Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Journalism and Indigenous Health Policy

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Journalism and Indigenous Health Policy

Article excerpt

Abstract: The Australian News Media and Indigenous Policymaking 1988-2008 project is investigating the relationships between media attention to Indigenous issues and policy development processes. The ways in which Indigenous issues are discussed through public media as 'intractable' have concrete policy outcomes that impact on the lives of Indigenous Australians, and on the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in urban, rural and remote settings. The project is investigating the emergence of policies governing Indigenous populations in specific discursive environments, through the analysis of news reporting, policy outcomes, and the local knowledge of actors involved in the development of health, media and education policies. This paper reports on a qualitative framing analysis of media texts, policy documents and public statements concerning Indigenous health from 1988 to 1995, finding that there were direct and indirect relationships between media reporting of Indigenous issues as policy "failure" and dramatic shifts in federal government health policies.

Introduction

This paper explores the relationships between the framing of certain issues in the news media as intractable policy problems and the development of Indigenous policy. The 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response (or 'Intervention') provided a profound example of both the alarmist nature of media reporting and the related dramatic shifts in Indigenous policy. This series of politically motivated policy announcements generated intense public interest, controversy and outcry. The extensive media coverage that surrounded the radical incursion into Indigenous people's lives in the Northern Territory was criticised as being narrowly framed, supporting uncritically what was seen as poor policy and, most importantly, demonising all Indigenous people regardless of their circumstances (Altman and Hinkson 2007). The mediated nature of the Intervention raises questions about how such radical, dramatic and controversial policy decisions are made on important national issues.

This paper argues that the Northern Territory Emergency Response is just one example in a long tradition of dramatic policy swings that characterise the nature of Indigenous policymaking. It takes as its focus the decision in 1995 to move responsibility for Indigenous health from the Aboriginal and Tortes Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) to the Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health. In 1989 all states and territories endorsed the National Aboriginal Health Strategy (NAHS; NAHSWP 1989), which advocated Indigenous control over the development and delivery of primary and environmental health care. In a clear statement in support of Indigenous self-determination, the Commonwealth gave ATSIC responsibility for the implementation of the NAHS. A remarkable policy shift in 1995 saw responsibility for Aboriginal health transferred from ATSIC back to the Commonwealth. Such historical shifting of responsibility for Indigenous health between state and federal governments, ATSIC and the Aboriginal community-controlled health sector, along with the apparent inability to solve the 'problems' of poor Indigenous health standards and the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, makes Indigenous health an ideal site for the examination of the relationship between media reporting and policy development (Bartlett and Boffa 2005; Cunningham and Baeza 2005; Grant et al. 2008).

News framing methodology is used to explore the way mainstream metropolitan journalists reported on Indigenous health between 1988 and 1995. This paper maps the features of Indigenous health news in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) newspaper and identifies the major topics and sources of news, and the dominant frames through which Indigenous health was represented in the SMH. It finds that news media reporting provided a backdrop for the development of Indigenous health policy by portraying Indigenous Australians as an underlying societal risk, and Indigenous health issues as an intractable policy problem (Brough 1999; McCallum 2007). …

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