Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Selection, perception and bias in reporting

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 5 August 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

Sunday morning and another blank screen.

I have just finished a piece responding to an Indonesian blogging colleague.

Tikno lives in Samarinda, the capital of the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan. He is, I think, Christian. For those who do not know Indonesia, Christians make up nearly 9 per cent of the Indonesian population, roughly the same number of people who live in Australia.

Tikno was concerned that reporting stereotyped Muslims. He wondered why there was no reporting on things like two Fatwas against terrorism, one from Indonesia, the other India.

The Indonesian Fatwa was issued in 2004 by Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), the highest Muslim authority in Indonesia.

Another blogger, Nadia, is an Indonesian Muslim working in Angola as an oil industry engineer. She lost friends in the second Bali bombing, 2005, a loss brought back by the recent Djakarta bombing.

She, too, worries about stereotyping. In her case, the fact that she has an Indonesian passport creates constant airport delays.

I understand their concerns.

I have written a fair bit about selection, perception and bias in the media, if from an Australian perspective.

I was on holiday in South West Rocks when the story about Tamworth and the Sudanese refugees broke. I was horrified.

If the reporting was true, then we had a major racism problem. But knowing Tamworth and some of the people involved, I did not think that things were as simple as reported.

I was also horrified at the way the story carried round the world, reinforcing stereotypes that all Australians were racist.

I had seen this before. Simplistic metro reporting based on Australian stereotypes gets transmuted in global reporting and writing in ways not recognised by those who wrote the original stories.

Of course some Tamworth people are racist, as they are in Armidale or Sydney. But that is not Tamworth.

In some of the most widely quoted and visited reporting that I have ever done, I followed the Tamworth story through.

What I did was simple enough.

I went back into all the previous stories in the Northern Daily Leader. I checked material against official web sites to find out about the official programmes relating to Sudanese refugees. Then I wrote about the story as it unfolded.

With time, the metro media itself began to present the other side. But, by then, the damage had been done: Tamworth was racist, Australia was racist.

I don’t know what we do about all this. We all have deadlines. We have to simplify. For me, writing to meet my own deadlines is a constant issue.

Perhaps the one thing that I have learned is simply this: try to look outside, to see how what you might say might be interpreted by those who do not share your world view.

Easy to say, not so easy to do in practice.

As I write, the story about problems in Australia’s overseas student sector and especially those affecting Indian students runs and runs and runs. What began as reporting on a small number of perceived race motivated attacks has developed into a global story now doing great damage to what had become Australia’s third largest export industry.

Was Four Corners wrong to run the story it did? No, I don’t think so. However, I would question the timing.

The existence of problems in the overseas student sector has been well known, and not just in the private vocational sector. Four Corners could have selected this as topic before. It took the difficulties faced by some Indian students to make it news.

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