the public reaction be different if it had been an adult who called “ape” from the stands? What if this adult grew up in the same environment as the 13-year-old girl?

It is true that you will not learn anything if no one tells you. But at the same time, you will not learn anything if you do not look and listen.

Goodes points to the broader picture: “It’s not a Collingwood issue. It’s not an AFL issue. It’s a society issue”, he said.

Goodes and Jackson say parents should be held accountable. Jackson told The Advocate: “How is anyone expected to penetrate the heart and minds of children more than parents can at the family table?” He said that better schooling could help address the issue but ultimately, family values needed to change.

Collingwood president, McGuire, points to politicians, the media and our own situation in revving up racism. He particularly blames political rhetoric on issues such as asylum seekers. “Politicians set the tone for the type of country that we will get and the voters go along with it. We all have to decide whether we’re going to be a red neck, hick country, or we are going to be a country that is very much involved in tolerance, ” he said on ABC radio.

Undoubtedly, all of these groups play a role in shaping society. More important than playing the blame game, the question stands: are webuilding a society that listens to other cultures or ignores them?

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Pranking Tharunka – is there a lesson to be learnt?

Published in Honi Soit, p. 9, Wk 10 Semester 1 Edition, 15 May 2013.

Click here to see it online.

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The demonisation of Government lecturer Peter Chen has been largely misinformed and misleading, argues Ada Lee

Recently, some Sydney University students were  given an assignment to submit a fake news article to UNSW’s student paper.

The purpose of the ‘Prank Tharunka’ assignment was to test whether the media is susceptible to manipulation. It was not attempting to raise up the next generation of lying, sensationalist journalists. GOVT2603 (Media Politics) is a politics, not a journalism, subject. Peter Chen is a media critic, not a journalist.

The majority of reactions have oversimplified the issue. At one end, we have the conniving, mohawked Dr Chen, setting out to destroy the media. The Australian suggests that “maybe the lecturer” is what’s wrong with the media. Again, this was not a journalism training exercise. At the other end, we have Tharunka, UNSW’s student publication, maliciously targeted and victimised.

Tharunka admitted to Crikey that they had planned to run a fake story on fare evasion.

Here’s a question for Tharunka: did you check the facts? Would you have noticed the prank if not for the whistleblower? The assignment’s task to post false stories only works if the media is not doing its job properly. Tharunka, if you fact-checked and sifted out all the false stories, then I salute you—for doing your job.

As journalists and editors, if all our sources were entirely truthful with no distortion, no attempts at manipulation, no deliberate omission of facts, then the media world would be a better place. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Journalists and editors have a responsibility to check facts, investigate and sift out spin. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it might suck. But spin happens and the media should be prepared for it.

It is not sufficient to use Peter Chen as a scapegoat. Journalists and editors are not infallible lie detectors, but they also need to take responsibility when they make mistakes.

The argument has been made that as a small university paper with few resources, Tharunka was an unsuitable case study for testing the media’s gatekeeping role. But perhaps there is a  broader point. With highly concentrated media ownership and fewer journalists to fill in a demanding 24-hour news cycle, are our major news providers really better equipped?

Has the journalist watchdog been overtaken by a pack mentality where certain stories are over-emphasised and others completely missed? Is it sufficient that the media often rely on carefully planned press conferences and written statements rather than hard in-depth interviews with our political leaders?

If the big papers were bombarded with falsified stories as Tharunka was, would they pass the test? And if not, can we still trust them to bring the important issues to the surface? These are the questions we were asked to explore.

I don’t know whether encouraging students to post fake stories was the most virtuous thing to do. But what I do know is that I’ve learnt an invaluable amount about the politics of media.

For more of my coverage on the Tharunka prank, click here.

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An Insider View on the Tharunka Prank

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The USYD assignment asking students to prank UNSW publication, Tharunka, has triggered impassioned debate about the ethics of journalism and teaching.

USYD Media Politics lecturer, Peter Chen, asked students to submit a “false story” to Tharunka. As someone enrolled in this unit, I can give some insight into the workings of the assignment.

Essentially, students were to figure out what makes stories publishable. To complete the assignment, we had to test our hypothesis on ‘what makes the news’ by constructing several false articles that covered a scope of topics with varying levels of quality and sensationalism. In doing so, we tested the role of media as gatekeepers of information and whether they were susceptible to ‘spin’ and manipulation. The assignment sheet said we were to “reflect on the practice of PR that uses an understanding of media practice to promote particular messages”.

GOVT2603 Unit of Study Outline

On 6 May, Tharunka discovered the truth via a whisteblowing student and on 8 May, Tharunka revealed all in an article by editor Lily Ray. Editors recalled their surprise at the sudden influx of student submissions—even those from USYD email addresses.

Lily Ray even wrote that Tharunka was happy to receive submissions from students of other universities. The point of concern, however, seemed to rest in the assignment requirement that students post falsestories.

The whisteblower from the GOVT2603 subject, Josh Tassell, told Crikey,“I have a major ethical problem with trying to print lies. I don’t see the point. I honestly don’t think it taught us much at all except terrible habits.”

The same day that Tharunka, Crikey and The Australian picked up the story, the GOVT2603 twitter and tumblr accounts were deleted.

Over the semester, Dr Chen has become a familiar face—particularly notable for his Mohawk which changes colour every week. He asks students to engage via twitter, tumblr and text messages. At times, he spoke about his involvement in the NTEU Sydney University strikes. In lectures, he got us to watch a documentary critiquing Fox News sensationalism and another that explored election campaign tactics in New Zealand.

When we got the assignment sheet, I noticed mixed reactions. There were five different topic options. Others included creating an online protest page for a “fictitious” cause or trying to get calls through on talkback radio. We were told in our tute that all five topics had to be covered. In response to the Tharunka exercise, some students thought it was hilarious, some a useful exercise and perhaps, others worried about the ethical boundaries it pushed.

Whether the assignment was successful in teaching any sort of lesson, I think it is fair to say Dr Chen did not intend to teach his students how to be lying spin-doctors. Rather, the lesson was more in exploring the potentially powerful role ‘spin’ can play in today’s media system. Here, it is important to note that this is a ‘Media Politics’ not a journalism unit.

Granted, if this was the purpose of the assignment, Tharunka editor, Renee Griffiths, makes the point in the Crikey comments section:

“wouldn’t it have been more fruitful to make students target the multitude of organisations that are better resourced and deal more extensively with said PR injecting?” On Twitter, editor Lily Ray said the assignment “victimized” Tharunka.

Image Credit: Tharunka

James Davey, another GOVT2603 student, disagrees.

“I don’t understand why [Tharunka is] making the ‘victim’ call on this one…I don’t think it was a targeted attack against Tharunka…[The assignment’s lesson] could be learned through any news organisation. It just happened to be Tharunka.”

The ensuing upheaval has been met with a variety of responses from Media Politics students. Some worry about the academic ramifications. Some believe Mr Tassell over-reacted whilst others thought he could have handled the situation better.

Mr Davey defended the assignment. He said:

“It is up to the editor of a news organisation to vet any and all submissions. The fact is that Tharunka found itself with articles it was willing to run. When someone informed them of the ‘prank’, they got embarrassed. Cue retaliatory article. The reality of the news landscape is that it is competitive. It was on point and a relevant assignment.”

In July last year, UNSW SRC students actually launched a similar prank. A UNSW Foundation Day hoax falsely announced that UNSW planned to bid $1.2 million for the Sydney monorail. The difference? This story actually succeeded in getting published. It grabbed the attention of ABC News Radio, took 25 minutes of David Oldfield’s 2UE show, sat on the front page of the MX and finally, got uncovered by Media WatchTharunka itself reported that the hoax “catches” students and media.

Regardless of whether it was ethical to encourage students to print false stories, an important question is posed by this exercise: if these stories, embellished with spin and falsified facts, succeed in getting published, what does this say about the quality of journalism today? The assignment put the quality and legitimacy of media to the test.

Published in Vibewire, 10 May 2013.

For my opinion on the Tharunka prank, click here.

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Redfern Station: the elephant in the room

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REDFERN: Denise Clark goes through Redfern Station once a week. Every time, it is “a nightmare,” she said. Five years ago, a slight kneecap injury spiralled into disaster after a surgeon made a mistake. Now, Ms Clark struggles to walk steadily with a severed nerve, a rectangular machine fastened to her leg and four artificial ligaments and a screw installed in her knee.

Even her journey to meet me in Redfern proved challenging. “I nearly cried twice,” she said. Holding the handrail, Ms Clark recalled being bumped heavily by two men rushing down the stairs.

As of 2011, Redfern is the sixth busiest train station in Sydney with over 46,000 barrier counts each day. With 12 platforms, it is second only to Central in interchange possibilities. There are no lifts or ramps.

In February, the SSH reported on the next stage of the Lift Redfern campaign. A fun, new marketing strategy of Phase Two has been to ask university students to devise a method of transporting an elephant onto a Redfern platform.

On April 11, engineering students Oasika Faiz and Matt Broom were announced the winners of the elephant competition with their hydraulic pulley design. Other less technical responses involved fairy dust, releasing mice or poking the elephant with a giant pointy stick. Lift Redfern will soon launch a similar competition for children.

Labor Sydney Councillor, Linda Scott, expressed full support, saying lifts at Redfern are “overdue”. Living in Erskineville as a mother of two young children, Ms Scott regularly has to ask for help when dragging her children’s pram up and down the station steps. “It’s just not good enough that people have to rely on the never-ending kindness of strangers,” she said.

Lift Redfern campaigners are frustrated by successive NSW governments’ inaction and broken promises. Key organiser, Bill Yan, said: “We’ve been overlooked and we want answers.”

Lift Redfern supporter, Ross Smith, said: “Ms Berejiklian [Transport Minister] is treating Redfern Station as the elephant in her room. There is a demonstrated need. There is also a marked diversion to publicly acknowledging and meeting that need.”

According to Mr Smith, “Redfern station was to be funded by the sale of government assets around the immediate area”. He said: “They’ve sold the properties but they haven’t done [up] the station.”

Denise Clark wants to see lifts at Redfern Station. “I don’t know how many more people [the government is] going to have to see fall down the stairs or injure themselves on the stairs before they do something about it,” she said. Until then, her commuting will remain a struggle.

You can sign the Lift Redfern online petition and add in your own reasons for supporting lifts at Redfern here.

Published in the South Sydney Herald, p. 5 , May 2013.

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