“You don’t look Aboriginal. What percentage are you?
“Surely you’re more white than black?
“You could pass for white. Why do you say you’re Aboriginal?”
Michelle White, a Yamatji woman from WA’s mid-west, remembers the reaction from staff when she began her journalism career as an Indigenous cadet at GWN in Bunbury 28 years ago. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, White has often encountered these questions. “No one could quite figure out how I could be Aboriginal and I spent much of my career having to answer really offensive questions justifying what percentage I was,” she says. “I thought we’d moved on from caste systems.”
White, Gina Williams and Jodi Hoffmann addressed 100 journalists, media professionals and students at So Many Voices So Much To Say: Aboriginal Western Australia And The Media, an evening of thought-provoking discussion at Women in Media’s recent event hosted by TAFE’s Central Gallery in Northbridge.
The trio delivered insights into being on both sides of the media: as Indigenous women working in the mainstream media, and as women whose communities are often reported in the media. Jessica Strutt, ABC Perth political reporter and former Indigenous Affairs reporter for the West Australian, facilitated the August 27 panel discussion.
White spent 15 years working at the ABC, including on The 7.30 Report, Australian Story and the ABC News. She started as a young reporter as story with a sensational headline on the front page of the West Australian, “Aboriginal gangs terrorise suburbs”, provoked intense media interest. Although subsequent research showed the headline to be inaccurate and the case to be over-stated by the West.
It was a hard time for White to be in the newsroom and she asked her chief of staff not to send her to cover this story because she was related to some of the young Aboriginal people concerned. “It’s not just another story. It’s a part of your family and your life experience knowing that family members will get picked up off the street simply because of the colour of their skin.
“I can remember my cousin had to go to the Aboriginal Legal Service because he got flogged by the police, [but] that wasn’t actually the story that was getting out. It was of this feral teenager.”
White became a walking political statement, labeled as the Indigenous ‘expert’. “You’ve got all that responsibility,” she says. “You become the person to go to for the Indigenous problem stories.
“You just want to be a journo, not the Aboriginal journo.”
Starting out as a cadet reporter at the West Australian Newspaper 27 years ago, Balladong woman Gina Williams experienced a similar pressure to be the expert on all things Aboriginal, and the lack of newsroom knowledge on Aboriginal people and culture. She recalls a vague Aboriginal culture and history staff briefing early on at the West. “We all hopped into a minibus and drove out to Gnangara and got shown a couple of plants. I think that was about it,” she says. Then we jumped back in the bus and went back to the office where we got yelled at for our copy.”
Williams wanted to make a difference. “I wanted to speak up and tell stories and the idea of working on a major metropolitan newspaper seemed like a really good idea at the time,” she says. “When they stuck me on the weather pages, the balloon sort of burst.”
Williams has since worked for Noongar Radio and GWN, and rediscovered her traditional Noongar language as an adult. “It’s not a difficult language to learn and this is the language of the place you’re living at the moment,” she tells the WiM audience. Williams collaborates with guitarist Guy Ghouse as she teaches and preserves the Noongar language through song.
WA Aboriginal Legal Service media officer Jodi Hoffmann has worked in mainstream and Indigenous media for more than 20 years. At the ALS, Hoffmann liaises with Indigenous communities and journalists every day and understands the deadline and other pressures in a 24/7 news world.
Despite the pressures, she says it is the responsibility of journalists to respect different cultural protocols. “Cultural protocols have been around for 50,000 years and there are different protocols from area to area in certain parts of the country. It’s really important that those protocols are respected.” She says it is vital even if it is the wish of just one family. As a Nunga woman from Adelaide, when Hoffmann came to WA she had to quickly learn what was appropriate in Noongar country. “Whether you’re an Aboriginal journalist or a non-Aboriginal journalist, it doesn’t mean that you’re qualified to go 200km up the road and do your job.”
Hoffmann says we need to know and understand Aboriginal history as reporters and as Australians. “It’s only through talking and making those networks that you get an insight into those stories,” she says. “It makes a huge difference to the way you view the whole world and the way you look at somebody you might pass in the street and think, ‘There is a lot more going on [in that story] than that newspaper photo’.”
ABC political reporter Jessica Strutt agrees. She says in her 10 years experience as a journalist, it is clear some young reporters have very little knowledge of WA’s Aboriginal history.
White says a more open discussion about Indigenous issues could change public perceptions of Aboriginal people. “There seems to be this feeling that if anyone wants to talk about the Stolen Generations or what happened in the past they’re going to get beaten over the head with stories about it,” she says. “We can’t move forward together as a community unless we all accept that this happened and the trauma is inter-generational.”
Jodi Hoffmann says there is clearly a genuine interest within the media about Aboriginal affairs reporting, but misrepresentation persists. She has advice for journalists who want to write better stories. For many journalists the problem may be as simple as not knowing who to go to for a story or an interview. “There’s so many great things happening in communities, and good initiatives that are working that aren’t being reported on,” she says. “It’s only a couple of calls until you get steered in the right direction. Once you’ve made a couple of contacts within the Aboriginal community that list will grow and grow and grow.”
Gina Williams seeks to connect Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people through positive Indigenous stories. Williams pioneered a GWN program, Milbindi. She says the philosophy of the program was simple: to get positive Indigenous stories out into the public realm.
Milbindi was a huge success, picking up a prestigious commendation from the United Nations Media Peace Awards in 1994. At the end of each year Williams asked herself if there was enough good news for another season of the show. There was, and the program ran for 40 episodes over several years. “No one seemed to be doing what we were doing,” she says. “And it was such a simple idea.”
As manager of Aboriginal Programs, PR and media at the Community Arts Network Western Australia, Michelle White coordinated a project called Bush Babies, which celebrated the birth stories of Noongar elders in Narrogin and Kellerberrin. Bush Babies helped to connect the Aboriginal and white communities in a positive way using the power of individual stories.
White says the non-Aboriginal people in those towns had “absolutely no idea” that the local Noongar elders were not citizens, had to have a “dog tag” to get into town, and their children were taken away. “They had no idea that this had existed in their own community.” White says non-Aboriginal people in those towns didn’t know how to approach Aboriginal people. “They saw this project as giving them permission to be able to interact and get to understand that history.”
The panel also noted that much of a positive shift in Indigenous affairs reporting, and reception by audiences, is happening outside the mainstream media. Gina Williams: “It’s happening in different ways outside of newsrooms, newspapers and radio deadlines. It’s happening through the arts and GetUp movements. It’s through this.
“We sit here tonight and we exchange ideas and hopefully by the end of the night you’ll go away knowing some Noongar words if I’ve got anything to do with it.”
The evening ended with Gina Williams and guitarist Guy Ghouse performing songs from their debut album, Kalyakoorl. Williams sang in her Noongar language and taught the audience some Noongar words. Kalyakoorl means forever.
Gina Williams had a final, empowering message for the audience: “Back yourself. If you want to do a positive story about Aboriginal people and you’re having a hard time from your editor or chief of staff, fight for it. Have enough courage of your convictions to actually believe in what you want to see in the media.”
Words by Kate Leaver: Kate Leaver completed a Bachelor of Arts with a Major in Screen Arts at Curtin University in 2013. After working at media production company based in Fremantle, she decided to pursue a Graduate Diploma in Journalism. Kate’s interest in journalism was sparked through her love of documentary film.