For centuries, Australia has seen the mistreatment and over-representation of Indigenous peoples in its criminal justice system. There are issues of discrimination against Indigenous Australians at every step of the criminal justice process, from police contact, to sentencing, and beyond. Despite only making up 2% of the national population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults constitute 27% of the national prison population, based on the Australian Law Reform Commission’s 2018 Inquiry into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Furthermore, the Report stipulates that Indigenous women constitute 34% of the female prison population. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody identified racism as the central cause of both this overimprisonment and deaths in custody (Imtoual et al. 2017), and a plethora of laws and initiatives exist that disproportionately impact Indigenous Australians. Notably amongst these include the only recently decriminalised laws against public drunkenness that led to the incarceration and even death of disproportionately-targeted Indigenous Australians (Braybrook 2019), and the long-standing disproportionate police intervention when it comes to Indigenous youth – which increases the likelihood of future involvement with the criminal justice system (Dodson 1997).
In this same period, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been subjected to an appalling degree of racist and discriminatory reporting across Australian media, such that harmful stereotypes have been promoted and reinforced. Consequently, negative, discriminatory attitudes towards Indigenous Australians permeate multiple areas of Australian society: in politics, the media, the law and criminal justice systems to name a few (Paradies 2005). Racist and discriminatory treatment has been institutionalised in Australian society in multiple areas, but it is important to draw particular attention to the role of the media, where the continuing negative portrayal of Indigenous Australians contributes to this group’s over-incarceration in Australia today.
This interrelationship between media reporting, political rhetoric, and public perceptions has a direct impact on how Australian Indigenous communities are viewed and treated on social and legal levels. The mass media has the potential to be the most significant platform for racial vilification, or equally, for anti-racism (Paradies 2005). In the words of Michael Dodson, the first Indigenous person to graduate with a law degree in Australia (from Monash Law, no less), in his 1997 speech on the media and human rights:
Non-Indigenous peoples most often form their opinions of us by what they read, see and hear. How journalists, broadcasters, columnists and others report race issues shapes and changes public opinion and policy. … A great many Australians form or reinforce their opinions of Aborigines from reading regional papers and listening to talk-back radio. The currency in these papers and programmes are stereotypes. The feckless Aborigine who spends his social security cheque on alcohol, deprives his kids of food, beats his wife, runs amok in town and stops a mining project. These outlets have worked hard for years to inflame prejudice, cement ignorance and widen the divide between us.
Thus, perceptions of Indigenous Australians and other minority communities by wider Australian society are largely informed by representations that are perpetuated by media platforms. These media platforms are defined by a lack of representation – with the media being dominated by elite actors, institutions and organisations who are overwhelmingly white. The consequence of this is that media perceptions are filtered through this lens (Bullimore 1999).
What is projected through the media sphere is no coincidence – popular racism and its discourse are often perpetuated and legitimated by elite discourse (Van Dijk 2012). When we see an overtly racist Andrew Bolt editorial (see: ‘White is the New Black’, amongst other Bolt articles that were held to be “dishonest, misleading and at best, grossly careless” by the Court of Appeal in Herald & Weekly Times Ltd & Bolt v Popovic), a media elite has chosen to publish and reproduce this discourse, and thus condone the dissemination of content that has the impact of reinforcing negative stereotypes that harm Indigenous Australians on many levels. The news media has the power to contribute to or to counteract discrimination against Indigenous Australians. The transmission of pervasive and negative narratives, images and ideas about Indigenous Australians is a conscious decision and has a significant effect on the collective beliefs of Australian society (McCausland 2004). This is particularly important when we consider that for Australians whose racist views and misunderstanding of Indigenous Australians are stoked by what they consume on a daily basis in the media, over-representation and mistreatment of these populations in the criminal justice system will hardly raise the concern and outrage that should be afforded to our First Nations peoples.
Particularly, specific forms of delinquency and stereotypes are selectively attributed to Indigenous Australians in media discourse (Van Dijk 2012), which finds its roots in a dense history of racist, distorted and offensive representations of Indigenous Australians (Bullimore 1999). Australia has a precedent of colonial literature that perpetrates insidious and baseless racial stereotypes – stereotypes that Australian journalism remains complicit in creating and sustaining even today (Meadows 2000). These stereotypes that inform discriminatory reporting serves to generate a climate that is conducive to racist hostility, both in general society and in criminal justice practices (McCausland 2004). Furthermore, it is important to note the interrelationship between politics and discriminatory reporting: this reporting serves governments well in that where criminality is racialised, attention is diverted from the inadequacies of government policies in addressing the systemic and underlying causes of this criminalisation, including over-policing and discriminatory laws, and deficiencies in social support infrastructure (McCausland 2004).
While this outcome is founded in a wide range of institutional and social inequities that must ultimately be broken down and reframed in order to achieve equitable outcomes for one of Australia’s most racially-prejudiced populations, Michael Dodson (1997) identifies that one of the most significant impediments to more representative, fair and informed reporting on Indigenous affairs is that 'Indigenous Australians continue to be fringe players, the subjects of, rather than participants in the mainstream media'. This is also the case in criminal justice policy – where Indigenous Australians are more often than not excluded from the creation of laws and policies directly affecting their lives and outcomes. The silencing of Indigenous voices on issues that directly affect them through racist reporting on contentious issues not only leads to a misrepresentation of Indigenous issues, but also omits Indigenous people from the debates that directly affect them (Meadows 2000). This needs to change. Of course, media representations are by no means the only factor lending to the overcriminalisation of Indigenous communities. Social and structural inequalities that our government has systematically failed to address in these communities (including failure to improve access to culturally appropriate infrastructure, healthcare, education and legal services) are significant factors contributing to the inequitable outcomes Indigenous Australians experience. The government must take accountability for these inequalities, and the media must begin to shift the narrative.
Particularly, I urge you to read through Michael Dodson's speech that I have cited throughout this article, and actively listen to the Indigenous voices that have been silenced by Australia’s biased and exclusionary media platforms. These are the powerful voices that non-Indigenous Australia must not only listen to, but amplify, reflect on, and act to implement.
Braybrook, A 2019, ‘UN told of discriminatory rates that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are locked up’, 28 June, viewed 24 May 2020, https://www.hrlc.org.au/news/2019/6/28/un-told-of-discriminatory-rates-that-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-women.
Bullimore, K 1999, ‘Media dreaming: Representation of Aboriginality in modern Australia media’, Asia Pacific Media Educator, vol. 6, no. 7, pp. 72-81.
Dodson, M 1997, ‘Democracy, the media and human rights’, 22 January, viewed 31 May 2020, https://humanrights.gov.au/about/news/speeches/democracy-media-and-human-rights-dodson-1997.
Imtoual, A, Walters, A, Leikin, A, Athaide, R & Hirsch, A 2017, ‘Australia’s Compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination’, Australian NGO Coalition Submission to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, viewed 26 May 2020, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CERD/Shared%20Documents/AUS/INT_CERD_NGO_AUS_29334_E.pdf.
McCausland, R 2004, ‘Special Treatment – The Representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People in the Media’, Journal of Indigenous Policy, vol. 16, no. 4, pp. 84-98.
Meadows, M 2000, Voices in the Wilderness: Images of Aboriginal People in the Australian Media, Greenwood Press, Connecticut.
Paradies, Y 2005, ‘Anti-Racism and Indigenous Australians’, Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 1-28.
Van Dijk, T 2012, ‘The Role of the Press in the Reproduction of Racism’, in M Messer, R Schroeder & R Wodak (eds.), Migrations: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Springer, New York, pp. 15-30.
Image: Painting of Mick Dodson by award-winning Yorta Yorta artist Jandamarra Cadd https://southburnett.com.au/news2/2016/05/26/sensational-artist-returning/
Alana Couvreur is a fourth year Arts/Law student majoring in Criminology, who is passionate about exploring the intersection between media portrayals, public perception and criminalisation.