Op-Ed: "Our Role is to Campaign" DCAP Hosts Retreat for Aboriginal Journalists

Amy McQuire reflects on a Dart Centre Asia Pacific retreat focussed on Indigenous trauma reporting, and explains why she believes Aboriginal journalists need to embrace an advocate's role.

Aboriginal journalists have never had the luxury of being impartial. The idea that we should be impartial would render the purpose of Aboriginal media meaningless: Our men, women and children are being locked up at increasing rates and dying in custody; our children are being taken away from their families at rates that exceed those of the Stolen Generations; and our women are mischaracterized in broad brushstrokes, their suffering hidden behind harsh statistics. Our very existence is based around advocacy – our role is to campaign. 

Of course, this campaigning comes in different forms, and this reality emerged in various ways throughout the Dart Centre’s Indigenous Trauma reporting workshop, held at the end of December 2018 in the Blue Mountains just outside of Sydney, Australia. The twelve First Nations journalist participants all came from distinct Aboriginal nations and we all worked across differing mediums and reported on different topics, including youth suicide, education, health, technology and criminal justice. But all of us had one thing in common: We were reporting on trauma, and we came from communities that experienced intergenerational, complex and compounding trauma as daily realities. That is because to be Aboriginal in Australia is to inherit a trauma that has seeped through generations, one that is intertwined with the violence wrought on our country, and is compounded through state-sanctioned violence that impacts every black family in this nation.

Australia is still a settler-colony, and the aim of settler-colonialism is ultimately to ‘eliminate the native’. This was clear during the first waves of invasion, in which Aboriginal lands were stolen and Aboriginal peoples massacred; to the days of assimilation and paternalism, in which we were rounded up into reserves and missions, with the aim to first ‘smooth the dying pillow’ and then to breed us out.

This goal is still insidiously woven into government policy. The lives of Aboriginal people are still tightly controlled, and our futures are determined by a succession of white ‘ministers for Indigenous affairs’.

To put this into context for international readers, despite existing on the land that has now been the ‘lucky country’ for more than 75,000 years, Aboriginal people still die 10.6 years before our non-Indigenous counterparts. Indigenous people in Australia are per capita the most incarcerated peoples on Earth, with rates that continue to grow. Aboriginal women are the fastest growing incarcerated population in the country, with rates that have increased by 150 percent since 1991. Aboriginal child removal rates continue to rise exponentially.

I could go on, yet the statistics will fail to show the human face, the deep trauma that exists behind every number, one that continues to compound with each passing year. Aboriginal people are more than this number – we are strong and resilient, and a key role for Aboriginal journalism stressing our humanity. It is about reaffirming the worth of our men, women and children. It is not about speaking in terms of deficit, but about situating these statistics within the power imbalances that exist within our institutions. It is about confronting the apathy that greets every black funeral that comes too early. It is about ensuring that the cries of our people are met with outrage, channeled through our own press and not through the misguided, paternalistic agendas of non-Indigenous media that too often deem us savage and uncaring.

This is where Indigenous reporting is so fundamentally different from other forms of reporting in Australia. We recognise that we are accountable to our own communities. We have seen this most pertinently with the Northern Territory (NT) intervention, in which a media-driven moral panic, slandered Aboriginal men as paedophiles and sparked the largest human rights abuse of recent times. We saw that white-dominated narratives can have horrific consequences on our people.

This recognition is why the Dart Centre retreat was so critical, and so long overdue. While we all work with the understanding that we report on trauma, there have been few opportunities to discuss it in depth, to talk about the ethical dilemmas that emerge when we speak to victims of violence and conflict.  

It became evident that while participants recognised that they were reporting on trauma on an almost daily basis,  there were few resources available on how to do this properly within a First Nations context. There was little support to deal with vicarious trauma stemming from reporting on your own communities, even for those who worked in larger, better-resourced outlets. Many participants, for example, were working on stories in which their own families were impacted – from juvenile justice to the Stolen Generations, to stories on suicide and self-harm. 

But the theme that dominated the weekend was the battle that played out behind the scenes: racism within media. Participants spoke of the personal toll that comes with constantly justifying the humanity of your own people (and by extension, yourself) within a white system, or fighting for a story to be told in a way that does not demonise or further harm the community you are reporting on. At times, it can be isolating, and some of the younger journalists felt they weren’t given the guidance or training to deal with complicated issues like these. We also discussed the burden that we feel is placed on Aboriginal journalists to address the racist and unethical reporting of other media outlets, while also ensuring that black media is not constantly reacting to that reporting, but instead setting the agenda.

The weekend concluded with an acknowledgement that this was the beginning of a conversation – and one that we will continue in order to ensure that the next generation of Aboriginal media practitioners have the support they need to continue the work. It also, perhaps, opened up a new avenue for the Dart Centre to develop further resources specifically focusing on the unique experiences of Indigenous peoples across the world.