The Australian media industry is doomed to continue churning out controversial and often racist opinion pieces, for diminishing returns, unless newsrooms and their owners become more diverse, experts say.
A recent report from the anti-racism body All Together Now (ATN) analysed 315 racialised opinion pieces published across Australia over 12 months. The report’s authors found that 89% were authored by writers of an Anglo/Celtic or European background, 53% them involved negative depictions of race and 89% used techniques of covert racism.
“It reflects poorly,” said Antoinette Lattouf, a director at Media Diversity Australia and a senior journalist at Channel Ten. She told the Guardian the ATN report, released in October, highlighted the malaise gripping the industry.
“The problem with the broader news business model is that it is struggling,” she says. “It’s struggling to sustain quality, independent and good journalism. And opinion pieces are easier to write and cost less.”
The ATN report, which recommended the building of cultural competency and racial literacy within newsrooms and diversifying hires, analysed opinion pieces published by a range of mainstream Australian media outlets between April 2019 and April 2020. Its findings pointed to the “racialisation” of the coronavirus, saying that the language used in some of the pieces contributed to and perpetuated racism against Asian and Asian-Australian people.
“Even opinion pieces presenting surface-level inclusivity were ultimately perpetuating racist themes,” it said.
Dr Usha Rodrigues, a senior lecturer in journalism at Deakin University, said the findings were unsurprising and reflected the current media ownership model in Australia.
“You would have to look at the existing structure of the media industry in Australia – a very high level of concentration of commercial media ownership, and the existence of the two public service broadcasters to mitigate the agenda of commercial media,” she said.
“To some extent, all of the responsibility of being fair, balanced and representative of Australia has been relegated to the two public service broadcasters.”
In 2016, a landmark study on media ownership around the world, Who Owns the World’s Media?, was published and found that Australia had the third most concentrated newspaper industry in the world, behind China and Egypt.
To Rodrigues, the diversification of newsrooms was about reflecting changing demographics in Australia and improving a financial model that had left many mastheads struggling.
“This is a miscalculation on the part of commercial media, which are already reeling from increased competition from social media as a source of news; the entry of international media competitors (at the national level news); and of course the shifting of advertising dollars to online platforms.
“The ‘sameness’ of news and views offered by a news organisation is actually counter-productive in today’s competitive conditions for the commercial media.
“The only way to compel news organisations to provide more balanced news and views is to improve diversity in the newsroom. I am not talking about one or two journalists from diverse background, I am talking about a fair representation as per the Australian demographic mix.”
Lattouf said diversity in newsrooms was essential to both combating the proliferation of these opinion pieces and improving the financial standing of many of these publications.
“There’s piles of international research that shows that diverse organisations are more profitable and more innovative,” she said.
“So if you don’t want to do it for the moral reason or to increase social cohesion and to lessen racial division, well, it makes commercial sense to have a more diverse workplace.”
The report examined stories from the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, the Courier Mail, the Herald Sun, the Australian and the Daily Telegraph. It also monitored television programs such as The Project, A Current Affair, ABC’s 7.30 and 60 Minutes.
It found that 89% of the pieces that were labelled “racist” opinion pieces were authored by people from an Anglo-Celtic and/or European background.
Deliana Iacoban, a project manager at All Together Now and one of the authors of the report, told the Guardian the findings were part of a larger discussion on diversity in newsrooms.
“We wanted to support, with evidence, that racism in the media is still a big issue, which is why we collected this data and why we published this report. We need to push back against a very problematic media landscape.”
The report looked at 315 opinion pieces across the media landscape and found that of the pieces that discussed Muslims 75% contained negative representations.
Fifty-five per cent that discussed Chinese or Chinese-Australians, and 47% that discussed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, contained negative representations of those communities.
Lattouf lamented the report’s findings, saying there was an audience aching for nuance and representation in reporting.
“I think audiences deserve better,” she said. “Forty-nine per cent of Australians are either born overseas or have a parent born overseas.”
A recent study from the Asian Australian Alliance reported 377 incidents of racism towards Asian and Asian-Australian people between 2 April and 2 June 2020.
The report found that 60% of racist incidents involved physical or verbal harassment including slurs/name calling, physical intimidation, threats or being spat at.
Lattouf said the rise in racist incidents reflected a national and global conversation driven by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Unfortunately, it’s not unexpected, given what’s happening around the globe, with the previous rise of Trumpism, and the rise of anti-Asian and anti-Chinese sentiments in the discussion of Covid-19.”
The report from All Together Now identified five key techniques it said “mobilise and perpetuate anti-Asian racism in contemporary social commentary”, including the use of irony, stereotypes, fallacies, intertextuality and scaremongering.
Seventy-nine per cent of the stories the report identified as racist were found to use “covert racism”, which worked to blur “the lines between legitimate political criticism and racism”.
• This article and headline were amended on Sunday 22 November to make clear that the sample analysed was 315 selected articles, not all opinion pieces published over a year.