The relationship between media coverage and Indigenous policy making has been investigated in a comprehensive research project, whose findings were reported at a recent symposium at the University of Canberra.

The findings suggest that a wider, more inclusive and more concerted media coverage of Indigenous affairs would have positive implications for policy and thus the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

A report on the research and symposium is provided below by Associate Professor Kerry McCallum, Head of Discipline of Journalism and Communication at the University of Canberra, and Lisa Waller, a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Deakin University and PhD candidate.

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Symposium discusses media and Indigenous policy in an era of ‘casual indifference’

Kerry McCallum and Lisa Waller write:

The way mainstream media reports Indigenous health influences how policies are developed, communicated and implemented, participants at the University of Canberra’s Media and Indigenous Policy symposium heard last week.

Research presented at the symposium confirmed what those working in the Indigenous health field already know – that the dominant feature of mainstream media attention to Indigenous health is a lack of interest.

Most of the time, journalists do not report on Indigenous health issues at all. But when the media spotlight highlights health issues, reporting is marked by intense spikes of interest and confined to a narrow range of news frames.

Indigenous health news in 3 newspapers, 2002-2007


Indigenous health coverage in 3 newspapers, 2003
Indigenous health reporting in 3 newspapers, 2006

Launching the Media and Indigenous Policy report, editor-at-large of the Canberra Times, Jack Waterford, lamented the era of ‘casual indifference’ to Indigenous affairs that characterised the current generation of mainstream journalism.

The Media and Indigenous Policy project has been exploring the relationships between news media reporting and the development of Indigenous health, communication and bilingual education policies over a 20-year period from 1988-2008.

Funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery grant, the project team has analysed 4,000 news and policy items and conducted interviews with more than 50 public servants, journalists and Indigenous policy advocates.

Former NT co-ordinator general for remote Indigenous services, Olga Havnen, told participants how difficult it was for Indigenous policy experts to be heard in national debates.

After the shock announcement of the NT Intervention in 2007, she co-ordinated 40 Indigenous community organizations from across the Territory to produce an alternative ‘Emergency Intervention’ proposal.

It was a detailed, measured response to child neglect from those working on the ground in remote communities. A launch was organised and the heads of several organisations flew down to Canberra. Even in an environment of intense media interest about the Intervention, Ms Havnen said that not one mainstream journalist or news organisation picked up the story.

The Media and Indigenous Policy project has investigated why it is so hard for a diversity of voices to be heard in mainstream media debate, and why policymakers, from political leaders to public servants, seem only to listen to those who dominate mainstream media coverage.

Lead researcher Kerry McCallum shared her research finding that few Indigenous voices, apart from Noel Pearson of Cape York, were heard in mainstream media discussion of Indigenous health issues.

Who are the media's sources on Indigenous health?

Lisa Waller’s research found that, in the bilingual education debate, mainstream news media were more likely to seek out spokespeople who represented conservative think tanks, such as Helen Hughes or Noel Pearson, than Indigenous policy advocates or academic experts.

This view was shared by one of the few academic public intellectuals in the field, Professor Jon Altman of the Australian National University, who relayed some of the challenges of engaging in mainstream media debates.

Former CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), Steve Larkin, relayed a story repeated by Indigenous participants interviewed for the study, saying: ‘I came to understand how fickle the media could be…I found there wasn’t much interest in any sort of positive stories, and I know I’m not the first person to say that’.

McCallum found that journalists told the story of Indigenous health through a dominant frame of “crisis and government policy failure”.

During the Howard era, a new frame of “individual responsibility” in news reporting increasingly aligned with the dominant discourse in government that Indigenous Australians were responsible for the state of their own ill health.

The dominance of a narrow range of voices and particular reporting frames contributed to both limiting and justifying the range of policy solutions available to address Indigenous health issues.

This is significant, given public servants’ and political leaders’ sensitivity to media coverage of policy issues.

The Media and Indigenous Policy research team has identified that ‘managing the policy optics’ – that is, how an issue is perceived and represented in public debate – is increasingly influencing both the nature and outcome of Indigenous health policy.

Remarkable resilience

But Waller also found that Indigenous communities were remarkably resilient, using mainstream, community and social media to keep issues alive and intractable.

Despite the ‘monolingual mindset’ that dominated in both media and government, she found that Yolngu of north-east Arnhem Land deployed a range of strategies to convey the importance of bilingual education. Yolngu developed sophisticated publicity and lobbying campaigns, and used their own community radio and online discussion groups to keep the issue alive.

While keeping an issue ‘intractable’ might make it difficult for governments trying to ‘solve’ policy problems, it is one way that Indigenous organisations can exert power and have a say in the policy process.

These findings reflect Melissa Sweet’s recent presentation to the Lowitja Congress, which argues that, as mainstream media is losing control of much of the political narrative, Indigenous communities are shifting power away from the centre and finding a voice through the use of online and social media. (Note from Croakey: I hope to post this presentation before too long).

Symposium participants discussed actions that might change the nature of public discussion and provide a greater range of voices in debates about Indigenous health and education issues.

Daniel Featherstone of the Remote Indigenous Broadcasting Association said that, where mobile phone technology was available (in about 14% of communities), there was an almost 100 per cent take up. Mobile phones were both popular and effective as personal devices for creating and sharing information and views.

Participants also called for greater recognition of the high levels of media literacy among Aboriginal children, which belied the mainstream media’s focus on the NT’s poor NAPLAN results as a justification for the abolition of bilingual education programs.

The symposium explored ways of improving the quality of reporting of Indigenous health and related social policy issues. Lisa Waller said remote journalism is a tough field of journalism and that it takes journalists who have developed ‘cultural competence’ to uncover and tell the best stories.

Newsroom cutbacks an issue

Mainstream newspapers once had the money to pay journalists to carry out investigative journalism and cover stories in remote locations, but newsroom racism and increasingly tight resources have affected the nature and quality of reporting.

Researcher Michelle Dunne Breen’s paper documented how pressures on newsrooms have impacted on the quality of reporting, with editing and fact-checking casualties of the crisis in Australian journalism.

She said more than 700 newspaper editorial jobs had been lost in the past year, eroding mainstream news media’s ability to critique and question ‘information’ from the likes of think tanks and government media units.

Rapidly changing media environments risked the loss of professional, culturally competent journalists, but participants identified the rise of online and social media as providing opportunities to diversify the range of voices.

The symposium called for a continued media engagement and action by Indigenous health and education advocates, to hold mainstream media and governments to account, to counter indifference and ensure that Indigenous voices are heard in the policymaking process.

• The Media and Indigenous Policy report will be available online next week at:

Copies are also available from Kerry McCallum:  Kerry.McCallum AT


Further reading

Jack Waterford writes in the Canberra Times: “more effort goes into ”engagement” with the media than into consulting or listening to Aborigines”

• Previously at Croakey, a GP working in Aboriginal health, Dr Tim Senior, urged politicians and policy makers, journalists and the media industry to reflect upon how they might work differently. Indigenous people are the ones who suffer, he wrote, when politicians and public servants focus on avoiding a blow from the press, rather than effective policy.

(As declared on this site, Kerry McCallum is one of Melissa Sweet’s PhD supervisors).



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