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Bad news: negative Indigenous health coverage reinforces stigma

Think of Aboriginal health and you’ll probably recall messages of large gaps in life expectancy, increasing rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes, kidney disease and asthma. Or that the last ten years…

The media should focus more on positive models of change and commitment in Aboriginal communities. Rusty Stewart, CC BY-NC-ND

Think of Aboriginal health and you’ll probably recall messages of large gaps in life expectancy, increasing rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes, kidney disease and asthma. Or that the last ten years has been a “wasted decade” for Aboriginal people.

It won’t be too much of a surprise, then, to learn that 74% of media articles about Aboriginal health are negative. That’s the finding of a media study by my colleagues and I at the Public Health Advocacy Institute Western Australia (PHAIWA).

No one would argue it is difficult to generate negative stories about Aboriginal communities when the data shows:

  • the estimated gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people’s life expectancy in Australia is greater than in New Zealand, Canada and the United States
  • Aboriginal people are four to five times more likely to die between the ages of 25 and 54 years than non-Indigenous Australians
  • Aboriginal employment rates fell from 48% in 2006 to 46.2% in 2011
  • More than 26% of Australia’s adult prisoners are Aboriginal, even though they represent just 2.5% of the country’s total population

The news is bad. But does the media do all it can – or make enough of an effort – to look for positive stories?

My colleagues and I analysed all articles relating to Aboriginal health from print media in The West Australian, The Australian and The Sunday Times (WA) and from the ABC Online news service during 2012, a total of 335 articles.

We found that overwhelmingly, the articles were negative in their portrayal of Aboriginal health, with 15% of the coverage positive and 11% neutral.

Stereotypes can be internalised, creating a sense of shame among Indigenous people. Michael Coghlan, CC BY-SA

The most common negative topics were alcohol, child abuse, petrol sniffing, violence, suicide, deaths in custody and crime.

The most common positive topics included education, role modelling for health, sport and employment.

The media plays a significant role in framing the way we think about issues. When Aboriginal people are persistently portrayed as drunks, welfare dependents and violent perpetrators, it can fuel racist attitudes among the wider population and this type of racism has a major impact on the health of Aboriginal Australians.

In some cases, these stereotypes can be internalised, creating a sense of shame and presenting barriers to participating in mainstream society. This perpetuates the cycle of disadvantage.

Yet it would not be appropriate to blame the media in isolation for negative portrayals of Aboriginal health.

Drawing attention to problems experienced in Aboriginal communities is a legitimate and well-tried approach for those who seek to generate action. Media coverage of disadvantage and negative outcomes is often presented by journalists as a response to comments by advocates for action, and as a means of expressing and generating concern and outrage, and seeking change.

There is also a legitimate role for media in reporting evidence-based information relating to disadvantage.

Although these issues are important to highlight, particularly from an advocacy perspective, they tell only half the story and rarely provide positive aspects or hopes for the future.

Negative portrayals of Indigenous people can fuel racist attitudes. sidkid/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

So, how can we positively influence the way in which Aboriginal health is portrayed in the media?

One strategy to overcome the sense of hopelessness created through negative media, is to focus on positive models of change and commitment in Aboriginal communities. There is great value in capturing positive changes, in collecting and amplifying the voices of Aboriginal people and organisations who are role models, and who run successful ventures in their communities.

The West Australian Indigenous Storybook, produced by PHAIWA, does just this. The storybooks portray only positive stories and are written largely by Aboriginal public health or community development practitioners.

The books look more deeply into issues and illustrate responsible and less sensationalist reporting on a diverse range of topics and issues that affect health including personal journeys, Aboriginal art, language, education, sport, environmental stewardship and preventive health projects. These achievements are worth talking about.

Upskilling Aboriginal advocates through media training is also required, particularly when, by nature, many are shy. Aboriginal corporations should consider this within their annual budgets and professional development plans.

In Western Australia, this training is provided free of charge by PHAIWA but in other states, budgets may need to be allocated. This training is important to balance the power relationship between journalists and Aboriginal people.

Positive media representations of Indigenous Australians can provide hope for the future. yaruman5/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Encouraging journalists to talk with Aboriginal people about their life, culture and concerns may result in news stories that are more accurate and portray a less distorted and stereotypical view of Aboriginal communities.

One effective training method is the integration of a visit to an Aboriginal community during cadetships or university training, where students talk directly with them about their hopes, fears and problems.

This has been trialed in a partnership between the Combined Universities Centre for Rural Health (CUCRH) and Edith Cowan University, where eight final-year journalism students spent a month with Aboriginal communities in two Western Australian towns.

We also need to develop ethical media policies and procedures that promote fair reporting of issues relating to Aboriginal communities, such as the clash of media and Aboriginal cultures, timelines, values and trust.

An organisation such as the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance which already has a code of ethics could lead the charge and provide regular training on how journalists can better promote cultural diversity in reporting.

A precedent has been established with the reporting of suicide. Mindframe aims to inform appropriate reporting of suicide and mental illness, to minimise harm and copycat behaviour, and reduce the stigma and discrimination experienced by people with mental illness is working. So, we know it can be done; now we just have to make it happen.