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How not to report on Indigenous education

Greg Dickson writes…

My language skills are poor? How good's your Pitjantjatjara?

On Monday I got a phone call out of the blue from a journalist from The Australian. Initially, I felt a bit chuffed being cold-called by a big newspaper. I soon realised however that the journo was asking me about stuff that wasn’t really my area of expertise. She wanted to know about ESL teaching in the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) lands. This is out of my area geographically (desert rather than Top End) and professionally (education rather than linguistics).

When I started to explain that I wasn’t going to be terribly helpful to her, she said “Oh. Well I just got your contact details. I don’t really know what you do”. That should have been a big enough clue to realise that there wasn’t going to be much good journalism going on.

When I saw the resulting story, I learned that she didn’t do a good job of reporting on the issue at all. The story, Language skills poor in 40pc of APY children, can be found here.

It’s a prime example of how not to report on Indigenous education. The result is a misleading and negative article. Ultimately, it contributes no worthwhile information to the issue and serves only to perpetuate misconceptions and prejudices many Australians already hold.

The entire premise of the article is flawed. It claims that 40% of children in the APY lands have ‘poor language skills’ – a claim based on census data of children from 0-14. It implies that it is newsworthy that 225 of those 600 children are not proficient in English. In actual fact it is entirely acceptable, predictable and expected that children in the APY lands up to the age of 5 - which probably number around 225 - would be proficient only in their own Indigenous language. Children are not expected to start to develop English proficiency until they enter the schooling system. The Australian has disappointingly opted for a dramatic sounding headline based on not much news at all.

Regarding that headline - Language skills poor in 40% of APY children - this is again misleading. It assumes that “language skills” means only English skills. It ignores the fact that all children in that age bracket would have perfectly adequate oral language skills in their mother tongue – Yankunytjatjara or Pitjantjatjara. By ignoring the skills children have in their own language and claiming that they have poor “language” skills (when they really mean “English” skills), it falsely perceives them as deficient. Their Indigenous language skills and knowledge become invisible.

It should also be noted that 225 out of 600 is actually 37.5%, not 40%. Okay, not a big difference, but that’s actually falsely adding 15 kids to the total of kids with ‘poor language skills’. That’s nearly a classroom of kids.

I emailed the journalist earlier this week with these concerns and haven’t received a response. If I don’t hear from her, I at least hope that she now realises her approach to the topic was flawed and that she avoids making similar mistakes next time. Aboriginal people are regularly fed messages by media that tell them they are unsuccessful in education and many other aspects of life. It is not nice that Sarah Martin has created another of these messages based on insignificant ABS data while at the same time ignoring important language skills that these children have.

Of course, I’m not the only person to comment on negative and misleading reporting on Indigenous issues and its potential affect on Aboriginal people’s lives. This Inside Story article by Melissa Sweet quotes an Aboriginal academic at a health conference who said, ”We’re tired of being told that we are helpless, hopeless and useless”. The article also quotes Professor Fiona Stanley who advocates for more positive reporting on Aboriginal issues: “The more that the dominant culture reports negative stories about Aboriginal people, the more that Aboriginal children feel bad about being Aboriginal” says Stanley. She goes on to say:

“I have these fantasy conversations with Rupert Murdoch and say, ‘you could actually turn around Aboriginal people if you could change the way you report, even if you just made just 50 per cent of your articles positive, you could reduce suicide rates.’”

I would happily have that same conversation. If not with Rupert Murdoch, then at least with Sarah Martin.

Originally published at that munanga linguist.

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  • 1
    Angra
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    The Murdoch Minions yet again show that they are not interested in the objective reporting of facts, but only in reinforcing stereotypes and southern Australian whitey prejudice.

  • 2
    Murf
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Can’t people get it through their skulls that communication is the objective of any language? Whatever the specific language you learn, your fellow speakers will soon become alarmed about your abilities as a child if you can’t communicate with them after a year or two of being a baby. When the reporter was writing about the “language skills” of children aged 0 to 5, she wasn’t using her own nous to realise that kids this age aren’t expected to be “skilled” in any language but we do expect they will communicate appropriately for their ages. If parents or community members were not alarmed about these 225 children out of 600, then no one else should be either. The report extract was just a summary that pooled too many ages into one category.

  • 3
    Bell Christine
    Posted July 23, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I have lived and breathed Anangu education for eight years as a teacher and now as a principal on the APY Lands. I have witnessed firsthand the effects these negative, ill-informed comments have on our community both Anangu and Piranpa. I see teachers here that work so tirelessly to improve outcomes for their students deflated at such articles. In eight years I have seen the level of teaching in our schools compare or indeed surpass mainstream teaching. I welcome Sarah Martin or indeed Rupert Murdoch here at our school any time to spend a day or two in our shoes and then to comment on what they actually see and not what they think they know.

  • 4
    Edward James
    Posted July 23, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    I remain ignorant of the first Australian peoples languages, while they diminish in the number of spoken dialects and population. Nevertheless it dose not prevent me from writing about my perception of apartheid which continues to be demonstrated by my Federal and State governments. Edward James

  • 5
    Katsikas George
    Posted July 24, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I’ve been a teacher for nearly twenty years and only recently had the privilege of visiting nine schools on the APY Lands. I saw schools that were inspiring and valued by their communities. I met teachers who were passionate, committed and highly skilled and kids who were engaged, enthusiastic and fluent in two and three languages. When Sarah Martin has her next performance review, her employers should use the KPI’s used for assessing fire fighters. The ignorance and lack of thought or awareness in her article is truly staggering and sadly damaging.

  • 6
    David Mel
    Posted July 24, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    It is a sad indictment on the motivation of and understanding by our media that Sarah Martin’s article is published. Sad that she and her publishers do not, or do not want to understand the value of cultural and language diversity; sad that she does not cherish Indigenous languages that could teach her many things about her own country, and so sad that she does not seem to want to positively portray the only people who can tell the true stories about this land. As Christine Bell says, the teaching task in the APY Lands is challenging, but measures up against teaching anywhere but most importantly, is hampered by ignorant reportage of the like that Sarah Martin has written.

  • 7
    Red Dog
    Posted July 24, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Good article and only reconfirms the theory that many so called journalists don’t have to know much about Indigenous people and issues, they only need to learn the media formula used to write stories. To understand this read Jennifer Mill’s very candid piece here: How to write about Aboriginal Australia
    http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/2854192.html

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