The Australian african driver

A few years ago, my 15-year-old niece lost her life in an avoidable crash. The 25-year-old driver was jailed; the court found he was culpable for losing control and rolling his ute, crushing Brielle.

The media covered Brielle’s death at the time and followed Adam Moore’s subsequent trial and sentencing –  a four-year prison term with a two-year non-parole period. The court found both speed and alcohol were factors in the crash. Moore’s racial heritage was not considered by our family, nor noted by the court, nor outlined in any of the media coverage.

I’ve reported on far too many fatal car accidents, a number of them horrific, often in tragic circumstances. In all that time I’ve never thought to discuss the skin colour of those in the car, nor have I been asked to do so. Perhaps I can chalk this up as another journalistic failure. But it’s not something I can recall ever encountering, until this week when The Australian’s Twitter account on Monday informed us that:

Today reporter Christine Ahern tweeted that there had been a:

The Herald Sun also saw fit to note the appearance of six of the seven people involved in the collision:

To be clear, a swathe of Australian media is suddenly reporting the perceived appearance of people involved in car crashes. Well, maybe not all people in all crashes. Not because they have fled the scene and police are seeking to apprehend them, but because, well…

Nearly every major media outlet decided it would report the two-car Springvale collision that resulted in serious injuries but no fatalities. When did you last see this? Why might it be the case on this particular occasion?

Following the reports, out of curiosity, I googled “youths of African appearance”. It returned about 7890 results.

I then googled “youths of Caucasian appearance”. It returned 53 results.

Certain appearances of certain youths are considered worthy of noting. Others, not so much.

These double standards around racialised reporting are nothing new in the media. I rarely see it justified; it just happens. So it piqued my interest to see an attempted justification by Bernard Lane, The Australian newspaper’s “roving editor, leader writer and data journalist”.

The name may be familiar to anyone who saw his report last year that suggested an over-representation of offenders with “Horn of Africa” heritage in certain crime hotspots around Melbourne based on residential population data, as though people only carry out crime within the boundaries of their own LGA.

When the fundamental flaws of this exercise were pointed out, Lane went on the defensive and penned a piece bemoaning the “wave of opprobrium” he had suffered.

Lane then responded on Monday to a Twitter post by researcher and communications consultant Ketan Joshi, which used The Australian’s tweet as another example of “Australia’s predominantly white media industry” unnecessarily tagging racial characteristics. Lane challenged Joshi to show that African background was irrelevant to the reporting in this instance:

What if there is a link between criminal/risky conduct, home country conflict trauma and difficulties in refugee resettlement? Why don’t you trust readers to make their own assessment of the possibilities?

Joshi responded:

Faced with the response he requested, Lane decided he had fallen victim to another Twitter pile-on. Which, after suggesting such, subsequently turned out to be the case.

Extrapolating from Lane’s position, the media’s fixation with any perceived African-heritage link with criminal behaviour is not only justified — it should now in fact be extended far beyond crime to any “risky conduct”. The fact that some youth may have experienced “home country conflict trauma”, in this line of thinking, makes the reporting of their perceived race fair game. In fact, leaving it out (albeit in keeping with ethical reporting guidelines) is now nothing less than a form of censorship.

Although Adam Moore was found responsible for my niece’s death, he was not born in a country riven by bloody conflict, so his race would be considered irrelevant.

Likewise, the racial characteristics of the 18 men piled into a five-seater ute being driven by a drunk driver in Montmorency last month are irrelevant.

The appearance of six young people involved in a collision in Springvale, however  —  although somehow not that of the other driver  —  is suddenly a matter of utmost importance.

“Home country conflict trauma” is certainly a point to consider when trying to understand the settlement experience in Australia. Yet there is a clear abrogation of responsibility taking place here; a failure to accept the part played by ongoing and recurring conflicts experienced while growing up within Australian society, particularly the media’s role in re-traumatising communities.

I don’t believe the majority of journalists are consciously setting out to demonise the African-Australian community. Yet I’m also not convinced that adequate care is being taken to consider the consequences of this type of reporting; the relentlessness, the selectivity and the clear double-standards.

Assessed as a standalone, such reports are ethically problematic. Taken as a whole, they are part of the systemic abuse of a section of a population; abuse that we know, anecdotally and empirically, is deeply damaging. It normalises and justifies discriminatory practices, particularly once the idea of being “African” and the notion of “risk” collapse into one. Coupled with a paucity of positive representations, a one-sided, negative portrayal of the African-Australian community becomes a self-perpetuating “feedblack” loop.

Once the “African appearance” detail emerged in relation to Monday’s crash, there were widespread suggestions (entirely untrue) that the car must therefore have also been stolen. Guilt is preassigned and a ready array of assumptions are triggered. The imagined or perceived “risk” of such a crash is suddenly associated with the driver being “of African appearance”, rather than, say, the statistically-backed fact that young drivers are far more likely to be involved in fatal or serious injury crashes than more experienced drivers.

Following the reports and subsequent discussions, I took a quick Twitter survey asking people with lived experiences of racism whether they were more concerned by proud racists who unapologetically own it, or gaslighters who couch their prejudice in supposed concerns for their communities.

While both categories were deemed upsetting, gaslighters were by far and away more frequently nominated, specifically singled out as more taxing and stressful.

This story was originally published on Medium. It is reproduced here with permission from the author.

Peter Fray

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