The Hui presenter Mihingārangi Forbes and producer Annabelle Lee-Mather. (Image: On the Rag)

A time of reckoning: Racism and representation in media

Mainstream news has a history of not always being the safest or most representative space for Black and indigenous people and other people of colour (BIPOC). Many have created their own spaces to address the imbalance, but some Māori media professionals say it’s time for everyone to get on the bi-cultural waka. 

Among the things the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the fore are stories about the treatment of BIPOC journalists within media organisations.

In June, Djaru screenwriter Kodie Bedford publicly shared her experiences as an intern for SBS, Australia’s multicultural public broadcasting network.

The experience of being indigenous in a mainstream newsroom, she wrote, had taken a long time to get over. “Continual micro-aggressive-racist comments (only way I can describe them). I was told I was one of the good ones. Comments were made about my looks; apparently I looked more Aboriginal on certain days. There were jokes made about alcohol.”

This prompted others to add their voices. The picture it painted wasn’t pretty. Bedford left journalism after two years. “I still carry trauma and feel sick about it.”

In the US, Black journalists shared their stories about tokenism, racism and conflicting roles as both an objective observer and the subject of othering in news coverage. Wesley Lowery wrote for the New York Times: “the failure of the mainstream press to accurately cover Black communities is intrinsically linked with its failure to employ, retain and listen to Black people”.

Here in Aotearoa, NZ Herald columnist Teuila Fuatai wrote an op-ed that bravely reckoned with her own experiences and writing for a mainstream media outlet that is felt by many to be a pillar of the monocultural status quo.

“It began as a request for a news feature on racism in New Zealand,” she wrote. “Over a week, it evolved into a conversation on the difficulties of discussing racism in one’s workplace.”

The response from the NZ Herald’s editor was vague. It could have been an opportunity to drill down into a dark past, and unpack some of the intergenerational harm, in much the same way national conversations about our statues and monuments have. Ultimately, it neither addressed the paper’s history as a vehicle for anti-Māori narratives from the NZ Wars onward (where indigenous people were commonly referred to as “savages” and “specimens”), nor some of its editorial misses from recent years, of which there have been many.

The Hui host Mihingārangi Forbes (Ngāti Paoa, Ngāti Maniapoto) got her start in mainstream newsrooms in the 90s, and could relate to the struggles of other indigenous journalists in that environment.

She said when she was cub reporter for TVNZ, she knew in her “puku” that how they were covering the death of Steven Wallace – who was fatally shot by Senior Constable Keith Abbott in 2000 – was wrong. Abbot was acquitted by a jury, but his mother Raewyn Wallace has maintained her son was killed without justification.

“We basically just reported exactly what the cops said, every single time,” Forbes told The Spinoff. “I felt like I was part of the problem and I didn’t quite know in my 20s how to not be part of the problem. You just learn as you go.”

Later Forbes had a Broadcasting Standards Authority complaint upheld against her. “You couldn’t even say ‘racist’ in the 90s in a mainstream newsroom. I got a complaint against me for writing a voiceover about a Parihaka decision where I said ‘as a result of that invasion…’ I wasn’t allowed to use the word ‘invasion’. People had died. Technically that wasn’t wrong. One News lost the BSA on it.

“Today, we know the story of Parihaka properly. We know how hideous it was. They were peaceful and they were invaded by troops. People were taken away and later died in jail cells and all those kinds of things. You couldn’t say that 20 years ago.”

The creation of “Māori media” – from the early days of Mana magazine and weekly news show Te Karere, to the establishment of Māori Television in 2004 – has gone some way to creating spaces where Māori can tell stories as Māori without that sense of dread in their puku. Many journalists who got their start in Māori media have gone on to work in mainstream news organisations. Carmen Parahi, who moved over to Stuff from Māori Television’s Native Affairs in 2017, recently helped launched Stuff’s new Māori affairs platform, Pou Tiaki – an incredibly important step for a platform whose comments section have become synonymous with racism and misogyny.

The Hui producer Annabelle Lee-Mather (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu) said there are important steps yet to take. She said that even with the increased number of Māori working in mainstream newsrooms today, they’re still underrepresented among the decision-makers.

“We have Māori Television, Te Ao Māori with Moana, we have The Hui, Marae, Te Karere, all of those ones. So at least there’s a variation of Māori storytelling. But what hasn’t changed is that in mainstream newsrooms, even though there might be some great Māori reporters there, Māori are still underrepresented editorially. We’re not seeing them holding those positions of power. And that’s a big problem because that’s where angles are often decided. They decide what gets to go to air and what doesn’t.”

After leaving Māori Television’s Native Affairs in 2015 amid controversy over how they reported on spending within the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust, Lee-Mather and Forbes created The Hui, a weekly current affairs show airing on Sundays on Three strap-lined “Māori current affairs for all New Zealanders”.

Both agreed their bi-cultural approach to story-telling was something that all newsrooms should strive for. “It can’t just be an individual thing, it’s got to be the whole newsroom and it has to start at the top. It’s tough and it’s mamae stuff because you have to first recognise that you’ve probably got an unhealthy bias towards Māori and then start there. Start with your own home and your own lives and then look at the story ahead of you through that lens.

“It should come down through your HR strategies so that when you’re employing, it’s like a sinking lid policy that everyone that you employ has a bi-cultural lens because it won’t change otherwise. You can have a Guyon Espiner, who is amazing, but you need a whole room full of them.”

The pair were optimistic about the next generation of Māori journalists and broadcasters. “I look behind or around me, and I think I’m doing the right thing because there are all these young, intelligent, koi young rangatahi,” said Forbes. “Kereama Wright, Maiki Sherman, they’re cracking it and doing amazing things. And of course cousin Stacey [Morrison].”

“Stacey and Scotty Morrison are phenomenal, really. In and outside of journalism, they’re providing the mechanism in which we can prosper. They’re inside the waka, fixing it all up and clearing the way, really, for us.”

“Young ones like Shilo Kino too,” Lee- Mather added. “She recently wrote about how lonely it is being Māori in a mainstream newsroom when you’re calling out issues of racism and getting smashed by it. I really admire her courage in walking that lonely path.”

Role models like Forbes, Lee-Mather and the Morrisons certainly make the path a little less lonely, but great strides are still to be made in creating bi-cultural media for all New Zealanders. Embracing a bi-cultural and then multi-cultural approach to storytelling is at the heart of the fight against racism.

We’re a very long way off, but each step towards inclusivity and representation takes us further away from the bad old days of “the Stuff comments section”.



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