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A note to media outlets & journalists about your impact upon Indigenous health

Media organisations and journalists need to reconsider how they report on alcohol and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, says Summer May Finlay, a Yorta Yorta woman and public health researcher.


Is the media making us sick?

Summer May Finlay writes:

Risky drinking occurs at a similar rate in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to that in the broader community (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010).  In addition, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to abstain from alcohol than other Australians, and alcohol causes less disease and death in the Aboriginal population than other factors.

Yet the media tell a different story.

In a recent study into media reporting of topics related to Indigenous health, over 74% of all articles were negative and over 30% of the negative articles related to alcohol (Stoneham, Goodman and Daube, 2014).

This seems disproportionate given that alcohol causes only 6% of the burden of disease, whereas tobacco and obesity cause 17% and 16% respectively (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2008).

In addition, there is little acknowledgement in the media that more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people abstain from alcohol (37%) than other Australians (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2008).

What is the impact of how the media reports alcohol issues in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities?

The way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are portrayed in the media has a very real impact on their lives. The media often relies on stereotyping which can lead to racism. Racism has links to poorer health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Ferdinand, Paradies and Kelaher, 2012).

Many Australians have little experience with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and culture, and the media is one of their primary sources of information.

Research from Australia and internationally has established the role that the media plays in perpetrating racism, discrimination and stereotyping (Nairn 2006, p. 191).

Stereotyping can influence the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people think about themselves and also the way other Australians consider them. Stereotyping can also influence how successful someone is (Alavi, 2010). It follows that the media may affect people’s chance of success through stereotyping.

Media stories over-represent the issue of risky drinking behaviours in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

The determinants of alcohol consumption at risky levels are complex and include removal from family, trauma, loss of culture, lower levels of education, lower socioeconomic status and racism (Social Justice Report 2008; Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2011; Nadew, 2012; Germov 2009).

What we need from the media is balanced, accurate reporting, which does not rely on stereotyping.

We need the media to understand that they play a role in maintaining stereotypes that lead to racism, and that through stereotyping they may play a role in making people sick.

• Summer May Finlay is a Yorta Yorta woman who grew up on Lake Macquarie and the article above expresses her personal views. She has a Bachelor of Social Science and a Masters of Public Health, and has worked in Aboriginal affairs, in a range of capacities, for 10 years. She tweets as @OnTopicAus and has a blog, On Topic which you can read at http://summermayfinlay.blogspot.com.au. You can read more about her at The Guardian.



Alavi, R. 2010. Race, Identity, Stereotyping and Voluntary Oppression. Global Virtue Ethics Review, no. 6 pp. 13 – 27.

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010. The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Oct 2010. Cat. no. 4714.0.55.005. Canberra. http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/lookup/4704.0Chapter756Oct+2010

Australian Human Rights Commission, 2009. Social Justice Report 2008. Sydney. https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/content/social_justice/sj_report/sjreport08/downloads/SJR_2008_full.pdf.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008. The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples 2008. Cat. no. 4704.0. Canberra. http://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/ausstats/subscriber.nsf/0/51B575E133A75C6DCA2574390014EDFE/$File/47040_2008.pdf.

Ferdinand, A., Paradies Y., and Kelaher, M. Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Victorian Aboriginal Communities. Melbourne: The Lowitja Institute, 2013. http://www.lowitja.org.au/mental-health-impacts-racial-discrimination-victorian-aboriginal-communities#sthash.902eCAx5.dpuf.

Germov, J 2009, Second Opinion, Oxford University Press, Victoria, Australia.

Nairn, R, Pega, F, McCreanor, T, Rankine, J and Barnes, A 2006, ‘Media, Racism and Public Health’, Psychology Health Psychology, vol. 11 pp. 183 – 198.

Nadew, GT 2012,  ‘Exposure to traumatic events, prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder and alcohol abuse in Aboriginal communities’, Rural and Remote Health, vol. 12, pp. 1667 – 1679 (Online) Available: http://www.rrh.org.au last viewed arch 28th March 2014.

Stoneham, M. J., Goodman, J. and Daube, M., 2014 “The Portrayal of Indigenous Health in Selected Australian Media,” The International Indigenous Policy Journal 5, no.1. http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/iipj/vol5/iss1/5.



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  • 1
    Posted May 13, 2014 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this very informative article and for linking media stereotyping to evidence of harm.