The case for a more diverse and representative media should be clear by now – it’s been made time and time again. But it’s instructive to take stock every now and then. Over the last month alone, we’ve seen a number of clear examples of why greater diversity in media matters:
- the all-white, 20-seat Melbourne Press Club board failing to elect a single person of colour in recent elections
- ABC’s Insiders being criticised for having no people of colour on the program for the last ten years (something it finally rectified by inviting on Triple J’s political reporter Shalailah Medhora and the ABC’s first-ever Indigenous foreign correspondent, Bridget Brennan)
- The Age being called out for having only one Indigenous reporter in its 166-year history
- Sky News host Peta Credlin falsely blaming South-Sudanese Australians for the recent rise in Victoria’s COVID-19 cases (Sky News later apologised)
- the decision by four arts critics at the Nine newspapers to quit or reduce their hours to make room for more diverse writers to take their place
- and Channel 9’s hamfisted interview with a protestor at a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles.
At the heart of the issue – and why it remains recurrent – is an unresolved contradiction: Australia is a multicultural society, but our media tells a very different story.
Australian diversity not represented in media
One in four of Australia’s 25 million people were born overseas, 46% have at least one parent who was born overseas and nearly 20% speak a language other than English at home.
Yet, in 2016, PriceWaterhouseCoopers released a now much-cited report that found 82.7% of Australia’s media workers are monolingual and speak only English at home. Broadcast radio was even more homogeneous, with on-air talent being 75% male, white and over 35.
Because of the prevalence of media workers living in Sydney’s inner suburbs, PwC, an organisation not known for hyperbole (or, indeed, pop culture references), even compared them to those millennial stoners, the Bondi Hipsters.
The report concluded that a lack of diversity – in ethnicity, gender and age – is slowing the media industry’s growth.
Views on race have a long history
For many Australians, the memory of a largely white, monocultural country (which necessarily excludes Indigenous experience) forms part of the nostalgic fabric of their childhoods.
It’s arguably only natural – even understandable – those ideas and structures would manifest in our media, both in the make-up of the workforce and in the ways otherness is depicted.
In the book Racism, Ethnicity and the Media, published by UTS academics in 1994 but clearly still relevant today, the authors write:
From the perennial all-white suburban streets of Neighbours, to the marginalised and threatening images of urban Aborigines, to the eroticised representation of ‘foreign women’, the media ‘work’ on reality, constructing narratives which play a vital role in how we see ourselves and others.
In short, Australia’s racism is wired in.
Diversity at ABC, by the numbers
These days, Australian media organisations are beginning to take the challenge of diversity and representation seriously – some more than others.
The ABC and SBS publish regular diversity reports, and arguably, the very existence of these reports shows some progress is being made.
In the ABC’s Diversity and Inclusion Plan 2019-2022, Managing Director David Anderson writes,
If we want our content to authentically reflect and appeal to all Australians, we need to ensure our people – both on-air and behind the scenes – are as diverse as the Australian community we serve.
The report highlights a range of initiatives at the ABC – including targeted hiring, working groups, mentoring and better auditing – that demonstrate its commitment to diversity.
It’s a cheery-looking document with, apparently, as many photos of the ABC’s diverse stars as could fit into 31 pages. (An unfortunate side-effect of concentrating so much diversity in one place is it inadvertently highlights how white the ABC normally is. It just doesn’t look like the ABC.)
Still, it’s good to have some stated values and accompanying statistics. In 2019, the report shows 2.7% of the ABC’s employees were Indigenous, 13.7% were from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds and 5.3% had disabilities. Among CALD employees, 9.8% were in executive roles and 9.2% were in content-maker roles.
Are things then improving? In 2018, the ABC reported it had 13.5% employees from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB, as they were called back then – a 0.2% improvement this year); 2.8% Indigenous employees (0.1% worse off this year), 8.7% NESB employees in executive roles (a 1.1% improvement this year) and 9.4% NESB employees in content-maker roles (a 0.2% slide this year).
The recent $84 million in cuts to the ABC, which resulted in 250 job losses and the gutting of ABC Life, an outlet that housed many CALD journalists and celebrated their stories, is a further setback in the wider push for greater diversity.
So, on balance, some things have improved a little, some are a little worse, but basically not much has changed. (And more cuts may be on the way.)
But it’s unfair to single out the ABC; they are at least making an effort. Commercial networks seem to simply ignore the problem – or, often, compound it by fear-mongering, peddling stereotypes and targeting prominent CALD voices.
How to bring more diversity to newsrooms
Diversity and inclusion are long-standing challenges in Australia, and there is admittedly no quick fix. It requires sustained, multi-pronged initiatives that provide practical pathways for diverse journalists and storytellers to get into the industry and, once in, to get ahead.
These are some steps media organisations can take, though, to start to change their cultures:
- provide media training for CALD journalists, storytellers and communities to enable them greater ownership and agency to tell their own stories, and greater employment opportunities in the industry
- establish better networks between the media industry and CALD representative bodies to better represent CALD experience and to facilitate opportunities for emerging CALD journalists
- expand support for emerging CALD student journalists with scholarships, mentorships, cadetships, internships and other opportunities to help them get a foot in the door and gain experience
- hold more events to bring CALD students together with media industry practitioners to recruit more of them into the profession and provide pathways into employment
- improve cultural literacy training programs and audits for diversity to better understand the gaps in institutional knowledge and the make-up of staff
- research best practices for amplifying CALD voices, both in Australia and overseas
- actively seek out and hire CALD journalists and storytellers
- and, perhaps most importantly, listen to culturally and linguistically diverse people on what the problems are and take seriously their ideas on how to fix them. Media executives, if you are reading this, you can start here.