Tag Archives: journalism

Reading the news

I read a news article yesterday and this morning I’m still thinking about it.

I keep wishing journalists would do behind-the-scenes stories to explain what’s going on in the broader context of news events, but I guess they don’t have time. In the absence of more explanation, I just end up speculating and imagining.

My latest speculating and imagining builds around this article. A video has been added since last night, but thanks to my dodgy slow connection, I can’t see more than half of it.

From what I’ve read or seen, these are the facts:
– A 34-year-old woman with a blood alcohol reading of four times the legal limit rolled a car on an unsealed and presumably semi-rural road in western Melbourne.
– The car was carrying ten children and only nine of them were restrained. Some of them were injured in the accident, and one may permanently lose the sight in one eye.
– The woman will be pleading guilty to the charges, so there won’t be a court case or any further explanation of what happened, or not unless the judge’s sentencing remarks appear online (I haven’t yet checked whether that happens in Victoria).
– According to the article, the children had been hungry and the woman took them to get food because she hadn’t wanted to leave them at home with their father, who had passed out drunk.
– The children were all under 16, and one was a six-month-old baby. Seven of them were “hers” (a strange term when you think about it, but I guess the article is trying to establish the family structure or something). Three of the kids were her boyfriend’s; he has 15.
– The video shows the woman walking up the street towards court alone.
– The article says the children are no longer in her care, but doesn’t say what’s happened to them.

Put yourself into that story. Be the woman, or the boyfriend, or one of the children, or one of the police or ambulance workers arriving on the scene of the accident, where it’s dark and presumably children are screaming; or be the lawyer, or the judge, or a social worker, or someone in the extended family, or a neighbour, or even the mechanic who has to haul away the wrecked car and find something to do with it.

Where to start making sense of the situation? Where to start if you were trying to get things sorted out? It seems like a cascade of troubles, all locked together. What if you were the woman and wanted to stop drinking – and you had ten hungry children with no food in the house and a partner you didn’t trust to look after them? How is it that there was enough alcohol to get very drunk on, but no food? Did anybody in the house have a source of income? What will they do now their car is wrecked? What will happen to the children – have they been split up? How is it the woman had to walk to the court, under the TV cameras, all on her own – does she have no one supporting her even in that small way? If she goes to prison, will the boyfriend leave? Will she lose the house? If she has a job, will she lose that too? If she goes to prison, will that help or hurt her and the kids in the long run? (Maybe it would be a way to dry out and get some more education; or maybe it would be terrifying and stressful and lead to further problems down the track.)

And what about the fact she’s Aboriginal? I think the journalist is not allowed to state that fact baldly, but look: the lawyer arranged for the matter to be heard at the Koori Court, so there we go.

The story is like a stereotype of the worst sort, except in this case it’s the actual situation. At the start of reading the article I was even thinking “I bet she’s Aboriginal…” and then when it was confirmed I felt terrible: not only had I been racist and prejudiced, but those things have just been reinforced.

I really wish some journalist would follow the story up and put things into a larger context. The family can’t have been in such a state because they’re Aboriginal – except that yes, maybe that is partly the reason: generations of poverty? ongoing racism? I don’t know, which is the point. I would like to know how a family ends up on the side of a road in a wrecked car in the middle of the night, and what could happen next.

Tragedy made worse by insensitive media

That’s the transcript of part of tonight’s Media Watch (ABC TV), which looked at the way journalists misrepresented what happened when the eight-year-old child died in the desert in Western Australia in January (something I mentioned a few days ago, too). I still think those journalists should be charged with something (anything!), but if that can’t happen, and I guess it can’t, then being criticised by Media Watch is a pretty good result.

Lost in the rights and wrongs

Back in January I did a post about a news story that was bothering me: journalists were writing articles about “a convicted child sex offender” who was missing in a desert area in Western Australia with an eight-year-old girl from a remote Aboriginal community. The pair had gone hunting and become lost; there was a police search which was reported nationwide; and a few days later they were found, but the child was badly dehydrated and could not be revived, and she died.

At the time, most of the articles seemed to be suggesting that the man had kidnapped the child, and he was, as they said, repeatedly, “a convicted child sex offender”. And one journalist even added that the girl’s foster mother had once taken a baby from a Perth maternity hospital (a crime for which she was given a suspended sentence – which to me suggests the woman might have been ill, not malicious, but that’s just a guess).

The eight-year-old Aboriginal girl who died from severe dehydration in Western Australia’s eastern Goldfields desert had been moved from home to home, eventually landing with a convicted child snatcher and a child sex offender.

– Aja Styles, Girl’s life ends tragically in the care of a baby-snatcher, WAtoday, 05 January 2012

Today the ABC updated the story: an autopsy has found that the child had not been sexually assaulted.

[The man] has been fined $2,000 for firearms offences and he has received a traffic infringement but police say it is unlikely he will face further charges.

– David Weber, Man to face tribal punishment over desert death, ABC News, 04 February 2012

As far as I could find in a quick internet search, only two news organisations updated the story: the ABC, in that article linked above, and, a few days ago, The West Australian.

Lots of journalists pounced on the initial story and insinuated the man was guilty of sex crimes. How is it they can trash a person’s reputation (and not just the man’s, but the foster mother’s also), and then not be charged with something – being a public nuisance, say? Shouldn’t there be a law saying they should follow up the story to report the outcome i.e. that the man was innocent?

Now, here’s a second part to this post, mostly unrelated to the first. I started wondering about values and our systems of law – questions sparked by that ABC story. Did you notice the headline? Man to face tribal punishment over girl’s death.

Tribal punishment. From the link above:

“My uncle told me you know, even if you go back to Laverton or something and the family see you there, let ’em hit you. Give them some satisfaction that you know, you’ve been punished.”
[The man] says he is prepared to be beaten by the girl’s family.
“Well if I’ve got to sit down in a flat and get a hiding, yes. I’ve never seen no one get speared or anything, I’ve only seen people just get a hiding and that, you know with the family members and that. So hopefully that’s what can happen with me,” he said.

In a non-Aboriginal scenario, if a group of people ganged up on someone and beat him up, they could correctly be charged with assault. And I don’t see how it’s okay and legal if it occurs in a different culture. Why is it wrong in one culture, but right in another? What’s pushing those differences?

Maybe the law is intended to sanction what is culturally approved and punish what is not. That seems to be what it does, anyway; I don’t know if that’s what it’s supposed to do.

I think it would be better to base laws on more universal values – things which are held dear by all cultures. But maybe there aren’t any of those. Are there? I don’t know.

I’m assuming that all humans are basically the same underneath our external differences. But is that true or just one of my own culture’s notions? Maybe cultural differences run right through us; maybe every part of us is somehow shaped by culture – even bodies. Maybe there’s nothing universal in being a human.

I don’t know. I just think it’s interesting and horrifying that the laws of two cultures in the same country can be so different, as though they have no parts of their foundations in common.

Anyway, getting back to the other, first, point of this post: when an innocent person is trampled by dumb journalists, I think those dumb journalists should have to apologise. In this case, they didn’t; and that makes me despise them.

Lost in the desert

Last night I did a few hours’ searching online, trying to find information about a story that’s been in the Australian news over the last few days. I wanted to write a post protesting about the angles that journalists had taken with it. And maybe I will write that post later, but these enthusiasms tend to fade with time, and right now I have to get off the computer to go do some work, for money.

So, in case I don’t get back to it: journalists of Australia should respect the basis of our legal system, which is that a person is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The story in summary: a little girl was reported missing from a remote Aboriginal settlement in Western Australia. Police said she had accompanied a 38-year-old man on a hunting trip. The pair did not return to the settlement. A few days later the pair were found in the desert, halfway between their broken-down car and the settlement, and the little girl was so dehydrated she died.

The man in this story had a previous conviction for being married in the traditional Aboriginal “promised” way to a 14-year-old girl, but journalists labelled him with terms that suggested he was a habitual child abuser. His de-facto wife, the woman who had cared for the little girl after the death of the girl’s grandmother (who had been caring for the girl after her birth mother relinquished custody), had once been charged for taking someone else’s baby from a hospital. In one report she was called a “child snatcher”.

You get the picture, I hope. This was a tragic loss of life, whichever way it happened. But I think the journalists involved made the situation a whole lot worse, and have complicated the already complicated race-relations of Australia.

“Rugged bushland”

This afternoon I read a news article about the arrest of an alleged murderer in a local district. It’s country similar to where I live – mostly farmland, with some steep hillsides and a few small areas of regenerated rainforest, with probably a rock lying around here and there.

But the article says the man led police on a chase through “rugged bushland” – which is so ludicrous as to be laughable.

So I did laugh. Thank you, journalist.

From now on, whenever I see “rugged bushland” in a news story, I’m going to assume the journalist is actually talking about any sort of outdoor area with a few trees where you probably wouldn’t want to drive a car (because it might get muddy).