Dr Melissa Stoneham

Dr Melissa Stoneham

Curtin University’s Public Health Advocacy Institute of Western Australia researcher Dr Melissa Stoneham surveyed mainstream news press over a 12 month period and found that three quarters of the coverage of Aboriginal health was negative, with only 15 per cent positive. This would strike most Australians as a true reflection of the divide in health between First Peoples and non-Aboriginal Australians however Dr Sweet said the negative portrayals can be damaging.

Dr Stoneham said there needed to be a concerted drive by journalists to find the good news stories in Aboriginal health and role model them for others to follow. Indigenous-specific news media does have a blend of the good and bad news stories but it is hard to not sustain coverage on the bad news stories when the divide in many areas of Aboriginal health are widening, and when there are third-world akin diseases in this first world nation, the world’s 12th largest economy and 2nd wealthiest nation on the planet.

“My colleagues and I analysed all articles relating to Aboriginal health from print media in The West Australian and The Sunday Times and from the ABC online news service during 2012, a total of 335 articles,” said Dr Stoneham.

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

Dr Stoneham said the most common negative topics were alcohol, child abuse, petrol sniffing, violence, suicide, deaths in custody and crime. Child abuse is no more prevalent among First Peoples than it is in non-Aboriginal Australia and therefore an argument for its highlighting can be racism – racism has many veils and layers. Less alcohol is consumed per head of population by First Peoples than by non-Aboriginal Australians but alcohol and substance abuse have deleterious impacts in many impoverished communities not similarly felt by non-Aboriginal communities. The suicide crisis among First Peoples is horrific and takes at least one in every 24 lives of First Peoples.

Dr Stoneham said the “negative media coverage can be a two-edged sword.”

“Potentially internalising stereotypes and fuelling racist attitudes but also being a legitimate approach to prompt action.” Dr Stoneham suggests that “more media training of Aboriginal advocates may help improve the situation by changing the relationships between journalists and Indigenous people.”

Dr Stoneham said that to exact positive change within Aboriginal health, communities need to read more, view more, be more aware of positive stories, of the narratives of commitments to positive change.

“No one would argue it is difficult to generate negative stories about Aboriginal communities when the data shows the estimate 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 to 54 years than non-Indigenous Australians.”

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

Dr Stoneham said 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 dependants 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.”

Dr Stoneham said that these stereotypes can lead to some First Peoples internalising “a sense of shame and presenting barriers to participating in mainstream society.”

“This perpetuates the cycle of disadvantage.”

Dr Stoneham does not blame the media and explains that “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.”

But according to Dr Stoneham these bad stories only tell “half the story” and rarely provide “hopes of the future.”

“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 Public Health Advocacy Institute of Western Australia has published The Western Australian Indigenous Storybooks, four of them, with a fifth on the way, which portray only positive stories “and are written largely by Aboriginal public health or community development practitioners.”

Dr Stoneham said 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.”

“These achievements are worth talking about.”

Dr Stoneham said that in Western Australia, the Public Health Advocacy Institute provides training for free of charge in seeking “to balance the power relationship between journalists and Aboriginal people.”

Dr Stoneham said that an organisation such as the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance “could lead the charge and provide regular training” to journalists. Dr Stoneham also referred to the Mindframe guidelines (by the Hunter Institute, Newcastle, for the Commonwealth Department of Health) however in a previous article I have criticised several of the recommendations within the Mindframe report as inversely effecting a playing down of a crisis, such as the suicide crisis, which needs to be highlighted.

Dr Stoneham said Mindframe “aims to inform appropriate reporting of suicide and mental illness, to minimise harm and copycat behaviour, and reduce the stigma of discrimination.”