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The Australian media: what must international students think?

Iona Salter

Tue Jan 10 2012

Newspapers black and white

IF THE stories that make headlines in Australia are supposedly indicative of Australians’ values and priorities, I sometimes wonder what newcomers to the country must think of the residents of this big, dry, tabloid newspaper-strewn land.

As well as being Interim Editor-in-chief of Meld, I write a weekly Australian news-wrap for a Singapore-based, pan-Asian magazine. The issues I write about are those that receive the most coverage in the domestic press. My last piece for 2011 was about the 200 people who were presumed dead after the boat that was carrying them to Australia to apply for refuge sank off the coast of Indonesia.

No, let me correct myself. My piece was not about the hundreds of lives lost. It was not about the cruel twist of fate that led people through years of persecution in their homelands, only to have death find them at the Eastern tip of the Indian Ocean.

That was not the subject of the majority of Australian news reports that week. The majority of Australian news reports focused on the political response to “the boat problem”.

Australian politicians and commentators had jostled to proclaim the best policies for protecting our borders; all under the pretence of a desire to stop people “risking their lives in leaky boats”.

My own sense of logic tells me that if the safety of asylum-seekers was genuinely their top priority, the obvious solution would be for the Australian government to stop impounding and destroying the boats they arrive on. After all, no one is going to send a perfectly seaworthy boat to its death.

But no.

Offshore processing – the politicians proclaimed via the megaphone of the press – would do the trick.

It seems incredibly convenient that this – the only course of action being given any serious attention – will also see fewer asylum-seekers turning up on Australian soil.

It’s not to say the response to a disaster should not include a discussion about policy to prevent similar disasters. This is commonplace, and necessary. Rather, my beef is with the narrow-minded nature of Australia’s policy response – a response that fails to take into account the global factors causing people to seek refuge in the first place, and continues to be guided, in my opinion, by a desire to shirk our responsibility to the world’s displaced people.

Being Melbourne-born and bred, I have become immune to seeing this type of discussion in the news. But as I emailed my piece off to my editor in Singapore I wondered: if the rest of the world (or in the case of the magazine I write for, the rest of Asia) see this type of sentiment dominating our headlines, how does that reflect on me and other Australians?

Will we be seen by the rest of the world to be too self-absorbed to understand the global context of current event?

And what about newcomers to Australia – international students, migrants, refugees or tourists – what will they think of their adopted homeland when they pick up a newspaper at their local shop to see what’s on the nation’s mind?

Of course, there are news sources in Australia which do a fantastic job of reflecting a more broad-minded, outward-looking Australia. The ABC is the first to spring to mind, with much of their content sourced from their international counterparts such as the BBC, al-Jazeera and CNN.

There’s also a flourishing industry of media for different cultural groups, and Meld itself is testament to this. But perhaps the popularity of these outlets is, in some part, due to mainstream media’s failure to bring a wide range of news and viewpoints to Australia’s diverse population.

Every young journalist is taught that one of the main factors that determines newsworthiness is the audience’s proximity to the issue. We’re also taught that proximity exists in both a physical and cultural sense, with the implication being that the Brits may be 17,000km away, but they’re still the cultural motherland.

But in an age where people, money, culture and information – not to mention the consequences of actions – are constantly flowing freely across national borders, this definition of newsworthiness seems more than a tad archaic.

As a microcosm of all that is thought about and talked about, the news should be a good indicator of our collective values and priorities. Not only will more outward-looking news coverage do a better job of informing Australians, it will go a long way in proving to the half a million international students studying in Australia that Australians really are broadminded and compassionate people.

What do you think of Australian media? Share your thoughts in the comments box below.