How Australia’s ‘pale, male and stale’ media is hindering our relationship with ASEAN

With Asian-Australians facing heightened racial abuse, Australia’s lack of diversity in media newsrooms has damaged Australia’s relationship with ASEAN through sensationalist reporting of COVID-19. 

As coverage of COVID-19 continues to dominate the media, an increasing dark sentiment towards Asians has been made apparent with the pandemic fueling verbal harassment, physical intimidation towards Asians in Australia and ultimately testing ASEAN-Australia relations. 

Sensationalist media headlines inciting blame on the Asian community have brought on a wave of ‘Coronaracism’, a by-product of the lack of diversity within our mediascape. But unfortunately, the issue of media representation in Australia isn’t a new one which has been exasperated by the current climate. As a nation home to over 3.5 million Asian Australians making up 16.3 per cent of Australia’s population in 2016, Australian media must place representation at the forefront of their priorities to ensure our media doesn’t continue to incite hate or spread disinformation and further divide the relationship between Australia and ASEAN. 

Photo by Jay Wennington on Unsplash

Viral Racism

According to the Asian Australian Alliance report, ‘COVID-19 coronavirus incident report,’ the backlash from COVID-19 has been felt by all Asians within Australia with one Malaysian Chinese female in Perth told to, “go back to China … go eat bats and die alone.”

This is only one of many examples of Asian Australians experiencing racism during the pandemic.  

While the media isn’t solely to blame for the outbreak of anti-Asian racism in Australia, research suggests for many audiences who don’t have first-hand knowledge of what is happening (evident during a pandemic when communities are in isolation) the media plays a key role in constructing and focusing public interest, perspectives and the arguments which are open for public debate. 

The line between personal and professional values often blur for media professionals and as a result culture can be a key influence on journalistic culture. Having a diverse body of reporters ensures our media doesn’t report from the perspective of a singular Anglo-Australian archetype rather the viewpoints of the many who call Australia home. 

Girt by a sea of white

According to the, “Who Gets to Tell Australian Stories?” report produced by Media Diversity Australia, a lack of representation between the diversity on our screen and in our suburbs was identified. Out of 270 free-to-air television presenters categorised over two weeks in June 2019, over 75 per cent of presenters were from an Anglo-Celtic background, with only six per cent of presenters either from an Indigenous or non-European background. 

This division was further highlighted when the study examined the cultural backgrounds of television newsroom editorial leaders, with 100 per cent of free-to-air Australian television news directors all identifying as male and of Anglo-Celtic descent. 

With 21 per cent of Australia’s population identifying as non-European, the only broadcaster to showcase promising diversity was the SBS with 76.6 per cent of its presenters coming from non-European backgrounds with the nearest broadcaster the ABC only having 9.1 per cent non-European broadcasters.

Overall, the findings of the report criticised Australia’s representation in the media, saying it lagged on diversity and organisational response in comparison to America and the UK. 

But this is also not the first time Australia’s lack of media representation has been called out. In 1991 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission raised concerns over the lack of diversity in our media through the National Inquiry into Racist Violence

In this report the commission made the recommendation media outlets employ more people from both Indigenous and non-English speaking backgrounds to, ‘sensitise the media to issues of concern to these groups and contribute to more informed and more realistic reporting.’ 

Source: Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Where to next?

In Australia, over 860 000 residents claimed their country of birth was in the ASEAN region, and with over 105 000 ASEAN students studying in Australia in 2017 and over 1.4 million visits to Australia for work from people in ASEAN countries in 2017, it is vital we maintain the safety of people and relationship between Australia and ASEAN.  

At the core of the issue is our newsrooms. While advances have been made including a petition fighting for #UnityOverFear and the denouncement of racism on Asian-Australians by a prominent group of 16 Asian Australians alongside the newly implemented Media Diversity Australian Award, this isn’t enough. 

Newsrooms need to commit to cultural change in their organisations by hiring a culturally diverse workforce and allowing alternate voices to take on leadership positions. Hiring diverse staff removes the likelihood of missing cultural blind spots and filtering out relevant perspectives and arguments. 

Newsrooms who hire a diverse workforce get to reap the benefits our nation has also gained from having a strong relationship with ASEAN including, alternate lived experiences, new languages and increased cross-cultural awareness.

In a time where our country needs to be unified, media diversity should not be the reason Australia back-pedals on its relationship with such a diverse region. 

Infographic by Tiffany Verga

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