Gail Phillips, Murdoch University;
How stories are told
In 2007, as in 2005, the storytelling conventions of television news often exacerbate the negative impressions we gain of the EM talent who feature in the stories. While there are often legal reasons that people wanted for criminal activities may not be pictured, or may not give interviews, the effect of the repeated portrayal of non-Anglo talent as voiceless and even faceless underscores a sense of depersonalised menace. This is often compounded by other aspects of the story. This can be illustrated by a more detailed analysis of three stories from this period.
The Tamil Tiger Fundraising Story, 1 May
On Nine, the story is covered most fully in Melbourne where the action has taken place, leading the bulletin. The story entitled ‘Terror scam’ shows pictures of the two alleged fundraisers being taken away in a car. We also see pictures of their families and supporters outside the court, who answer ‘no comment’ when asked to speak to the reporters. The reporter refers to the men having taken money from ‘charitable Australians’, and in a grab from a police news conference the Victorian Deputy Police Commissioner says ‘Australian citizens have been duped’. A Federal Police spokesperson in the same conference states that there is ‘no evidence these men were engaged in any activity which would have led to an attack on Australian soil’. While the other Nine services feature abbreviated versions of the story, all retain the quote from the Deputy Police Commissioner. The ‘dogwhistle’ power of the term ‘Australian’ as a signifier for ‘us’ as against ‘them’ was noted in the previous survey (Phillips and Tapsall 2007b:27-28). The coded implication is that the ‘Australian citizens of Sri Lankan descent’ are not real Australians like the rest of us.
The ABC puts first the Federal Police comments that there was no evidence of any domestic threat, while still carrying the grab from the Victorian Deputy Police Commissioner about Australians being duped. The story also refers to the complaint by the men’s lawyer that the police held their press conference before one of the men had even been charged. While the ABC appears to present a more toned down version of the story, it is bracketed with two other terror-related stories, one concerning the setting of a trial date for the suspects from 2005 Sydney counter terror raids and the other from the UK concerning new information relating to the 2004 foiled terror attack there. As was noted in the 2005 study, the way stories are bracketed together can lead to a bleeding of associations from one story to another (Phillips and Tapsall 2007b:31).
Ten’s version of the story features an interview with the uncle of one of the men, who is stunned by the events and says he had no knowledge of any links with the organization. The story also refers to a previous raid on one of the houses in November 2005 with file footage of a book seized at that time with a large artillery gun on the cover and ‘what appears to be Tamil writing’. While the association with the November 2005 counter-terror raids is implicit here, it is made explicit in Seven’s coverage where it is noted that the men have the same lawyers as the November 2005 counter-terror suspects.
SBS’s coverage is the briefest of all, restricted to a newsreader voiceover over pictures of the men in cars, though it is also part of a bracket including international terror stories.
We see here how the bare facts of the story are coloured by implied or explicit connections with other local or global terrorism threats, and by language which sets the two accused men apart from ‘genuine’ Australians.
The ‘Do Not Call’ Register Story, 3 May
In this story concerning the introduction of a ‘do not call’ register to reduce the incidence of nuisance telemarketing calls, channels Seven and Nine go to Anglo members of the public to articulate the intrusiveness of telemarketers, and illustrate the telemarketers themselves with file vision of employees at an Indian call centre. Thus ‘we’ are pitted against a dark-skinned alien ‘them’ who threaten our very domestic space. However interesting differences in treatment emerge on the ABC and SBS which feature Anglo telemarketers from an apparently Australian operation. Ten features Anglo and non-Anglo talent in its vox pops as well as a local telemarketing operation, though the camera homes in on the single Asian employee amongst all the other Anglo staff as the reporter refers to the ‘annoying telemarketers’. The WIN news services in both Townsville and Shepparton do their own versions of this story which contain no foreign telemarketers and which are more neutral in tone. This shows the extent to which the selection of images and talent is a potent tool for conveying different subtextual messages to the audience. It was deliberate editorial decision-making which selected the Indian images for the Seven and Nine stories, and which excluded them and the associated racial undercurrents from the ABC and SBS versions. Meanwhile Ten’s inclusion of an EM vox pop broadened the definition of who was ‘us’ in the community. Compare the impressions left by the following images:
Picture 4a: Townsville Seven ‘Do Not Call’ Telemarketing Regulation story, 3 May,
Picture 4b: ABC Shepparton, ‘Do Not Call’ Telemarketing Regulation story, 3 May,
The Queensland Untrained Interns Story, Townsville, 3 May
This story, relating to ongoing problems of under-qualified overseas-trained medical professionals in Queensland hospitals, was carried only in the Townsville/Brisbane market. The discovery of an under-qualified intern who had been employed at a succession of local hospitals was covered by all stations except SBS. Of interest here are the different ways the news services deal with the intern’s nationality. Seven’s story refers only to an ‘unqualified foreign-trained doctor’. Ten features a picture of the unnamed intern from which we easily deduce her ethnicity. Unusually the story features an Indian senior specialist at the hospital who deplores the current situation where ‘the system is rife with unregistered unqualified medical staff’. The reporter raises the spectre of Jayant Patel by adding that the specialist is concerned that ‘post Patel nothing’s changed’. The ABC restricts itself to a more formal reference to ‘a Chinese woman referred to as person 2’ along with lengthy quotes from a hospital report justifying her sacking from a similar position at another hospital. Nine features a picture of the intern in the opening graphic and not only names her, but alone of all the services carries an interview with her in which she defends the quality of her Shanghai medical degree and declares her intention of mounting a legal appeal.
Whether the link is explicit or not the Jayant Patel scandal provides the context for this story which presents ‘foreign’ doctors as a threat to ‘us’. There is a certain coyness about the way the issue of racial background is alluded to, but on all stations except Seven the identification is made nevertheless, either through words or pictures. Only Nine is totally upfront and allows us to see and hear the person herself, rendered more human and less of a demon by being able to give her side of the story.