Reporting Diversity
Television News 2007 Study

Gail Phillips, Murdoch University;
May 2008


This analysis shows that the peculiarities of the television news genre often do no favours to people from non-Anglo backgrounds, and indeed, whether deliberately or otherwise, may encourage us at worst to fear them, or at best to assume they are not there at all.  This matters because of the very power television news has, and retains, to provide a representation of our nation as an ‘imagined community’ (Schudsen 1995:171).  In the medium which remains the main source of news and current affairs for the Australian population (Roy Morgan 2007) who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ is of crucial importance in terms of how we see ourselves.  Even more dangerously, what we don’t know, we tend to fear.

There have been many studies, especially in the panicky post-9/11 climate, which have highlighted problems with reporting practices that have exacerbated community tensions (eg Akbarzadeh and Smith, 2005, Greater London Authority 2007, Anti-Discrimination Board  of New South Wales 2003, Manning, Peter, 2004, Noakes and Wilkins 2002, Norris et al 2003, Poole and Richardson 2006).  All have advocated changes to journalism practice to ensure less inflammatory, more fair and balanced reportage, especially relating to the Muslim community. The current study shows that Australian television news is no less susceptible to storytelling techniques which stereotype and isolate certain sectors of the community presenting them as different from and even threatening to an implied ‘mainstream’ Australia. While acknowledging that drama and sensationalism are the very stuff of modern television news as it tries ever more frantically to counteract the dwindling of its audiences (Patterson 2000, Project for Excellence in Journalism 2008, Rosentiel et al 2007) it can be argued that what we see on our screens is increasingly divergent from what we witness in our daily lives.  In their 2001 survey of racism in Australia  Dunn et al described  how ‘old racism’ based on racial differences was being supplanted by ‘new racisms of cultural intolerance, denial of Anglo-privilege and narrow constructions of nation’ (409) with the main focus of negative attitudes shifting from Asian and Jewish communities to Muslim groups. While the younger generation appeared to be more tolerant than their parents, the researchers nevertheless concluded that ‘the Australian national imaginary still remains very Anglo-Celtic.’(427).  A 2002 study of Australians’ appreciation of cultural diversity within their society showed that while ‘Cultural mixing and matching is almost universal’(Ang et al 2002:6) the perception of Australia’s national identity lags behind, with ‘Australianness”…still not generally perceived in a manner than recognises and is fully inclusive of the cultural diversity of the Australian people.’(ibid:7). Most pertinently the overwhelming view of the people surveyed, both Anglo and non-Anglo, was that ‘The Australian media are not seen as reflecting the Australian way of life’ and do not ‘represent their way of life.’(ibid:8). 

Just as the community has had to accept the reality of a diverse population drawn from all parts of the world so do Australia’s news services need to accept the realities of the 21st century. If they are to continue to have relevance for the community at large they have no choice but to modernise their look.  This may require changes to previously safe, comfortable and familiar routines, but more importantly it is about changing the mindset and culture of the newsroom.

The 2007 survey provides examples of things being done differently and perhaps they can point the way to future best practice.

  1. Selecting for diversity – crowd shots and vox pops

It was noted in the analysis that most of the random crowd shots focused on Anglo faces and most of the vox pop talent was also Anglo.  Making news gatherers aware of this tendency may encourage them to look with different eyes and to attempt to capture pictures and voices which reflect the observable diversity in the general population.

EM as ‘normal’:

9 May Sydney NINE vox pop in ‘petrol scam’ story

4 May Shepparton WIN – Vegetable shop owner in story on the Bee Forum

7 May Sydney SEVEN - Literacy results

  1. Selecting for diversity – expert talent

Non-Anglo talent featured only rarely as professional experts, compared to the occasions when they appeared as either villains or victims.  The media can broaden the range of their diaries of expertise by searching proactively for new talent outside the traditional stamping grounds. And as Tanya Dreher notes,  ethnic communities can be trained to intervene more proactively themselves to exert their own influence on the news agenda and news practices in general (2003).

  1. Deciding who speaks 

It can be challenging and even uncomfortable for Anglo reporters to approach people from non-Anglo communities.  Their uncertainty may result from doubts about culturally appropriate behaviour and even extend to fears for their own safety.  Reporters need to be actively encouraged to build relations with people from non-Anglo backgrounds so they don’t feel like strangers when they are doing a story.  By normalising their own relations with non-Anglo people they will be better able to represent them as normal human beings rather than as alien ‘others’.  By reducing their own distance from non-Anglo communities reporters may find they are more comfortable approaching EM talent and have greater confidence in letting them speak for themselves, without the often superfluous and distancing contrivance of subtitles. 

  1. Deciding how they speak 

While subtitles are essential when people are speaking in a foreign language, they convey a different message when used for people speaking English, underscoring a sense of difference from the mainstream. While there are undoubtedly occasions when people’s accents may make their speech difficult to follow, evidence from this survey showed a tendency to err on the side of caution and to put subtitles in when the person was easily understandable. In this way news services can appear patronising towards not just the non-Anglo talent but also their audiences who are assumed to be unable to make sense of something for themselves.  In a diverse society where people are adjusting to English delivered in a rainbow collection of accents the news services can afford to be more relaxed in their treatment of linguistic variation.

  1. Expanding the reporter base

As Schudsen notes, '...who writes the story matters. When minorities and women and people who have known poverty or misfortune first-hand are authors of news as well as its readers, the social world represented in the news expands and changes.'(1995:8). While there were a few non-Anglo reporters who were observed in this survey they were no different from Anglo reporters in their conformity to the established model of television news reporting. It in fact appeared quite discordant to see, for example, a non-Anglo reporter bringing us conventional anti-Muslim scare stories (SBS 11 May).  Instead reporters from non-Anglo backgrounds could and should be an invaluable resource in the sort of bridge-building that is necessary to increase the cultural diversity of television news. Rather than simply getting them to report ‘our’ way they could help increase awareness in newsrooms and build up the confidence of Anglo reporters in extending their range beyond the ‘Anglo’ known.

On the evidence of this survey which has provided a snapshot of television news trends from 2001 to 2007, things have not changed much since Jakubowicz et al noted that ‘structural self-interest and attitudes of management and programming executives’ presented ‘major barriers to employment and representation of minorities’ (1994:158). Unless news organisations, managers and editors decide to change, nothing will change. Editorial direction from the top is essential to effect a genuine culture shift and to instil best practices that will lead to news services that genuinely reflect the nation back to itself. 

Note: This study was undertaken as part of the Reporting Diversity project funded by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. The author would like to acknowledge the contribution of  Andrew Tapsall and Suellen Tapsall  to this research.


Member : Murdoch UniversityMember: Griffith UniversityMember: University of South AustraliaMember: Media MonitorsMember: SBSMember: University of CanberraMember: Journalism Education AssociationMember: University of Western Sydney
Department of Immigration and Citizenship