Journalism has a lot to learn from the health sector, I’ve often thought. Many of healthcare’s challenges — reducing errors, becoming more responsive to the community, avoiding capture by powerful interests — are relevant for journalism as well. So when the new National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan 2013-2023 was released last week, I read it looking for what journalists might learn.
Although a federal government publication, it involved extensive consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the health sector. These are some points I took away …
The report makes it clear that racism is a huge health issue. Lately there has been some self-reflection by the media about our role in entrenching gender inequality (including on the front pages of The New York Times). We could also reflect on our own role in entrenching rather than confronting racism.
The document calls for culturally supportive and culturally safe environments in health care. A large part of the media industry has not grappled with what this might look like in journalism, whether for members of our industry, or for communities and people interacting with us.
The document portrays racism as being institutionalised within health care — rather than being an aberrant behaviour by a minority. Journalism that has learned this lesson might end up with much more powerful and instructive stories. As the ABC presenter Waleed Aly wrote earlier this year, in the wake of yet another publicised incident of abuse, “our real problem is the subterranean racism that goes largely unremarked upon and that we seem unable even to detect”.
Nareen Young, CEO of the Diversity Council of Australia (and a tweeter on these issues), says the media could help by spending less time arguing about what constitutes racism, as this unending debate is exacerbating the hurt. “We need to say that if something hurts someone deeply, it is racist,” she said. The council would like to work with the media to identify areas for improvement.
The plan’s holistic approach to health is something we all could learn from. Indeed, GP Dr Tim Senior has argued for a wider adoption of the Aboriginal definition of health. Much media reporting reinforces a narrow biomedical focus, and neglects the wider determinants of health — like the importance of an equitable education system, an inclusive society and a healthy environment. If journalists incorporated the plan’s broad understanding of health into our work, we might see more useful reporting — whether on health or wider policy issues.
The document stresses the importance of culture, language and cultural identity to the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Yet so often, media reports portrays culture as a negative. If reporting such concerns, then at the least this broader context needs to be included. Beyond that, how might journalism contribute to wider acknowledgement of culture? Through use of language, for example?
The plan also stresses the importance of acknowledging and understanding the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The fact that different people hold different views does not automatically mean conflict and division. Is journalism capable of respect for diversity?
The plan emphasises the importance of strengths-based approaches to Aboriginal health, rather than a focus on the deficit model that is so common amongst both the media and health sectors. Journalism can be overly focused on the deficit model — telling us about problems we often already know about — rather than investigating potential solutions. This is not an argument for “soft” journalism — it is actually easier to describe problems, whether in Aboriginal health, climate change or obesity, than to do the hard yards of solutions-focused journalism.
The plan also underlines the impact of the past upon contemporary health and wellbeing, referring to the legacy of intergenerational trauma. Most of the recent media coverage celebrating the 200th anniversary of European explorers crossing the Blue Mountains did not even canvass the implications for the area’s Aboriginal peoples. Surely this type of coverage — that privileges one historical experience and account over another — exacerbates the intergenerational trauma identified by the new plan.
No doubt some hackles will rise about the idea that we in the media have a responsibility for our work’s impact. But the industry’s engagement with mental health initiatives suggests there is a wider awareness and willingness to evolve our practices.
This piece is written from my perspective as a non-indigenous journalist. I wish I’d had the chance to reflect on these issues earlier in my career. There are many journalists and organisations, particularly in the community sector, whose work reflects the principles underlying the new national health plan.
And the digital era is enabling initiatives like the Cherbourg MoJo project in Queensland which is equipping young people with the skills to tell their community’s stories. You can see this as a digital media project or as a health intervention, given that it aims to improve self-esteem, confidence, literacy, and to “present a less marginalised view of the community”.
So while journalism can learn plenty from the health sector, it works both ways. The Cherbourg project suggests the skills of journalism can be harnessed for improving a community’s wellbeing. Mind you, the ancient art of telling stories was around long before the modern concept of journalism was invented.
*Melissa Sweet is a PhD candidate at Canberra University, and is researching journalism and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health