MFA EX - The role of media in the Voice to parliament

Jason Pollock
By Jason Pollock | 25 September 2023
L to R: Rhanna Collins, Davide Schiappapietra and Kate Young.

With less than three weeks to go until all eligible Australians will be voting on changing the Constitution and introducing an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, the media has critical role to play in keeping Australians informed.

Rhanna Collins, head of business and operations at NITV and SBS Referendum Unit lead, said that not only is the first referendum that's been held this century – the last was in 1999, the failed Australian Republic referendum - but it's been decades in the making. 

“It's been 25 years since we've had a referendum, so a lot of people are voting in a referendum for the first time. It's not something we do very often; there's only been 44 since our country was colonised, and only eight have been successful,” she said to the MFA EX audience.

“The most successful referendum we've had was the 1967 referendum, which was for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be counted as Australian, and for the Commonwealth to be able to create laws and policies for our people.”

Collins said the role of media in the Voice is “absolutely crucial”, because that's where a lot of Australians are getting their information.  

“The decision will be made by Australians 96% of which are non-Indigenous, voting on the future of 3%,” she said. 

“So not only does the media have a crucial role, they have an ethical responsibility to get this right. And it's been really damaging, some of the rhetoric in the media and the misinformation and the untruths that haven't been held to account.

“Historically, the bar’s really low for coverage of Indigenous affairs in this country. Stories are often told from a deficit lens, focusing on all the perceived issues in our communities, or told from an anthropological lens, about us but without our perspectives and opinions and participation in those stories. We've seen that trend really, unfortunately, continue in the referendum coverage.”

Collins said the role of media such as SBS and NITV is critical to get that information out that centers the lived experiences and perspectives of Indigenous communities while relaying information that's accessible to the average person, factual, credible and truthful.

As a news organisation, the responsibility for NITV is to represent the communities it serves, but Indigenous communities are not a homogenous group, possessing different experiences and ambitions and lives and perspectives.

“We are remaining impartial on the Voice, but with that in mind, our impartiality does reflect our communities, of which we know over 80% of First Nations peoples are supportive of the voice,” Collins said.

“We've got multiple data points, including five years of consistent polling from Reconciliation Australia, particularly of our communities that shows that that's the figure of 80 to 85%, but we are making sure that all of our communities are seeing all of our coverage, including those that are critical about is this the best way to improve outcomes for our people.

SBS Audio delivers content every day in over 60 languages across radio and digital. 

Davide Schiappapetra, head of language content, audio and language content at SBS, said the role the media plays in ensuring that the more than 20% of Australians who speak a language other than English at home are informed is making sure that all Australians, regardless of the language they speak, can participate in what is effectively a nation-building exercise.  

“What we are aiming to do is to create a connection between the newest Australians and the history of the oldest living culture in the world,” he told the MFA EX audience.

“This is something that our audiences are asking us to do; in fact, First Nations content, perspectives, stories and culture in general, is always indicated both statistically but also in conversations with our audiences as one of the top points of interest for listeners across our network.”

Schiappapetra said the sentiment around the communities is that while there is interest in finding out more about the Voice, SBS research also shows that there are a couple of hurdles. 

“The first one being access to reliable and trusted information in people's language of choice,” Schiappapetra said.

“To combat this, we’re producing content that is factual, practical information about what the referendum is, how the referendum works, how to participate and what is expected of us as citizens. 

“There's also a lack of representation at the grassroots level when it comes to the conversation around the referendum, so we just decided to go out there in the community - talk to the audiences, talk to the communities and listen to the communities.”

Collins said NITV’s focus has been addressing the misinformation, disinformation and mistruths that she said are out there in the national discourse and conversations around the referendum.

“A lot of the rhetoric that has been allowed across the different areas of the mainstream media has been inaccurate, or misquoted, or doesn't have any Aboriginal perspectives as part of it, which is highly problematic,” she said.

“What we've done is traveling the country with a variety of our programs, including our flagship show The Point, so this year, we've traveled to every state and territory to sit in community to take this conversation out of Canberra and actually sit with our communities and hear the opinions and perspectives on the best path forward to improve outcomes for our people. 

“Those opinions have been extremely varied - overwhelmingly supportive of the Voice, but of course, we've got a natural distrust of governments in our communities, and there are other challenges too, such as people saying there’s not enough information.”

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