Australian sports media: ‘There’s this pigeonholing of Indigenous voices’ | Marnie Vinall

Shelley Ware, an experienced media personality across television and radio and Yankunytjatjara and Wirangu woman, recently posted to Twitter: “I’ll be honest the lack of diversity in media in 2021 is unsettling and the fact that, as an Aboriginal woman – even though I have 20 years of experience – I don’t even cross mainstream media’s minds. We have a long way to go…”

Research by Media Diversity Australia and four Australian universities found that as of August 2020, 75% of presenters, commentators and reporters in Australia have an Anglo-Celtic background, while only 6% have an Indigenous or non-European background. Additionally, a report by MEAA on women in media also found that in Australia only 10% of sports reporters are women.

Shows such as the Marngrook Footy Show aired on NITV before its axing in 2019, and its replacement, Yokayi Footy – a partnership between NITV and the AFL – was created to champion diverse perspectives and have AFL conversations through an Indigenous lens.

Yokayi is where former AFL footballer and proud Barranbinya man Tony Armstrong started his media career before joining the ABC, where he is now sports presenter of News Breakfast and a regular guest on Network 10’s The Project.

Although Ware says she loves watching Armstrong – “I look at him in the morning and I think ‘thank god he’s there’” – she notes that the majority of First Nations voices rarely make it into the mainstream.

Tony Armstrong made the jump from NITV the ABC.
Tony Armstrong made the jump from NITV the ABC. Photograph: ABC

It is something Armstrong too has been vocal about. “I look so different to everyone [on TV],” he told the Sydney Morning Herald in July. “Like, I really look different. And that’s obviously a broader issue the Australian media’s got.”

Ware, a member of the all-female Outer Sanctum podcast, has found it can be difficult to even make it into the mainstream.

“I’ve had some people up in really high places in the media say to me that NITV is a place where Aboriginal people belong on television. And it’s true, that space was created by the government to give us a jump into mainstream media, but that just doesn’t happen.

“There’s this pigeonholing of us into this place that keeps that comfort of systemic racism; that keeps positions of power to other people, where we don’t come into it and aren’t a part of that space. That’s been the thing that has probably impacted me the most; the idea of that’s where Aboriginal people belong.”

A group of people who are seen as belonging in sports media are former players. This includes commentating, hosting and presenting roles. Take Fox League’s 2021 NRL commentary team, which was headed by former player Matthew ‘Matty’ Johns and included Cooper Cronk, Michael Ennis, Gorden Tallis, Greg Alexander and Braith Anasta – all past premiership winners.

Writer, broadcaster and diversity and inclusion consultant Rana Hussain says greater diversity would offer unique vantage points and thus added value to a broadcast.
Writer, broadcaster and diversity and inclusion consultant Rana Hussain says greater diversity would offer unique vantage points and thus added value to a broadcast. Photograph: Supplied

This pattern, however, has also meant an increasing number of women in these spaces in line with the growth of women’s sport. Daisy Pearce and Abbey Holmes, who were both part of Channel Seven’s 2021 AFL grand final coverage team, are successful examples.

Pearce’s broadcast value was recently recognised when she won the award for Best Opinion/Analysis – TV/Radio at the 2021 Australia Football Media Association Awards. There, the AFMA stated that her “football knowledge is incredible and she leaves viewers with a better appreciation of the game”.

Yet, as sports broadcaster and writer Rana Hussain points out, amid the progress the pathway still isn’t perfect.

“When they keep putting up ex-football players, the assumption is, ‘this is the game and these are the only people who know about it because they’ve played the game’,” says Hussain, a Muslim woman who is another member of The Outer Sanctum team and a diversity and inclusion consultant. “But if you take that statement on its merit it’s already flawed because, by virtue of that, you would have more Aboriginal players on screen talking about the game.”

Hussain, also a diversity and inclusivity specialist, says greater diversity would offer unique vantage points and thus added value to a broadcast. The state of sports media, she believes, is a reflection that “we as a country haven’t come to terms with the reality of who we are. That we are diverse, that we are a country full of culturally diverse people, and obviously First Nations people.”

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Ware agrees, and says decision-makers and people in positions of power need to commit to putting people of different backgrounds on the screen, even if that means taking risks.

“It’s the mentality of the people in power, they have to change,” Ware says. “They have to educate themselves on what it means to have people look through different lenses, what it means to have true diversity in their media, and how that will benefit their audience. It will only bring beauty to what we view; it will bring understanding; it will bring empathy.”

Sport is often viewed by many as an access point to the wider community. As stated in a report by VicHealth, “sport plays an important role in Australian society and media”, including “countering discriminatory norms and gender stereotypes”.

Given this, Ware says seeing people from diverse backgrounds on the television can help in “changing perceptions”, including around “misconceptions and stereotypes”.

“I want to see the community that we are as an Australian community. I want to see that on my television,” she says. “Everybody should be able to look at a television screen and see themselves reflected.”


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