Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Juggling with Pronouns: Racist Discourse in Spoken Interaction on the Radio

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Juggling with Pronouns: Racist Discourse in Spoken Interaction on the Radio

Article excerpt

Abstract: While the discourse of deficit with regard to Australian Indigenous health and wellbeing has been well documented in print media and through images on film and on television, radio talk concerning this discourse remains under-researched. This paper interrogates the power of an interactive news interview, aired on the Radio National Breakfast program on ABC Radio in 2011, to maintain and reproduce the discourse of deficit, despite the best intentions of the interview participants. Using a conversation-analytical approach, and membership categorisation analysis in particular, this paper interrogates the spoken interaction between a well-known radio interviewer and a respected medical researcher into Indigenous eye health. It demonstrates the recreation of a discourse emanating from longstanding hegemonies between mainstream and Indigenous Australians. Analysis of first-person pronoun use shows the ongoing negotiation of social category boundaries and construction of moral identities through ascriptions to category members, upon which the intelligibility of the interview for the listening audience depended. The findings from analysis support claims in a considerable body of whiteness studies literature, the main themes of which include the pervasiveness of a racist discourse in Australian media and society, the power of invisible assumptions, and the importance of naming and exposing them.


This paper interrogates an example of radio talk to show the pervasiveness of the discourse of deficit that characterises portrayal of Aboriginal and Tortes Strait Islander peoples in mainstream media in Australia. (1) It proposes that interactive talk, which increasingly characterises news interviews, can maintain and reproduce racism. In this radio interview, the use of pronouns that refer to collectivities of people is of particular interest, and is examined by means of membership categorisation analysis. The data was taken from an interview about Indigenous eye health aired 27 May 2011 on Radio National Breakfast (Kelly 2011). Radio National Breakfast has been described as the 'front-runner by a substantial margin' of ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) radio programs (Simons 2008). It is not surprising that Radio National Breakfast--'required listening for the political set'--was extended by half an hour in 2012 (Whittaker 2011). The interviewer was a well-known and respected radio journalist, Fran Kelly, and the interviewee was Professor Hugh Taylor, founding director of the Indigenous Eye Health Unit at The University of Melbourne's School of Population Health. The topic of the interview was the completion of two reports to be presented to government, one an exhaustive survey of the current status of Indigenous (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) eye health (Taylor et al. 2011), and the other a document of Indigenous eye health government policy from 1980 to 2010 (Jones et al. 2011).

Professional and ethical standards as expressed in the ABC's Code of Practice concerning Indigenous content, and portrayal of Indigenous issues, are not in question in themselves (ABC 2011:213-19). It is acknowledged that gains have been made with respect to explicit portrayals of Indigenous people. Nevertheless, this paper argues that news interview talk itself generates hidden power that can circumvent such policies, and has the potential to shape public discourse.

The prevailing discourse

The discourse of deficit, so-called, is notoriously difficult to change. As recently as 17 June 2011 an ABC news release declared, 'More than $3 billion was spent on Indigenous health in 2008-2009, with no improvement in the so-called health gap', and 'for every dollar that was spent on a non-Indigenous person in the Northern Territory, $3.50 was spent on an Aboriginal person' (Morgan 2011). This typifies the discourse of deficit which has received considerable attention in Australian scholarship for at least two decades. …

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