In my Advanced Broadcast Journalism 2 unit this semester, we did a very interesting project – telling the stories of refugees and refugee support groups in Canberra. This was part of an attempt to focus on the actual refugees and their lives, rather than the political footballing around the issue, which often lead to dehumanising refugees and asylum seekers. The ‘Reporting Refugees’ program went to air on ABC 666 radio yesterday at 10am.

Leach and Mansouri highlight the effect that labels like ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘queue jumpers’  have on the public’s view of refugees and asylum seekers, saying, “this language has been effective in depicting asylum seekers as a deviant group unworthy of protection” (2003).

Unfortunately, it is not just politicians who are guilty of this. Take, for example, the report from Today Tonight in October this year. The story claims that ‘boat people’ are living in ‘four star luxury’ and are paid more in welfare benefits than Australian pensioners. This was later proved by Media Watch to be untrue.


I grew up in a small country town, with very little contact with refugees. Of course, as I got older and started to take more notice of news and current affairs, and as I met newly-arrived immigrants from countries like Sudan, I began to develop a basic understanding. However, I never really knew what Australia’s refugee policy was until I started university nearly three years ago. All I knew was that the few immigrants I had met (who I later found out were in fact refugees) seemed like very nice people who had interesting stories, and were ultimately, safer in Australia.

My attitude toward refugees and asylum seekers was quite a simple philosophy – these people were trying to escape from terrible things like war, famine and discrimination, so naturally I thought that a privileged first-world country like Australia should help these desperate people. I believed safety and freedom were basic human rights for everyone, and seeing disturbing images and stories in the media made me grateful for the country and the life I was born into. So it astounded me when I saw campaigns from the likes of Pauline Hanson and John Howard with the message ‘Stop the boats’. I naively thought anyone in their right mind shared my point of view, but in the political world, it’s far more complex.

In a panel discussion in yesterday’s program, member at Council for Immigration Services and Status Resolution Caz Coleman said “I think one of the challenges we’ve had for a very long time now…is that we’ve had language being used to describe asylum seekers and the process of seeking asylum in Australia and around the world in very demonising ways.” She goes on to explain that they are often referred to in politics as ‘illegals’, when in fact asylum seekers have a legal right to remain in Australia.

Amnesty International also presents some little known facts.


I knew I had a lot to learn about the refugee issue in Australia, and I discovered you can learn so much more by actually meeting the people directly affected by the refugee policy. Lucy Hinchey and I were assigned to do a profile piece on Yasameen, an Iraqi radiologist who came to Australia last year with her two sons. This was interesting for us, because it was the first time either of us had to think about a talent’s safety, and what the consequences of telling Yasameen’s story could be. Therefore, there were some aspects of Yasameen’s life, and her journey to Australia that we had to steer clear of, for the sake of her and her family’s safety.

Screenshot of our story on ABC 666 website

Nevertheless, hers was an extraordinary story – she was used to studying in a war torn environment; her family home collapsed twice because of bombs, and spent thirty days in a bomb shelter with her family. Experiences many Australians have never had to go through.

But she is happy in Australia – mainly due to the help she has received from refugee support groups, namely Canberra Refugee Support. She said they have helped her out with nearly every aspect of her family’s new life in Australia. I realised I hadn’t fully thought about the help that refugees need once they are safely in Australia. Yes, they do receive Centrelink benefits, but coming to a completely new country requires a little more help than that.

After hearing my classmates’ stories as well, my feelings about refugees and asylum seekers in Australia didn’t change, but they had been reinforced. I still feel that I have more to learn about the issue and the specific ins and outs of it. I still feel that Australia could play a much bigger role.


Whilst the ‘Reporting Refugees’ project was incredibly eye-opening for me in a positive way, I also realised how manipulated I felt – by the government, and by inaccurate media reports. I wondered how detrimental these inaccuracies would be on minority groups like refugees and asylum seekers.

Avraham states in ‘Social-political environment, journalism practice and coverage of minorities: the case of the marginal cities in Israel’ (2002), that

“The social-political environment affects
many interactions in society, including the activity of different institutions
and the connection between institutions, including media organizations.
Groups, subjects or places may be perceived differently in the mass media
as a result of changes in this environment”

I believe this is also true in the case of Australia – terms like ‘illegals’ and ‘boat people’ are thrown around in the political sphere so often that it leaks into the media, and into the vernacular of everyday people, resulting in fear and hatred towards ‘the other’ – refugees and asylum seekers, who are in desperate circumstances.

The project taught me that I have a responsibility as a journalist to get the facts right, and to be aware that what is reported in the media about these issues can be very influential.

Nissa Finney states in ‘The challenge of reporting refugees and asylum seekers’ (2003) that common problems include inadequate information available about the issue; and a sometimes lax approach to journalistic standards in reports, stressing a need to address these issues.

Klein and Naccarato (2003) say that

“Some researchers (e.g., Dixon & Linz, 2000) believe that ethnic misrepresentation on local television news may result in a belief by viewers that the real world is similar to the television world.”

Given that one of the most popular questions on the OurSay website was related to the earlier Today Tonight story, this point seems perfectly legitimate. Clearly the public are not receiving the correct information, when they should be. The public provide votes, and the politicians are trying to win these votes by echoing these concerns. It’s a vicious cycle, and at the expense of innocent and desperate people.

As a journalist, I now believe that any story  requires more understanding, more research, and needs to have a human side to it. We need to hear stories that actually show the human side of the story – the side that will actually be affected by all the political campaigns and media reports. I believe that audiences could benefit from hearing a personal story, and armed with this empathy, can make their own valued judgements.

If you missed the ‘Reporting Refugees’ program yesterday, you can listen online.


Amnesty International, 2011, ‘The Facts’, Rethink Refugees

Avraham, E, 2002, ‘Social-political environment, journalism practice and coverage of minorities: the case of the marginal cities in Israel’, Media, Culture and Society, Sage Publications

Coleman, C, 2011, ‘Reporting Refugees’, ABC 666, broadcast 27th November, 2011

Finney, N, 2003, ‘The challenge of reporting refugees and asylum seekers’, ICAR

Klein, R.D, Naccarato, S, 2003, ‘Broadcast News Portrayal of Minorities: Accuracy in Reporting’,  American Behavioural Scientist, Sage Publications

Leach, M. & Mansouri, F 2003, ‘Strange Words -Refugee perspectives on government and media stereotyping‘, Overland.