Media representation and intolerance: a brief dissertation on social hostility in Australia
The issue regarding the role of the media in the representation of the Other, both cultural and religious, is controversial, and its complexity has to be analysed from different points of view. In general, it can be said that Australia is becoming a less tolerant country. It’s a slow, but continuous change.
This fact is demonstrated by the research ‘Rising Restrictions on Religion’, published in August 2011 by the Pew Research Center. The aim of the study was to analyse issues regarding religion and public life; it reports impartial information obtained with a deep and complete research on all the regions of the world. Observing the Social Hostility Index (p.49), which ‘measures hostile acts by private individuals, organizations and social groups that restrict religious beliefs and practices’ (Pew Research Center, 2011 p.45), it can be noticed that Australia is ranked among those countries with a moderate social hostility: this level of intolerance indicates that in these nations there are ‘severe levels of violence and intimidation on a few of the 13 measures or more moderate levels on several of them’ (Pew Research Center, 2011 p. 48).
Victims of intolerance are different, therefore it’s difficult to carry on a comprehensive study, that focuses on each harassed group and analyses racial speeches and their effects on the victims and on society, as well as depicting targets’ response to physical and verbal attacks. In this scenario, the media behave differently, and even if they mainly try to act positively, too many cases of intolerance carried by the media still have echoes in Australia.
Therefore, to try and understand the different aspects of this problematic, this essay will begin by looking at the broadcasting system positively, using examples to demonstrate the three main things that the media do to affect the audience in a good way. In opposition, the second half of the essay will look at the dark side of the broadcasters, providing a definition of stereotype and Islamophobia, and analyzing some examples of misrepresentation and hostile behavior against immigrants, Aboriginal Australians and Muslims conducted by some media.
In Australia, the media pursues national progress and racial harmony, as a development journalism model is sustained: the state has some influence on the media, and broadcasters try to share stories with a balanced point of view. Society values are respected, and news that are considered too negative are sometimes removed, as has happened for the Cottrell case, which this essay will be analysing later. Despite these fundamental elements, media can also have a negative effect on minorities.
An example of how the broadcasting system is able to be self-critical is the article ‘Anger among Indigenous residents of Wilcannia about portrayal in BBC documentary’, written in 2017 by the ABC. This news is an attempt by the media to learn how to share stories in the best way possible, studying the negative effects that another media artefact had had on the audience in relation to Aboriginal people’s representation. The article sheds light on the issue of representing someone basing on assumptions rather than facts, which should be avoided in order to achieve fair, objective and harmless reporting (Stockwell & Scott, 2000 pp. 3-11).
The two authors also wrote about the importance of giving a complete representation of a situation from different points of view (Stockwell & Scott, 2000 pp. 4-5). For instance, ‘Muslims on what it's like to live in Australia’ is an emotional article published on The Sydney Morning Herald (Donelly, B 2016) that reports several stories shared by Muslim readers about their lives as Muslims in Australia.
The words reported are meaningful and involve the reader into the writers’ points of view: the newspaper aims to build on the readers’ moral values, to promote acceptance and mutual sympathy.
In February 2018, news.com.au published an article whose headline was a question: Is immigration too high in Australia? Instead of asserting something, the writer put under attention an issue that concerns many Australians, using facts, data and the words of Scott Morrison to balance the opinion of Tony Abbott; once again, the media have demonstrated their ability to investigate a relevant matter in an objective and responsible way.
However, despite the media generally having a positive impact on modern Australian society, other facts should be taken into account in order to have a complete and truthful image of them. Firstly, it should be remembered that in a more and more globalised and complex world, it is necessary, in order to give a meaning to reality, to divide and simplify the constant and voluminous stream of information that humans produce every day.
Therefore, when the media have to share a new story, they have to chose the one that is more relevant for a specific audience, and which produces more income, taking into account that it has to be clear and easy to read. Is not surprising, then, that journalists use stereotypes to make their job easier and faster: ‘If, initially, the problem of description is mainly one of ‘ quality ’ (...) it soon becomes in Gricean terms a problem of ‘quantity’ (...). ‘Do not simply re-iterate what has been said before: make a stronger statement rather than a weaker one’ (Montgomery, 2005 p. 242).
An important American psychologist, Gordon Allport, defined stereotype as an overemphasized belief on a category that rationalizes and justifies our behaviour towards that category (Allport, 1954 p.191). ‘The stereotype acts (...) as a screening or selective device to maintain simplicity in perception and in thinking’ (Allport, 1954 p.192). The problems emerge when the stereotype that influences our perception of someone is reinforced, which normally happens when the media continuously portray a group in a certain way, giving the public an image of that group that is stigmatized, inaccurate, negative and therefore not properly realistic. This way, intolerance is reinforced along with prejudice, another concept studied in depth and defined by Allport (1954, p.7): ‘(prejudice is) an aversive or hostile attitude toward a person who belongs to a group, simply because he belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to the group’.
As previously stated, media choose to pursue stereotyped images because they make for a faster selection of the stories, as well as making it easier to engage the readers’ attention: it’s in fact harder to attract them on thematics that carry on a point of view that they don’t share. Moreover, in the competitive world of broadcasting, newspapers are constantly trying to sell more than the competition, and to follow the main events on which the world is focused: otherwise, they will be left behind.
This is why naturalising, described by Schirato and Yell (1996) as ‘the presentation of an interpretation as common sense, universally accepted and unavoidable’ is one of the most common bias in journalism. Unfortunately, this leads to the creation of institutional bias in the news, because of which the values of a ‘white man-dominated society’ are maintained and the status quo reinforced, marginalizing and stigmatizing, on the other hand, minorities (McQuail in Richards, 2005 p.36).
To avoid misrepresentations of groups, the best solution would be to let people speak for themselves in order for them to give society their inner point of view on issues that concern them (Stockwell & Scott 2000, pp. 4-5).
However, this doesn’t always happen in Australian society: for instance, as Dodson (2003, p.32 ) argues referring to Indigenous Australians, ‘there is ample evidence that Aboriginality will continue to be defined and constructed for Aboriginal peoples’. The same issue also concerns religious groups such as Muslims.
The study ‘Mass media Islam: the impact of media imagery on public opinion’ by Abdalla and Rane shows that the majority of Queensland inhabitants surveyed ‘recognise media representations of Islam and Muslims as a negative construction (biased, unfair, inaccurate or ill-informed) rather than an accurate, objective or fair representation’ (2008, p.39).
Luckily, it might be said that even if broadcasters aren’t fair, at least most Australians are aware that the depiction of Islam is inappropriate. This last observation leads to an important conclusion: the media can also have a negative effect on people’s attitude towards the Other, although it only applies to the minority of the population. One of the most spread effects, concerning the Muslims’ situation, is Islamophobia, which is a groundless antagonism towards Muslims which evolves in a fear and aversion of them (Zempi & Awan 2016, p. 2).
On Quora, an online forum for citizen journalists, Lourdes Trammell, an unknown woman who worked on a research, of which neither name nor data are mentioned, on Indigenous Australians’ alcoholism, published an article on this topic (Trammell, 2015). According to Trammell, Indigenous people would be under-developed, as they lack of specific enzymes and have genes that mutate permanently under the effect of alcohol (because of which ‘their children are literally born dependent’). Despite this article clearly not having any scientific ground, it received 1.2m answer views: when an article like this is shared, hatred increases, because many people don’t reflect on its racist foundations, neither on its imprecision or the prejudices it’s based on.
‘EVERY INTAKE OF MUSLIMS COME WITH THIS DANGER’ is an article written by Andrew Bolt for the Herald Sun in 2017. The capital letters of the headline stress the words ‘intake’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘danger’, immediately associating Muslims with problems and with immigration, a modern relevant issue in Australia. The article is really short, yet it’s able to increase fear: with few, assertive sentences it tries to be a warning, using words such as ‘intelligence network’, ‘alert’, ‘security terrorism watch-list’ to refer to radical Muslim immigrants. However, as the first word in the headline is ‘every’, it seems that, somehow, we can’t really trust any Muslim: the two questions that conclude the article insinuate that different actions should be taken as welcoming Muslims in general is too risky.
Blair Cottrell, an Australian far-right activist, was recently the protagonist of many news after releasing an interview on Sky News about a race-based immigration policy. Sky News has now removed the footage, however this episode attracted many Australians to Cottrell’s Twitter account. His page is full of hatred tweets against everyone: the main problem is not that he’s expressing his own point of view, which has always been clear, but that he doesn’t even try to be balanced or respectful: for example, in a tweet posted October 19th, that begins with the words ‘So what’s your purpose in life, exactly?’, he offends a young woman who decided to abort saying ‘I don’t think you should reproduce anyway ’ and ‘you look like an idiot’. In this case, this social media has become an ‘amplifier’ of negative discourses, working negatively towards the construction of a more inclusive nation.
In conclusion, it can be stated that generally the media system tries to work in the right direction to defeat intolerance, however the Social Hostility Index clearly shows that physical and verbal violence are long to be defeated, and too often broadcasters give voice to people whose words increase hatred and boundaries. Therefore, the role of the media in the representation of the Others is various and complex, continuously balancing good behaviour and bad.
Abdalla, M & Rane, H 2008, ‘Mass media Islam: the impact of media imagery on public opinion’, Australian Journalism Review, vol. 30, pp. 39- 49.
Allport, G 1954, The nature of prejudice, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company Ing, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Dodson, M 2003, ‘The end in the beginning: re(de)finding Aboriginality’, in Grossman, M (ed.), Blacklines : contemporary critical writing by indigenous Australians, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, pp. 25-42.
Montgomery, M 2005, ‘Talking war. How journalism responded to the events of 9/11’, in Stuart, A, Journalism: Critical Issues, McGraw-Hill Education, ProQuest Ebook Central
Pew Research Center, 2011, Rising Restrictions on Religion, Peer Research center, viewed 10 October 2018,
McQuail, D cited in 2005, Richards, I , Quagmires and quandaries: exploring journalism ethics, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, p.36
Schirato, T & Yell, S 1996, Communication and Cultural Literacy: An Introduction, Allen and Unwin, Crows news, New South Wales.
Stockwell, S & Scott, P 2000, All-media guide to fair and cross-cultural reporting, Australian Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy.
Zempi, I & Awan, I 2016, Islamophobia : Lived Experiences of Online and Offline Victimisation, Policy Press, ProQuest Ebook Central.