• Cheek

Pandemic proves Australia is infected with racism

In Australia, we're facing two pandemics. The first is obvious, Coronavirus threatens the health of our most vulnerable. The second? A growing body of media outlets who threaten the safety of minority groups through deeply misguided and prejudicial reporting.

A white, elderly couple from Sydney's Northern Beaches who tested positive for COVID-19 last Wednesday ignored government restrictions after their test, visiting several locations in the Palm Beach area. Interestingly, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard did not comment on the matter, but instead used the opportunity to critique health officials who did make comment on the couple, stating:

'I don’t think it is helpful and I would say to anybody in the health system you should respect the privacy of patients.'

Let me be clear, I agree with Brad's sentiment, the right to privacy should apply to all patients.

However, when comparing media coverage of this couple, to the reporting of two African women who breached Queensland's restrictions in July, we see a stark contrast in the media's treatment of those flouting COVID-19 guidelines.

In July of this year two young, African women entered Queensland and failed to declare to Queensland border authorities that they had been in a declared hotspot. The women were charged with fraud and lying to health officials in an attempt to evade quarantine.

The identity of the women was published by News Corp newspapers prior to any charges being laid by Queensland Police. Here is just one example of the media coverage surrounding the breach:

Image: The Courier Mail

This front page of The Courier Mail (surprise, surprise) is disgusting. The headline, 'Enemies of the State' is quite honestly, one of the most horrendously exaggerated claims of all time. Ask yourself this, would two young, white men from a private school background ever receive this headline? Would their faces be plastered on the front page?

This coverage is evidence of a serious, but not isolated instance of rampant racism in this country. What becomes alarmingly clear from this story is, the media infects the Australian public with bigotry at a rate much faster than the spread of the Coronavirus.

Notably, The Guardian reported that members of Brisbane’s African migrant communities contacted the Queensland Human Rights Commission, claiming that they experienced significant backlash in the community following publications such as these identifying these young women.

Writing for The Conversation in July, Denis Muller highlights:

'Many people have made serious mistakes endangering public health during the second wave of the pandemic: the people responsible for hotel quarantine in Victoria, the people who have tried to smuggle their way across borders in the boots of cars, and many others who have reportedly got across borders by breaking the rules. None of them have been named and shamed. There are ranks of government ministers and public servants behind the Ruby Princess and hotel quarantine debacles. Why not track them down and republish photos from their social media posts?'

In this country, trial by media tends to only occur when the person exposed by the front pages cannot fight back. These women are young, African and have little retaliation power in the wake of these vile attacks by many acclaimed media outlets. The pile-on that occurred cannot be understated, and remains one of the most vitriolic name-and-shame moments in 2020 news coverage.

Although the usual suspects like The Daily Mail and The Courier Mail were part of the attack, outlets including the ABC and the Sydney Morning Herald were the more surprising perpetrators of identity exposure, posting images of the women's faces and naming them throughout the coverage of this incident.

To put into perspective the stark contrast in coverage, only one headline made reference to the Northern Beaches couple and their blatant disregard for the health of Australians.

Image: The Australian

When we see headlines with such clear contradiction, often the industry defends itself with claims of 'implicit bias'. Implicit bias refers to an unconscious tendency to associate particular characteristics with particular groups. It is not malicious, but could lead to different treatment of individuals and groups. To claim that what we are dealing with in these two headlines is 'implicit bias' denies the clear and purposeful agenda that the right wing media inflicts on readers.

When News Corp revealed the identity of two young African women on the basis of 'accountability' and 'deterrence tactics', the agenda that they were really pushing is one of racial prejudice, not unconscious association.

Image source: @maxblackhole

Negative commentary around minority groups is toxic, and is proven to have lasting impacts on viewers and readers and their perceptions of these groups. Senior Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, Christina Ho provides:

'Half of all race-related opinion pieces in the Australian mainstream media are likely to contravene industry codes of conduct on racism. The Who Watches the Media report found that of 124 race-related opinion pieces published between January and July this year, 62 were potentially in breach of one or more industry codes of conduct, because of racist content.'

The role of the press in our society is to challenge, to reflect on shortcomings and hold those in power to account. Instead, we're facing a pandemic of another kind. One which believes that it will achieve clicks, power and success through the division of our society in a time when we need each other most. This Coronavirus coverage is not isolated evidence of racism in the media, but part of a pattern that has existed throughout the history of journalism. The question we must ask is, who holds the media to account?