Not-for-profit calls for federally-funded anti-racism strategy

By Shannon Jenkins

May 20, 2021

(Image: Adobe/RahulKumar)

New research has found that the comment sections on racialised opinion pieces in Australia’s mainstream media are further entrenching readers’ discriminatory views and perpetuating Islamophobia.

The research report launched by Australian not-for-profit organisation All Together Now (ATN) on Thursday concluded that these comment sections are a ‘cradle for racist discourse’, where discriminatory ideas appear polite enough to pass the comment moderation process, despite being racist in content.

In light of the findings, ATN managing director Priscilla Brice said the Australian government must fund a national anti-racism strategy that uses and builds on the important work already being done by communities, not-for-profit organisations, activists and researchers.

“Most importantly, any government-led anti-racism strategy needs to be collaborative and strengthened by all the important voices in civil society that have been doing this work for many years,” she said.

Australia has not had a national anti-racism strategy in place since 2018, and federal funding for that strategy ended in 2015, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

READ MORE: Adopt anti-racism framework, urges Australian Human Rights Commission

The study, conducted from September 2020 to January 2021, involved the analysis of 4,558 comments posted by readers responding to 29 articles that contained negative opinions about Muslim Australians in The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun and The Sydney Morning Herald.

It found that 71% of the comments in The Daily Telegraph agree with the content of the negatively racialised opinion pieces, with that figure sitting at 63% for Herald Sun.

In regard to The Sydney Morning Herald — which the report noted publishes a higher number of racially inclusive opinion pieces than the other publications — only 17% of comments agree with the content of the negatively racialised articles.

The discussions taking place in these comment sections encourage opinion polarisation and further entrench readers’ discriminatory views, according to the report.

“When like-minded people start discussing a particular topic and share their similar opinions, they tend to end up having opinions that are more extreme compared to their views before the discussion began,” it said.

“In our analysis, we noticed similar trends in reader comments, where in responding to racially biased opinion pieces, readers continued to discuss racist ideas building on the content of the article, as well as other reader comments.”

The study also found that most commenters tend to voice their personal viewpoints without referring to any facts, with an average of about 2% of comments referring to new facts relevant to the article.

Racism is interwoven with mainstream discourses, ranging from law enforcement and security, terrorism, culture and ethnic identity, to feminism and climate change, the report noted.

“The relation identified here between racism and larger societal themes demonstrates that racist ideas are not fringe, or confined to radical online spaces,” it said.

READ MORE: Australian not-for-profit warns against growing extremism during COVID-19

Brice said the analysis has shown that race-related media pieces can have a dangerously polarising impact.

“The fundamental issue here is a lack of complexity when discussing race and racism. Evidence shows that people who are exposed to nuanced media content are less likely to become polarised in their beliefs,” she said.

“Good journalists and commentators need to cultivate better conversations by abandoning binary, simplistic presentations of complex topics such as race, and by embracing nuance.”

The report has made key recommendations to address systemic racism, including that the federal government and the media industry invest in media literacy education for audiences, and that the government continue financial support for public journalism.

Other recommendations include:

  • Journalists need to consider more closely the effect of their work,
  • All news organisations need to cultivate and maintain an anti-racist culture within their workplaces,
  • Mainstream media organisations need to increase cultural diversity across all parts of their operations,
  • All sectors of society need to invest in opportunities for independent journalism.

The research has been released two months after the Australian Human Rights Commission called on the government to back its plan for a national anti-racism framework.

READ MORE: Prevention key to AHRC’s anti-racism framework, says NGO


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