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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Amanda Meade

First Nations journalists brace for voice referendum coverage they can’t tap out of

Bridget Brennan and Isabella Higgins
Two ABC First Nations journalists, Bridget Brennan and Isabella Higgins, say there were internal barriers to telling Indigenous stories. Photograph: ABC

Stan Grant may have dominated the headlines but two other First Nations journalists who have been covering Indigenous affairs at the ABC since 2017 say it’s been “a long road of systemic racism, ignorance, and personal challenge”.

On Saturday Bridget Brennan, a Dja Dja Wurrung, Yorta Yorta woman, and Isabella Higgins, a Torres Strait Islander, will join the broadcaster’s voice correspondent, Dan Bourchier, in presenting ABC TV’s coverage of the results of the referendum, an event which has been particularly painful for Indigenous journalists to cover.

Guardian Australia’s referendum coverage over the past gruelling months has been led by Indigenous affairs editor Lorena Allam, a Gamilaraay and Yuwalaraay woman, and reporter Sarah Collard, a Ballardong Noongar woman. On Thursday Allam was nominated for a Walkley award for her commentary and analysis during the referendum campaign.

Both Brennan and Higgins have been Europe correspondent for the ABC, but they agree covering Indigenous affairs is a more difficult job because it is so personal. “It took a huge toll on us and it continues to take a huge toll on us,” Brennan says.

The referendum has brought even more pain. “It feels like no matter where you are on either side of the debate, our rights are being debated and our history is being debated,” Brennan told ABC Backstory.

When they started the Indigenous reporting unit the women found that many Indigenous communities did not trust the ABC, and internally there were barriers to telling Indigenous stories too.

“There was a perception of what Indigenous stories were, how they would perform, what they would look like,” Higgins explains.

But they’re proud of what they’ve achieved, along with the head of Indigenous news, Suzanne Dredge, who became the first Indigenous leader to serve on the news executive.

“I look up at the TV in the morning and Indigenous affairs is leading the bulletin and I don’t think that’s just because we’re having a referendum.”

“There is no other newsroom or organisation in Australia that would have a team like that that is working across so many different platforms, that would be interacting with such a huge audience across podcast, radio, TV,” Higgins says.

“I think it’s exposing us as a nation for what we don’t know about each other, and it’s really uncomfortable as a Torres Strait Islander person to watch the nation grapple with that,” she says.

“And that’s difficult because we can’t tap out of it.”

Brennan and Dredge have been nominated for a Walkley award for their Four Corners report How Many More? about the murder of Aboriginal women.

How TV is covering the referendum

SBS, NITV and Sky News Australia will join the ABC in giving extensive airtime to covering the results on Saturday night. The commercial networks however are not so keen, giving just half an hour for news and analysis after the bulletin. At 7pm Michael Usher will anchor a half-hour special on Seven with the channel’s political editor, Mark Riley, before switching to a 2009 movie, The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock. Nine will air a half-hour voice special before the cricket at 7.30pm.

Reporters on the ground

The days of Australian media organisations having multiple international correspondents on the ground are over. But there is a handful of Australian journalists covering the conflict in the Middle East.

Nine News, our largest locally-owned media group, hasone correspondent, Edward Godfrey, who is filing for Nine’s TV News. The ABC has correspondent, Nick Dole as well as Tom Joyner and John Lyons reporting for TV, radio and online.

Some have done pieces to camera while explosions can be heard nearby.

The Sydney Morning Herald and the Age don’t have any dedicated correspondents in the area anymore.

News Corp Australia has two reporters filing for its mastheads, and is drawing on the resources of Murdoch assets in the US and the UK.

“Reflecting the seriousness of this major story we currently have two reporters, Yoni Bashan and Danielle Gusmaroli, on the ground in Israel,” a spokesperson said. “Their efforts are complemented by The Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Sun, which will continue to provide world-leading coverage to our audiences as this story unfolds.”

For the record the Guardian, which is a global media organisation, has four reporters on the ground in Israel and one in Gaza.

Prescient report

The ABC’s current affairs program Foreign Correspondent filmed a piece on the occupied West Bank not long before Hamas attacked Israel. Producers were left with a story which documented the tensions but not the dramatic escalation of conflict on the weekend.

Reporter Stephanie March re-edited her piece at the 11th hour and it was broadcast on Thursday night with a new introduction: “Just weeks ago, we were in Israel and the occupied West Bank to document rising tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. The story you’re about to watch captures a moment in the occupied West Bank before the war. It details events of the past 12 months and gives an insight into this part of this complex conflict.” Now available on iview, the episode may not have captured the fighting of the last few days, but it is a detailed examination of the suffering on both sides of the divide and the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians on the West Bank.

Israeli strikes have killed three journalists so far, and two others died as a result of gunshot wounds, according to Reporters without Borders.

The Australian wins big at in-house awards

In a remarkable achievement in a competitive field, the Australian has picked up 15 awards in Murdoch’s annual celebration of its own journalism: the in-house 2023 News Awards. The Oz was competing against journalists from other Murdoch mastheads, including the Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph.

“More than 15 of Australia’s leading reporters including John Ferguson, John Stensholt, Eric Johnston and Stephen Rice, commentators like Janet Albrechtsen as well as up and coming stars and world-exclusive news breakers like Sharri Markson and Hedley Thomas have been nominated for the 19th annual awards that celebrate NewsCorp’s journalism and commercial campaigns,” the Australian reported.

The group’s executive chair, Michael Miller, said the “news family” had produced a record number of entries, 560, and the standard was “world class”.

Andrew Probyn nominated for Walkley

In slightly awkward news the journalist the ABC made redundant, the broadcaster’s former political editor Andrew Probyn, has been nominated for a Walkley award.

Probyn, along with colleague Jake Evans, has been recognised in the scoop of the year category for their exclusive story Lidia Thorpe and the Bikie Boss.

The Walkley recognition comes months after Probyn was “pretty flabbergasted” to be told by the national broadcaster that they no longer needed a political editor for TV news, and he became one of 41 staff in news to have been made redundant.

Love sees politics in green

Simon Love’s now-deleted tweet. It reads: ‘A government spokesperson has told Sky News that there was no directive from Department of Premier and Cabinet to light up Flinders Street station overnight in green colours. It follows concerns raised to Sky News by members of the Jewish community about the display. #springst’
Simon Love’s now-deleted tweet. Photograph: Simon Love/X

On Wednesday when Simon Love, Sky News Australia’s Victorian political reporter, saw Flinders Street station lit up green he apparently saw a local angle on the Middle East conflict. He seems to have interpreted the green light as a political statement by the Victorian government which may be offensive to the Jewish community.

“It follows concerns raised to Sky news from members of the Jewish Community about the display,” Love posted on X (formerly Twitter).

But after making some inquiries, Love clarified the lights were a tribute to mark World Mental Health Day and had been planned for some time.

Love deleted histweet after journalists suggested he do so.

ABC’s staff cautioned on social media usage

On the subject of inauspicious tweets, the ABC has issued its toughest-ever social media guidelines following its decision to shut down almost all of its official accounts on X in August.

If you are what the ABC has designated a “high risk worker” – in other words a reporter or a presenter – you had better take your social media activity seriously.

“The higher your profile or seniority the greater the reputational damage to you and the ABC if you breach the guidelines, and the more likely a breach will attract attention,” staff were warned in an email from the broadcaster’s managing director, David Anderson.

Staff are warned to think not just about what they tweet but what they like and share , who they follow and what hashtags they use. “Any of these may seem innocuous in isolation but viewed in aggregate could risk breaching these guidelines,” the guidelines say.

Deleting texts from a decade ago is recommended in case someone trawls through and finds a tweet that “could be seen in a different light now”. Journalists are now as at risk as politicians when it comes to old tweets, it seems.

Management even gave examples of what not to do: “A political reporter expressing a strong personal opinion on a contentious issue of the day; a local radio producer tweeting something derogatory about the local mayor or a high profile employee revealing publicly how they vote or expressing support for a political party”.

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