As we approach the first referendum Australia has considered this century, the University of Canberra (UC) has delivered a series of lectures aimed at informing the local community about the proposed change to our constitution. The final lecture in the series was held last week at ANU’s The Shine Dome and facilitated by John Paul Janke, host of NITV’s The Point on SBS.
Research conducted by UC’s News and Media Research Centre was presented by Associate Professor David Nolan and provided a basis for the panel discussion. Looking at the 2023 media reporting on the voice to parliament from a range of sources, the study investigated the framing of reporting and whether sources used were Indigenous, non-Indigenous, or both. The study identified the primary frames of media reporting, labelled ‘campaign’, ‘conflict’ and ‘crisis’. It was found that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous sources were used in approximately 50% of news items.
In the discussion that followed, A/Prof Nolan was joined by a panel of other prominent media and community representatives: Michelle Grattan (chief political correspondent with The Conversation), Karen Middleton (political journalist in the Canberra Press Gallery) and Professor Peter Radoll (Deputy Vice-Chancellor Indigenous, Equity and Inclusion at Victoria University). Facilitator John Paul Janke began by pointing out that the proposed amendment to the constitution amounts to 92 words, but the public conversation has expanded in various directions.
Karen Middleton attributed the derailing of the debate, at least in part, to political trickery. The Liberal Party politics that has become the focus of a significant number of news reports has no relation to the proposal Australians are considering in the referendum. It raises the difficult question of how journalists can maintain focus on the substance of the debate, while also covering the political events that surround it.
Adding to her observation on the shift in public conversations into adjacent and unrelated topics, Middleton offered an explanation for how this can occur. A journalist who clearly outlines the proposed constitutional change and gives an account of the arguments for and against the voice will have fulfilled their role as a reporter of facts. But journalists and news outlets can’t simply report the same information again and again over the course of months. They must always find a ‘new angle’, and in this search, the point of the discussion can become lost.
There was plenty of concern about social media among the panellists. It was pointed out that clips presented out of context on Tik Tok and other platforms have fuelled doubt and alarm, resulting in an increase in support for the ‘no’ campaign. This trend can be partly explained by algorithms that thrive on conflict. But A/Prof Nolan pointed out that this is not just a feature of social media, as the research from UC’s News and Media Research Centre shows ‘conflict’ is a prominent frame of mainstream media reporting as well.
Michelle Grattan argued against the use of the common terms ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’, explaining it is her preference to clearly label facts presented in the media are correct or incorrect, while also taking into account the intention of the communicator or journalist. But Karen Middleton also noted the speed of reporting in a 24-hour news cycle environment gives rise to a mentality in which ‘you’re not wrong for long’. Getting the story out quickly (hopefully first) may mean there are gaps in the story that can only be filled in later.
The panel raised a number of other criticisms of the media both on the topic of the voice and more broadly. Where racist comments have come from politicians, A/Prof Nolan felt that the media had failed in its role as a ‘watchdog’, by not calling out the perpetrators strongly enough. While Middleton agreed with this assessment, she repeated her concern that over-reporting on commentary runs the risk of moving the public conversation into tangential bickering and away from the core of the argument. In a broader critique, Grattan lamented that on the ground reporting within Indigenous communities is not more common. There is a public blind spot around the specific issues that affect Indigenous Australians and their needs, which differ from those of the rest of the population.
A strong effort from community leaders and plenty of political manoeuvring has culminated in this proposal to the public for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. As voting day comes closer, it was fitting that the end to UC’s series of lectures took focus on the media. When the results are announced in the next week, it seems certain that the complexities of the current media landscape will provide some context, whatever the outcome.
Information aimed at assisting students to make an informed decision in this referendum can be found on UC’s 2023 Referendum Resources page.