The late Sam de Brito, on encouraging young indigenous journalists

Sam de Brito died this week. A Sydney-born columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and author of five books, he left a lot of people mourning his wit and warmth and rereading his works to remember him. Here is an article he wrote for the Walkley Magazine in 2009 with some wise words, and actions, on making the Australian media look more like the Australian people.

By Sam de Brito

Indigenous Australia has an image problem.

Stuck between white preconceptions and black reality, there are few shades of grey in the portrayal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the mainstream media.

Reading newspapers, magazines and watching television, the average Aussie could be forgiven for thinking our Indigenous population is composed of superhuman athletes and artists or subhuman drunks subsisting in the outback or local park.

There’s precious little in between; no room, it seems, for Indigenous plumbers, bank managers, quiz-show hosts or journalists.

We’re all aware of the media’s ability — particularly television — to both transform perceptions and perpetuate stereotypes, so it is telling there are so few Indigenous faces in front of the camera or behind the scenes in newsrooms pushing positive stories about Indigenous Australians.

It is much harder to demonise a culture when your chief-of-staff is of Lebanese heritage, the journalist in the cubicle beside you Indian, or the cameraman Vietnamese and while all these nationalities are increasingly represented in major newsrooms, Indigenous Australians are not.

In 2007, I realised that in 20 years of journalism I had never worked with one Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander reporter, editor, camera person, photographer, sub-editor, soundie or cartoonist. It was Stan Grant or bust.

This is no-one’s fault but it’s a self-perpetuating problem.

Without Indigenous role models, Aboriginal and Torres Strait kids sitting at home watching TV, reading magazines and listening to radio largely don’t credit the media as a viable career path because people who look and sound like them aren’t doing it already.

Putting my head together with Tony Whybird, the then-principal of Far North Queensland’s Western Cape College in Weipa, we devised a plan: Give Indigenous high school students who are curious about media careers the opportunity to do work experience.

In a nod to the old school of journalism, we named the scheme A Foot in the Door.

Who you know is just as important as what you know in the media, and work experience gives students the chance to make the contacts that often get them the jobs once they’ve finished their studies.

After a student has been in a workplace, made friends, proved themselves reliable and amiable, they are far more likely to land a gig than a stranger who’s never interacted with the newsroom.

Work experience is a powerful pathway to a media career and what’s more, it costs organisations next to nothing — the programs are already in place – however, the positions are usually snapped up by local students (and, more than occasionally, by kids who have a relative working in-house).

In November 2007, thanks to the generosity of Qantas, Rio Tinto and Cabcharge, A Foot in the Door flew ten students from Western Cape College and Thursday Island’s Tagai State College to Sydney, where they completed week long work-experience assignments at Channel Seven’s Sunrise program, The Sydney Morning Herald, Channel V, The Weather Channel, Fox Sports, Dolly and Girlfriend magazines.

In 2008, thanks again to the generosity of Qantas, Cabcharge, Rio Tinto and Newcrest Mining, 16 students from six schools in Far North Queensland, the Torres Strait, Northern Territory and WA came down, 14 of whom were girls!

The media organisations, publications and channels that took students were Sunrise, The SMH, Channel V, Nickelodeon, The Weather Channel, Fox Sports, Girlfriend, Dolly, Cleo, Sky News, Australian Radio Network and Foxtel.

Morika Biljabu, a Year 12 student from RAWA Community School in The Great Sandy Desert spent a week at The Sydney Morning Herald and was assigned with another photographer to cover Prime Minister Kevin Rudd opening the Ozanam Learning Centre in Woolloomooloo, Sydney.

The photo she took was so good, it was published on Page 5 of the paper.

Jordan Wymarra, a Year 12 student from Cairn’s Trinity Bay High School who spent the week at Channel Ten’s Good News Week, got to work with the show’s head writer Ian Simmons, and one of his gags made it to the shooting draft of the show.

Participants Shantel Heritage and Kantesha Takai, both of whom graduated from Tagai State College last year (Kantesha as Dux), have now committed to communications degrees with a view to media careers.

I believe that Shantel, Kantesha, Jordan and Morika are lightning rods.

Their mere presence in media companies sparks interest amongst management and journalists about Indigenous youth and the question naturally bubbles to the surface … “Why don’t I know more about these kids?”

I do not intend to minimise the efforts of Indigenous journalists and media workers already out there, but it’s my belief many of their voices have been marginalised to outlets the average Aussie never gets to see, hear or read.

It’s my belief that one Indigenous weatherman on Sunrise could do more to transform attitudes towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth than a dozen journos, and this is not to ignore the impact behind-the-scenes craftsmen can have on the presentation of news and entertainment.

The 24 students involved in A Foot In the Door got to see that a cartoonist, cameraman or fashion editor can have as much, if not a bigger, influence on how a story is run as an editor or exec producer, and that young people with these varying talents are needed in the Australian media.

In 2009, A Foot in the Door will expand to approximately 35 students (high school and university), Australia-wide, again thanks to the support of Qantas.

It is not unrealistic to foresee an alliance of media companies that could offer Indigenous students the opportunity to do work experience in every major city in the country.

It is my hope that one day soon, we’re going to turn on our TVs and there’ll be an Indigenous man or woman reading the news on Fox Sports, another cracking jokes beside Kochie on Sunrise and still others editing Girlfriend or Cleo magazine and our first reaction won’t be “hey, they’re all black” or “they’re Indigenous”. We’ll just see journos.

Sam de Brito was a blogger for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age and columnist for the Sun-Herald. He died this week.