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The sudden, eye-blinking recognition by US media that institutional racism is a real thing — and that they are too often part of the problem — is being followed by a far more slowly emerging understanding here in Australia.

It isn’t going to be easy. It demands overturning the confident carelessness of too much journalistic practice, to be witnesses and reporters, not street-front spruikers in some reimagining of the 19th century’s marketplace of ideas.

Here’s the argument for change in a tweet:

American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment. The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.

Delete “American”, insert “Australian”.

That’s Wesley Lowery — who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting at The Washington Post on the emergence of Black Lives Matter in 2014 — responding to the imbroglio over The New York Times‘ trolling op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton calling for a military crackdown on US protesters.

An internal staff revolt over the decision to publish Cotton’s piece led to the resignation of op-ed head James Bennett.

A journalism of moral clarity: it’s bracing, shocking even. A call to a journalism of service to principle. And in the US, in fits and starts, the necessary clarity about journalism and racism is spilling from the streets into newsrooms — as a handful of older white editors are discovering at their cost.

In Australia, establishment journalism seems more likely to bring cynicism than excitement, conflating “moralism” with that early 20th century journalistic neologism gifted to Australian English by Truth editor John Norton: “wowserism”.

But Australian journalism has been built on deep moral principles. Australian journalists’ code of ethics was among the first in the world developed, promoted and applied by working journalists.

These principles have never been based on the concept of journalism as a discount-sales table of fact-free ideas. They are based on respect for truth and to the public’s right to know. That’s the moral clarity that journalists need to bring to the truth of systemic racism.

In its place, too much reporting and commentary has started with a respect for institutional authority, and a “he said, she said” balancing that, in this case, acts to legitimise the un-truths of racism. This is not the clarity of a journalistic respect for truth — it’s more like: “I dunno — you pick”.

As the American protests are forcing a reckoning with Australia’s parallel of Indigenous deaths in custody, the media has stumbled. Most notably in The Age last week, where a single untested source was elevated to a front page splash that smeared Indigenous-rights demonstrators; or the rightly-criticised decision to program an all-white episode of Insiders on the ABC the morning after the protests, complete with a sorrowful intro that the NSW police “had” to use pepper spray against a group of demonstrators.

Coverage of these issues called for a clear moral vision. Instead, a reliance on police sources and an exclusion of indigenous voices created journalism that is, at best, incomplete and unbalanced. In both cases, the clean up came after, with an apology in The Age and an embarrassed foot-shuffling on Insiders about the lack of colour on the panel.

Recognising the problem — even belatedly — is a step forward. But at the core of Australia’s media struggles lies the lack of diversity in Australian newsrooms, particularly when more effort seems to be put into constructing panels that provide affirmative action for News Corp than in lifting up new, diverse voices.

This week, an Essential Poll told us something we probably know: Australians are better at seeing institutional racism in others than we are in ourselves. Pre-protest polls of trust in the police in the US tell us Americans have the same blinkered view.

Australian media? Same-same — better at identifying problems with others than ourselves. That leaves a journalism that fails to report with clarity, clarity which will only be brought by working with a lens of understanding systemic racism, wielded by a diverse work-force.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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