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How might media policy influence the health of diverse communities?

Many important public health concerns – including issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, young people and multilingual communities – are raised by submissions to an inquiry into the Australian media landscape.

The submissions also highlight examples of health-promoting innovations in community media sector responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and underscore connections between media policy and health, reports Melissa Sweet.


Melissa Sweet writes:

The critical importance of First Nations media for the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities has been highlighted in submissions to a Senate inquiry into media diversity in Australia.

However, the sector is under pressure on multiple fronts, according to a detailed submission by peak body First Nations Media Australia (FNMA), which says operational funding provided by the Federal Government has remained virtually unchanged since 1996 despite numerous reviews urging increased funding for the sector.

As well as meeting the news and information needs of their communities, the sector also produces economic benefits, including employment opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote, regional and urban locations to undertake meaningful work in a culturally safe environment.

Social Ventures Australia found that strengthening First Nations broadcasting strengthens community through communication, culture and employment, returning an average $2.87 in social outcomes for every $1 invested, with many organisations returning a rate much higher than this nearly 3:1 average ratio.

The submission says the First Nations media sector currently resources 43 organisations and over 120 licensed services with between 500-600 staff, including part-time and casual employees, working in urban, regional and remote locations.

Budgetary constraints are impeding the sector’s desire to increase its activities to a scale that would require twice as many staff as are currently employed, the submission says.

Rights at stake

Meanwhile, Amnesty Australia has called for a Federal Human Rights Act to protect the right to freedom of expression, arguing that this will protect and increase media diversity.

Amnesty’s submission notes that Australia has one of the most concentrated newspaper sectors in the world, and that Australia is not a signatory to The Joint Declaration on Media Independence and Diversity in the Digital Age, which underscores the importance of media diversity for human rights.

The declaration says governments should ensure an economic environment that supports a diverse media landscape without undermining the independence of the media, through measures such as uniform subsidy systems and tax relief.

Mainstream media’s marginalisation of young people is another important public health concern raised amid the first 60-odd submissions published to date.

The Foundation for Young Australians submission cites findings that coverage of young people in Australian news media is limited and often misrepresentative, with News Corp particularly likely to disseminate negative stereotypes.

An analysis of Australian news media over six months from 1 February 2020 found that:

  • Young people made up a fraction of media coverage (less than 3.3% of all articles published)
  • Articles about young people decreased 14% from 2019, despite being disproportionately impacted by a global pandemic
  • In mainstream online media, young people’s voices were excluded from the majority of reporting, with 59% of headlines that mentioned young people not supported by quotes or case studies from young people in the article
  • Negative sentiments about young people as a generation were common
  • Many media outlets use stereotypes about young people. The ABC, Australian Financial Review, SBS, The Age, The Australian and The Herald Sun all used at least one of five stereotypes in their coverage of young people. The Australian used stereotypes in three-quarters of its coverage, as did the Herald Sun in 61 percent of it coverage.

“News media is a fundamental part of democracy, but its ability to keep our politicians and systems accountable is limited when a significant part of the community is excluded from the conversation,” the Foundation says.

As well, young people’s preferred news sources are increasingly their family or social media, meaning their engagement with news media as a part of democracy is in steady decline, the Foundation says.

As a result, young people are often consuming information without the support of established media standards and safeguards that are used to ensure facts are verified and sources attributed correctly.

“This leads to the spread of misinformation, and increasingly polarised political debates where falsehoods, not facts, are at the centre of public discourse,” the submission says.

First Nations media: an investment in health

The FNMA submission highlights many ways in which First Nations media, including radio, TV, newspapers and online sites, affect the social determinants of health, and says the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the sector’s capacity to deliver timely, relevant information and to address misinformation.

“Communities turned to First Nations media services as trusted sources of information, particularly amid conflicting reports shared through social media and other networks,” the submission says.

It also highlights the potential for First Nations media to address government and community concerns about declining local media coverage:

The importance of localism in journalism is notable in the First Nations media space, particularly from a cultural sensitivity perspective.

Increasing extreme weather events require localised responses and as we’ve recently learned, so does a global pandemic.

In emergency situations people need to receive key message information on a large scale, but they also need to know how to respond locally.”

The submission says the First Nations media sector has needed to fill the gap in news and weather services for many remote and regional communities, as the ABC has scaled back its local news and weather coverage for these less populous areas over the past five years.

FNMA says First Nations broadcasting and media provide a voice for their communities, and are uniquely placed to hear and share communities’ strengths, priorities and concerns.

First Nations media organisations also address a market gap through providing essential information – including vital emergency, health and government information – to many remote communities not serviced by any other form of media.

In 82 regions across the country, First Nations radio is the only radio service available. In a further 16 locations, First Nations radio is the only local service available, in addition to ABC services retransmitted from other regions.

The submission describes how over 230 radio broadcast sites coordinated by 35 licensed, community-owned, not-for-profit organisations provide “a primary and essential service to their communities”, with 91 percent of people in remote Indigenous communities being regular listeners.

These radio services reach nearly 50 percent of the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population overall, but are prevented from providing a primary radio service to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples due to a lack of funding and spectrum availability.

The submission also highlights the importance of First Nations media given the digital divide, with about one-quarter of Indigenous Australian households (and almost one-half in remote and very remote locations) not accessing the internet from home, compared with the national average of 14.7%.

Importantly, the submission argues that First Nations media help address some of the negative impacts of mainstream media coverage, which is “often problematic, taking a deficit approach and reiterating negative stereotypes” rather than addressing the many successes, or the structural inequalities arising from dispossession and racism.

This “directly impacts on the development and implementation of government Indigenous policy”, the submission says.

As well, First Nations broadcasting and media have a vital role in providing balanced and culturally appropriate reporting in order to promote awareness and understanding among non-Indigenous Australians, participate in the truth-telling process, encourage participation in democratic processes, address racism and promote social cohesion and reconciliation.

The FNMA submission describes how other countries are supporting Indigenous media. The Canadian House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage enquiry resulted in recommendations for the Canadian Government to establish an Indigenous journalism initiative with the purpose of training Indigenous journalists to cover Indigenous government institutions and other relevant issues across Canada as part of their Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls for action implementation. The report recommended greater support through the Canada Media Fund program to support Indigenous news reporting.

In northern Europe, research into the “Sámi Way” of doing journalism prompted significant increases in Indigenous journalism in Norway and Sweden with funding provided through the Samediggi Parliament. Universities in Norway are currently advertising courses to meet the rising demand for Indigenous journalism among the Sami community in Scandanavia, recognising it as a ‘growing field’.

The FNMA recommendations are:

  • That all Governments commit to complete implementation of the recommendations relevant to media and journalism in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody
  • That Government recognises First Nations broadcasters as publishers in all policy and consistently ensure eligibility in grant program guidelines
  • That Government prioritise participation in media in Closing the Gap processes
  • That Government supports local reporting through reinstating a journalism cadetship program
  • Strengthen diversity quotas across all Government funded news media activities, from training to decision-making roles
  • Strengthen diversity quotas across all news activities, from training to decision-making roles
  • Government provides flexible funding arrangements for news delivery platform
  • Amend the Broadcasting Services Act legislation to include a dedicated Indigenous broadcasting license type.

Community-led innovation

Several examples of how multicultural communities have responded innovatively to the COVID-19 pandemic are outlined in a submission from the National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters’ Council (NEMBC), a peak body that advocates for multiculturalism and supports multilingual community broadcasting.

The submission says community broadcasting, particularly multilingual and multicultural community broadcasting, provides a voice for marginalised communities, enabling diverse communities to have a strong voice to make a safer and more inclusive society.

The Council says:

Diversity in our opinion means a media that encourages opinions and voices in languages other than English and provides access to older and newly arrived migrants for broader media representation, not just in community and public radio.

The style of journalism on Murdoch’s media channels is skewed to extreme right-wing views. In a democracy diverse views are important; however, their ‘opinions’ are so extreme and biased that it creates a heightened sensationalism of ‘fake news’ or a sense of unreality that’s stokes division and undermines democratic values and in some cases, democracy itself.

In this regard, the media deliberating dividing the audiences into pro and con positions around any issue (e.g. climate change, the pandemic, inequality, refugees, etc) politically divides the communities’ abilities to make decisive and clear-headed decisions based on (scientific) facts and not biased opinions.

This has added challenges when the audiences are from different ethnic backgrounds where English is often a second language. The extreme media undermines their confidence in knowing what to believe or not believe when the news stories often contradict their life experiences.”

As well, says the submission, some commercial media are hostile to multiculturalism and ever ready to highlight stories that show migrant communities in a bad light.

By comparison, the NEMBC works with its members, radio stations and training groups and organisations to develop employment pathways to improve media representation, which in turn improves coverage of fact-based news content and creates a more inclusive society.

During the COVID pandemic, the NEMBC funded and organised a national Multicultural News Service to ensure a consistent flow of reliable information for multicultural communities in different languages about the coronavirus and how to stay safe.

The idea, conceived in March 2020 and launched on 1 May, started with seven languages – Spanish, Greek, Hindi, Arabic, Punjabi, Pacific Islander English and Mandarin – and expanded to 18 languages.

Within two months, the news was distributed and played over 170 times a week across Australia. There were 29 stations involved in the on-air plays, from every State and Territory, including 12 regional stations.

“The ethnic community broadcasting sector proved that it can be agile, innovative and lead the way in a time of crisis,” said the Council’s submission.

During to the ‘second wave’ COVID outbreak in Melbourne in September, the NEMBC received Victoria Government support to produce a daily news bulletin in seven different languages and this was expanded to 22 languages in October.

The Victorian Government also engaged the NEMBC to provide ‘Explainers’ in different languages, including for the Shepperton and Northern suburbs outbreaks in October.

The NEMBC is also using multiple digital platforms, social media and local networks to distribute the daily news and is reaching thousands of people each week through these channels. Most notable is the sharing of the news on a Victorian Government Community Leaders WhatsApp group that reshares the news to their social media networks. The NEMBC has an online media player using Soundcloud and distributes via Facebook, Instagram and emails to its membership network.

During the emergency warnings, additional distribution channels included an email distribution network set up by the Ethnic Council of Shepparton. When the hard-lock-down occurred for the residents in the nine housing estate towers, the NEMBC established a communications media system to provide a quick response and were contacted by a number of organisations for assistance.

The Federation of Community Legal Centres (FCLC) and the Human Rights Commission requested assistance to produce language audio files inside the housing estates. These were quickly produced as audio MP3s literally over overnight in 16 different languages.

Both organisations through their networks distributed the audio podcasts into the towers via email, WhatsApp, SMS, and sent it to community leaders for distribution and made it available on their websites.

The audio messages explained what the government was doing, what was required of the residents, health and safety issues and ‘know your rights’ and a police complaints process.

The Multilingual News Service “shows the power of a news service that is in various ethnic languages, so that these communities can make informed decisions about the pandemic and ultimately keep communities safe and save lives”, the submission says.

However, the service cannot be sustained without the government support: “To be viable and national, it needs the funding and training support of the Commonwealth Government.”

The Council’s recommendations include:

  • The Commonwealth Government fund and support a Multilingual News Service so that culturally and linguistically diverse communities can play a more coordinated and substantial role nationally in public interest journalism over the long term
  • The Commonwealth Government provide support for a Multilingual News Service as a training ground to develop employment pathways so that mainstream media in Australia can become more diverse and representative.
  • Increased funding to multilingual and multicultural community broadcasting.

Community media

The Community Broadcasting Association of Australia submission highlights the importance of its members for non-metropolitan communities, noting that three-quarters of community radio stations operate in regional and remote areas.

The submission says:

In this time of greater concentration of media power and control, community media is emerging as a safeguard for local content, news and alternative voices.

Community radio stations outside capital cities are by their very nature, hyperlocal conduits for information and news.

These stations are well-known for broadcasting regional public interest journalism; information regarding local government; about upcoming elections, at all levels, including local candidate interviews; broadcasting live from local council meetings; and emergency coverage.”

The most recent Community Radio National Listener Survey found that 65 percent of respondents in regional/rural Australia said their top reason for listening to community radio was for ‘local information and local news’ (compared to 46 percent for metro listeners).

The closure of local newspapers and newsrooms meant that community broadcasters in some regions are now the only broadcasters of local public interest journalism. For example, in Bourke in NSW, 2WEB are now also publishing The Western Herald, saving that iconic paper from closing. This means the station is sharing local news and journalism both on air and via the paper.

At Tamworth in NSW, 88.9 fm broadcasts 33 regional news bulletins weekly covering Armidale, Gunnedah, Quirindi and towns across the region.

The submission says:

Being of the community and for the community means that community broadcasters go above and beyond in delivering public interest journalism, news and information.

In the 2019-20 summer bushfires, over 80 community radio stations broadcast to fire-affected regions.

In late November 2019, station volunteers at Braidwood FM broadcast 14 days of near continuous emergency coverage of the Tallaganda National Park fire, and Braidwood’s and community radio’s efforts were recognised in the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committees’ interim report into the bushfires.”

At Croakey, we hope this post – the second in a series reporting on the submissions to the Senate inquiry – may help readers wishing to contribute to healthier media policy and practice, as we urged in this recent article, Converging crises: public interest journalism, the pandemic and public health, published last month by the Public Health Research and Practice journal.

In an ideal world, we might have seen health departments making submissions to the inquiry, and close consultation between the health and media/communications portfolios.

• Read the previous article: With democracies at risk, how can we address the media crises?

Related Posts

Comments 1

  1. Laurie Patton says:

    A decade ago I was part of a team that undertook extensive consultations with Indigenous groups across the country on behalf of the federal government. Our report on the Indigenous broadcasting and media sector made dozens of recommendations, many of which did not require funding just improved delivery of services. Sadly, the bureaucracy ignored the report and the public servant responsible for this area was nonetheless subsequently promoted and now runs a major government instrumentality. Makes you wonder really.

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