Refugees and asylum seekers have a very prominent part of the Australian media landscape. As a part of my final semester of my Sports Media degree at the University of Canberra I was tasked with producing long form journalism based on refugees in the local area.
Refugees, particularly those who come by boat, have become a very politicised issue. The ‘Children Overboard’ really brought asylum seekers to the fore and was used as a political pawn by the Howard Government. It has been argued by Dunn, Klocker and Salabay (2007) that the current public perception of asylum seekers and refugees can be linked to the Howard Government’s handling of ‘boat people’ problems including the ‘Children Overload’ incident. This view was also reinforced by Klocker and Dunn (2003),
“The unrelentingly negative way in which the federal government portrayed asylum seekers. While the government’s negative tenor was constant during the study period, the specific terms of reference altered, from ‘threat’ through ‘other’, to ‘illegality’ and to ‘burden’. The negative construction of asylum seekers was clearly mutable. Analysis of newspaper reporting during the same period indicates that the media largely adopted the negativity and specific references of the government”.
We were tasked at trying to see past the current pattern of the media and to find the real personal stories away from the politics and front pages like this one.
This was an essential element of the assessment trying to “humanise” asylum seekers something according to Leach and Mansouri (2003) is something is that not often represented by the media.
“The deliberate manipulation of language to exclude asylum seekers from any category of people with whom one might feel human solidarity demonstrates the power of language to demonise and dehumanise the most vulnerable of human beings: those in desperate need of protection and care.”
Byrnne O’Brien even suggested that the Australian public cared more about the safety of cows than they did about aslyum seekers and refugees.
Leach and Mansouri also highlights the role that the government has had on asylum seekers and refugees and the adverse affect that has on the media’s representation of asylum seeker issues.
“As the Federal Government has debated its various critics over the issues of refugee and mandatory detention policies, one set of voices has rarely been heard. The effective silencing of refugees and asylum seekers in this country has been one of the more disturbing aspects of the debate as a whole.”
However it is not all bad as emphasised by McKay, Thomas and Blood (2011). “On one hand, asylum seekers are portrayed as in genuine need of protection, fleeing their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution.” This is highlighted by this Four Corners report
McKay et. al continues, “On the other, they are portrayed as exploiting asylum policies for their own economic and personal gain” as seen by Today Tonight, which was criticised by Media Watch.
Prior to undertaking his assessment I had little contact with asylum seekers/refugees. I am from a small country town, which does not attract many/any refugees and if I did meet any “are you a refugee?” is not something that I would ask anyway. I have had a fair bit of contact with migrants, generally of Italian or Indian descent who are the largest migrant groups in my area, but this not the same experience.
I am very fortunate to have been born into a secure Australian environment, one where I have never have to consider what it was like to live in fear in the place I call home. Travelling throughout the world has opened by eyes to the suffering of others and whilst none of the places I have been to have been overly dangerous I feel sorry for those less fortunate than me. It is this feeling that I continue to have when thinking about asylum seekers and refugees.
As a sports media student my main interest is sport. Politics does not peak my interest very often so I don’t place a lot of emphasis the policies pertaining to asylum seekers/refugees, especially as they do not impact on me in any way. However I do have a few thoughts. I don’t understand why asylum seekers/refugees, especially those arriving by boat, have such a prominent place in policy and the media. I feel sorry that people feel the need to get on a leaky boat from Indonesia to come here but I don’t understand why they feel the need to come on a boat in the first place, where a plane is a much more viable and safer option.
My reporting refugees experience was different to most of the rest of the classmates. My partner, John Forrester, and I had a very frustrating experience. Very early in the semester we thought we had a story about the experiences of a refugee from Afghanistan, unfortunately she pulled out, not wanting to relive her terrible experiences escaping from the Taliban. Then we were given a story idea about the community resettlement of asylum seekers instead of detention. This story has become more prominent in the media since we started to look at us but we had an awful time trying to gain sources. We were told from one of the partners of reporting refugees which organisations were involved in Canberra but they all categorically denied they were involved, refused to be any help and if they did offer any help they would each send us back to the other in what really became a “circle of fail”. One media representative even abused John and told him that we had no right to call ourselves journalists six months short of that valuable piece of paper. After that stonewalling we moved onto another new project.
With the deadline fast approaching we moved to our third assessment idea – producing a panel discussion based on refugees. We then went on a sometimes arduous search for three refugee experts, preferably in Canberra, that could all talk well, with different backgrounds and strengths, that where available to speak at the same time (which we had not confirmed at the time). After one initial success we then had to play the waiting game trying to confirm two more people for the panel. After a fair few emails and phonecalls our number one “get” withdrew but we still managed to overcome that and assembled a great panel that offered information and opinion beyond my expectations.
The organisation and more importantly, the recording of the panel discussion really opened my eyes to a different perspective of asylum seekers. One that is not reported on very often. Although listening to this was influential I don’t think it has changed my perspective too significantly and my beliefs, as highlighted earlier, that I held before coming into the project remain quite constant.
I really don’t know how much of this semester’s work will affect my career. Sport and travel are my two passions and this assessment has little relevance to either of those. The panel discussion improved my organisational skills and it also helped my communication skills with potential and then confirmed sources. It was difficult at times trying to juggle the needs and expectations of six people so that the panel discussion could all come together. I also learnt to be a better member of a team, striving to find the balance between delegating jobs and handling tasks yourself, something which is becoming increasingly rare in journalism.
The last semester work was one of the most different topics that I have studied. It is something that I would not normally have looked at but it has enhanced by journalistic skills as I prepare to enter the work force. Refugees evoke a lot of passion and debate throughout the Australian society and I enjoyed the oppurtunity to learn more about them and produce something that the public can learn from
Dunn, K, Klocker N and Salabay T, 2007, ‘Contemporary racism and Islamaphobia in Australia’, Ethnicities, Vol. 7 No. 4, pp. 564-590, accessed 27th November 2011 from Sage Journals Online
Klocker, N and Dunn K, 2003, ‘Who’s driving the asylum debate? Newspaper and Government representations of asylum seekers’, Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy, No. 109, pp 71-92, accessed 27th November 2011 from Sage Journals Online
Leach, M and Mansouri F, 2003, ”Strange Words’ Refugees perspectives on government and media stereotyping’, Overland, No. 172, pp 19-26
McKay F, Thomas S and Blood W, 2011, ”Any one of these boat people could be a terrorist for all we know!’ Media representations and public perspections of ‘boat people’ arrivals in Australia’, Journalism, Vol. 12, No. 5, pp. 607-626, accessed 27th November 2011 from Sage Journals Online
O’Brien B, 2011, “When weighing up asylum systems, Australia is found wanting“, The Drum, accessed 27th November 2011, http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/3620264.html