Who Should Tell Indigenous Stories?

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who should tell

To represent a story truthfully is a complex task—particularly when unravelling something that remains a “great mystery” to many Australians. In reporting on Aboriginal issues, I’ve often wondered if I, as a non-Aboriginal Australian, have any right to tell their stories.

Hosted by Stan Grant, SBS CQ recently brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous journalists, academics and community members to explore the media’s representation of Indigenous people. Together they debated not only what stories should be told but how they should be told and importantly, who should be telling them.

These questions are crucial, as Mr Grant points out, because for many non-Indigenous Australians, the media is the first and sometimes only contact they have with Indigenous people. Speaking from the Northern Territory, ABC’s Charlie King, said Aboriginal people are a “great mystery to the rest of Australia.”

Tell the truth

Headlines on Aboriginal issues are often marked with alcoholism, petrol-sniffing epidemics, violence and child sexual abuse. But if these problems do exist, is it not more dangerous to sweep them under the rug? Perhaps the more important question is how to appropriately portray and represent real issues – the good and the bad.

Commenting on story selection, Liz Jackson from Four Corners said: “it’s as if good media is the media that only tells the good stories and bad media is the one that only tells the bad stories. Bad media is the stories that don’t tell you the journalistic truth.”

Media lead-up to Northern Territory Intervention

As a case study, SBS CQ explored the media reporting that lead up to Howard’s Northern Territory Intervention 2007. At the time, child sexual abuse stories were rife in the media. Some guests criticised the media for hyping up a moral panic and demonising Aboriginal men.

Aboriginal scholar, Prof. Marcia Langton, and the member for Arnhem Land, Larisa Lee, agreed that the problem of child sexual abuse was and is undeniable. Ms Lee said that “in the Northern Territory, something had to be done in regards to child sexual abuse. It was going on for years, still is a problem in the Northern Territory.”

So should stories of child abuse in Aboriginal communities be covered? Absolutely, seemed to be the general consensus in the room.

But how should they be covered? Where is the line between oversimplified sensationalism and ignoring or underplaying reality? Editor of Tracker Magazine, Amy McQuire argued that mainstream media often disregarded the strength in Aboriginal communities. “I think there’s a lot of strong Aboriginal women on the frontline, I see them everyday; their voices aren’t being heard so you can’t really victimise the communities because there’s a lot of strength in communities”, she said.

Image: Sidkid

Do the sins of a few define the whole?

Perhaps the greater problem is when the tunnel-visioned, negative angle is the only side we hear; when negative stories begin to epitomise and define the entire Aboriginal culture. Journalist, Jeff McMullen, argued that negatively choreographed stories, which focus on racial rather than social and historical causes, trap Aboriginal people into a negative stereotype.

The “deep ignorance” towards Aboriginal people in Australian life extends to many Australian journalists, Mr McMullen said. Most Australian journalists in mainstream media are “thinly educated and have little experience of Aboriginal life, ” he said. “So they are easily manipulated, they’re easily fed, they buy most of the stereotypes without questioning”.

With the Australian mainstream media largely criticised for oversimplified and sensationalised reporting on Aboriginal issues, it becomes questionable whether Australian journalists are well suited for listening to and representing Indigenous stories. How can a journalist depict a culture that they don’t entirely understand?

Who can bridge the gap?

Many SBS CQ guests highlighted the need to hear the voices of ordinary Aboriginal people. This need is further underpinned by the necessity that Aboriginal people feel they will be treated fairly by the media. Mr King argues that overly negative reporting can dissuade Aboriginal people from speaking out in fear of being misrepresented.

At the same time, Prof. Langton says Aboriginal people need to speak up. “You can’t have it both ways: you can’t say ‘we’re not talking to the media because they demonise us’ then complain about not being covered by the media”, she said.

If you want to be heard, you need to speak. If you want to be a good journalist, you need to listen.

Julian Wilcox from Maori Television and Ms McQuire said it is critical that indigenous people are equipped to tell their own stories because they have more access to and understanding of indigenous issues.

But in terms of who should be working to bridge the gap through media reporting, Indigenous journalist, Kirstie Parker, said “absolutely everyone.”

Patricia Karvelas from The Australian agrees that these stories should not be hidden away from mainstream media. She gives the example of advocating for Constitutional recognition of Australia’s first peoples. “It’s so crucial to get white people talking about it, because they’re the ones overwhelmingly that have the vote”, she said.

As Prof. Langton points out, the issue is less about the colour of a journalist and more about quality of a journalist’s skills. “If you want top quality journalism, you need top quality journalists. Surely in this day and age, we have to admit that they come from all peoples in the planet”, she said.

Published in Vibewire, 5 June 2013.

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