Freedom of the Press or Freedom to Oppress?

The part played by the mass media in shaping the relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians has emerged as a significant aspect of contemporary race relations. It figures in the reports of two recent high level government inquiries; the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody (RCIADC) (1991) and the Human Rights Commission National Inquiry Into Racist Violence (1991). Both found that media treatment of issues involving Aboriginal people has a powerful influence on community attitudes and institutional behaviour towards Australia's indigenous people.

In a detailed WA study, the RCIADC found that while there were many examples of thoughtful, well-researched, sensitive and balanced journalism and programs dealing with Aboriginal issues, the WA media exhibited a number of habitual and wide-spread practices:

a tendency to sensationalise crime and civil disturbances involving Aboriginal people. A strong emphasis on reporting court proceedings, in which the Aboriginality of offenders tends to be made known unnecessarily.

a reliance on police sources for much of their stories, and a general failure to canvass Aboriginal opinion or cross-check police accounts of incidents.

a failure to include Aboriginal people within the community of readers that is addressed by the paper. That is, Aboriginal people tend to be treated as outside the normal business of mainstream society (seen as Anglo-Saxon), and represented mainly when perceived as presenting a challenge or threat to that society.

a tendency to reproduce colonial and race stereotypes about Aboriginal people both by invoking Eurocentric notions of savagery, timelessness and primitivism, and by superficially treating Aboriginal social problems so as to leave readers with the impression that they are caused by something innate to Aboriginal people themselves.

a failure to provide readers with the historical and social background which, stemming from colonisation, means that superficial or 'common sense' ways of trying to understand Aboriginal affairs are inadequate.4


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