NACCHO Aboriginal Health: Bad news: negative Indigenous health coverage reinforces stigma

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We found that overwhelmingly, the articles were negative in their portrayal of Aboriginal health, with 15% of the coverage positive and 11% neutral.

The most common negative topics were alcohol, child abuse, petrol sniffing, violence, suicide, deaths in custody and crime.

The most common positive topics included education, role modelling for health, sport and employment.

The media plays a significant role in framing the way we think about issues. When Aboriginal people are persistently portrayed as drunks, welfare dependents and violent perpetrators, it can fuel racist attitudes among the wider population and this type of racism has a major impact on the health of Aboriginal Australians

Think of Aboriginal health and you’ll probably recall messages of large gaps in life expectancy, increasing rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes, kidney disease and asthma. Or that the last ten years has been a “wasted decade” for Aboriginal people.

Dr Melissa Stoneham is the Deputy Director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute of WA, where she specialises in advocacy related to Aboriginal health, environment and health, local government and obesity issues. PROFILE HERE

The above photo was used recently by the Australian VIEW ARTICLE HERE  Stereotypes can be internalised, creating a sense of shame among Indigenous people.

Dr Melissa Stoneham writes:

It won’t be too much of a surprise, then, to learn that 74% of media articles about Aboriginal health are negative. That’s the finding of a media study by my colleagues and me at the Public Health Advocacy Institute Western Australia (PHAIWA).

No one would argue it is difficult to generate negative stories about Aboriginal communities when the data shows:

  • the estimated gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people’s life expectancy in Australia is greater than in New Zealand, Canada and the United States
  • Aboriginal people are four to five times more likely to die between the ages of 25 and 54 years than non-Indigenous Australians
  • Aboriginal employment rates fell from 48% in 2006 to 46.2% in 2011
  • More than 26% of Australia’s adult prisoners are Aboriginal, even though they represent just 2.5% of the country’s total population

The news is bad. But does the media do all it can – or make enough of an effort – to look for positive stories?

My colleagues and I analysed all articles relating to Aboriginal health from print media in The West Australian, The Australian and The Sunday Times (WA) and from the ABC Online news service during 2012, a total of 335 articles.

We found that overwhelmingly, the articles were negative in their portrayal of Aboriginal health, with 15% of the coverage positive and 11% neutral.

The most common negative topics were alcohol, child abuse, petrol sniffing, violence, suicide, deaths in custody and crime.

The most common positive topics included education, role modelling for health, sport and employment.

The media plays a significant role in framing the way we think about issues. When Aboriginal people are persistently portrayed as drunks, welfare dependents and violent perpetrators, it can fuel racist attitudes among the wider population and this type of racism has a major impact on the health of Aboriginal Australians.

In some cases, these stereotypes can be internalised, creating a sense of shame and presenting barriers to participating in mainstream society. This perpetuates the cycle of disadvantage.

Yet it would not be appropriate to blame the media in isolation for negative portrayals of Aboriginal health.

Drawing attention to problems experienced in Aboriginal communities is a legitimate and well-tried approach for those who seek to generate action. Media coverage of disadvantage and negative outcomes is often presented by journalists as a response to comments by advocates for action, and as a means of expressing and generating concern and outrage, and seeking change.

There is also a legitimate role for media in reporting evidence-based information relating to disadvantage.

Although these issues are important to highlight, particularly from an advocacy perspective, they tell only half the story and rarely provide positive aspects or hopes for the future.

So, how can we positively influence the way in which Aboriginal health is portrayed in the media?

One strategy to overcome the sense of hopelessness created through negative media is to focus on positive models of change and commitment in Aboriginal communities. There is great value in capturing positive changes, in collecting and amplifying the voices of Aboriginal people and organisations who are role models, and who run successful ventures in their communities.

The West Australian Indigenous Storybook, produced by PHAIWA, does just this. The storybooks portray only positive stories and are written largely by Aboriginal public health or community development practitioners.

The books look more deeply into issues and illustrate responsible and less sensationalist reporting on a diverse range of topics and issues that affect health including personal journeys, Aboriginal art, language, education, sport, environmental stewardship and preventive health projects. These achievements are worth talking about.

Upskilling Aboriginal advocates through media training is also required, particularly when, by nature, many are shy. Aboriginal corporations should consider this within their annual budgets and professional development plans.

In Western Australia, this training is provided free of charge by PHAIWA but in other states, budgets may need to be allocated. This training is important to balance the power relationship between journalists and Aboriginal people.

Encouraging journalists to talk with Aboriginal people about their life, culture and concerns may result in news stories that are more accurate and portray a less distorted and stereotypical view of Aboriginal communities.

One effective training method is the integration of a visit to an Aboriginal community during cadetships or university training, where students talk directly with them about their hopes, fears and problems.

This has been trialed in a partnership between the Combined Universities Centre for Rural Health (CUCRH) and Edith Cowan University, where eight final-year journalism students spent a month with Aboriginal communities in two Western Australian towns.

We also need to develop ethical media policies and procedures that promote fair reporting of issues relating to Aboriginal communities, such as the clash of media and Aboriginal cultures, timelines, values and trust.

An organisation such as the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance which already has a code of ethics could lead the charge and provide regular training on how journalists can better promote cultural diversity in reporting.

A precedent has been established with the reporting of suicide. Mindframe aims to inform appropriate reporting of suicide and mental illness, to minimise harm and copycat behaviour, and reduce the stigma and discrimination experienced by people with mental illness is working. So, we know it can be done; now we just have to make it happen.

Dr Melissa Stoneham is the Deputy Director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute of WA, where she specialises in advocacy related to Aboriginal health, environment and health, local government and obesity issues.

With thanks to The Conversation, which originally published this article and grants permission for republishing.

Please Note : our 20 Page  ” good news” NACCHO Aboriginal Health Newspaper is published in the Koori Mail this week : In the next week or so all our 150 members and 300 approx. clinics will receive copies for staff and community to share our good news about Aboriginal Health In Aboriginal Hands

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One comment on “NACCHO Aboriginal Health: Bad news: negative Indigenous health coverage reinforces stigma

  1. Hi Naccho News,

    This is an excellent article about an issue that tends to reinforce unhelpful cultural stereotypes about Indigenous communities or working with Indigenous people. In the article, Dr Stoneham reports that her study has identified that 74% of media articles about Indigenous people are negative.

    As a community, I think we need to ask ourselves why negative stories about Indigenous people make headlines, front pages and sell papers? Is talking negatively about Indigenous issues part of mainstream Australian culture? And if so, how long has this been the case? An excellent summary of negative stereotyping and prejudice can be found here.

    http://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/stereotypes-prejudice-of-aboriginal-australia#axzz3eUxGU7EH

    More positively, how can we stimulate culture change in the reporting of Indigenous issues by the mainstream media?

    When confronted, mainstream media can say, ‘We never hear about the good things – they’re not reported to us?’

    For this reason, the “West Australian Indigenous Storybook – celebrating and sharing good news stories” is a big step in the right direction.

    However as news runs on 24 hour cycles, we as the communicators of Indigenous success stories, need to find ways of getting good news stories to the media faster, in smaller, more regular releases of concisely written stories.

    If we can create new systems and information devices to achieve this, then we will be increasing the supply of good news about Indigenous Issues to the media, which will be half the battle to achieving successful culture change in reporting.

    The other half, and equally as challenging, is increasing the media demand for good Indigenous news.

    We can take a look at this from an economic perspective to simplify further.

    At the moment, media journalists, or in other words, the sellers of Indigenous stories, are being paid more for a negative Indigenous story in terms of their status building, front page coverage article stats, work promotions, pay increases, new friendships etc than they are paid for a good news story about Indigenous people.

    So as economists, we would say that the ‘Market for Indigenous Good News Stories’ is a case of market failure where the socially ideal outcome, being more good news – is effectively being outcompeted by the private sector.

    Therefore to achieve the required culture change, we, as agents of change, will need to enter the market and effectively purchase to cover the ‘gap’ for media journalists so that the reporting of good news stories about Indigenous people becomes more attractive for them than bad news stories.

    In terms of implementing this we can learn much from other sectors such as tourism with initiatives like:
    • Familiarisation trips for journalists to witness good news Indigenous stories in communities
    • National supported Gala Awards nights that reward and recognise the positive reporting of Indigenous media

    Written by
    Damian Amamoo is a behavioural economist for the culture change social marketing company ‘Inception Strategies’.