Listen! Reporting Black Lives Matters

By Dr Bonita Mason, University of South Australia


US African-American man George Floyd has become a household name. Many of us have grieved with his family and community, and have recognised the injustice in the conditions that led to his death at the hands of police officers – the one who knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes and, importantly, the others who stood by.

During those final minutes of his life, we know George Floyd pleaded with police, repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe. He fell silent, the pleas stopped, and he died. The police officers could not hear him, any more than they could heed the onlookers and witnesses pleading with them to get off his neck so he could breathe, so he could live.

Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the US, and buildings burned. African Americans, Indigenous peoples and their supporters have had enough of living with racism. The discrimination, disproportionate and lethal force – the everyday possibility that the consequences of racism could be fatal – is keenly felt by Australia’s First Peoples, and has been for a long time.

The catch-cries ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘I can’t breathe’ ring out at the Adelaide Black Lives Matter rally on June 6, 2020. Dunghutti man David Dungay, 26, who also called for breath as he died, has a strong presence at the rally. The Long Bay jail prison guards in his case, as hard of hearing as the Minneapolis police officers who killed George Floyd, dismissed his repeated cries of ‘I can’t breathe’ as they held him face down on a prison cell bed, until David Dungay’s heart stopped beating.

The Adelaide rally attracts up to 6000 protestors and supporters. It is one of many around Australia which, together, attract tens of thousands of people. It feels like change, but is it?

Black Lives Matter rally, Tarntanyangga-Victoria Square, Adelaide, Saturday, June 6, 2020.

The story has been at or near the top of the news bulletin for weeks. By now most of us have heard of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. We know we’re approaching 30 years, and 440 Aboriginal deaths in custody, since the Royal Commission reported. We are hearing the names of David Dungay and others who have died in custody, like Tanya Day and Ms Dhu. We are talking about ever-increasing Aboriginal imprisonment rates – the highest imprisonment rates in the world – with renewed vigour.

We are also reminded that no one has ever been convicted of any crime for any of these deaths. Five police officers were acquitted of manslaughter in the 1983 death of Roebourne teenager John Pat. Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley was acquitted of manslaughter for the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004. Apart from these instances – until recent murder charges against two police officers: one who shot Kumanjai Walker, 19, at his home in Yuendumu; the other who shot Joyce Oates, 29, outside her Geraldton home – there has been judicial silence, too often matched by media silence.

Journalist Amy McQuire consistently reports on racially based injustice. In her podcast Black Witness, White Witness, she says: “When Aboriginal people die in custody there is a national silence.” In 2005, investigative journalist and academic Wendy Bacon reviewed the previous 20 years of deaths-in-custody media coverage. She described the lack of reporting as an “ethical failure” (p. 17). McQuire consistently reports on deaths in custody.

But for now, in 2020, journalists and the media have again taken up the story, as some journalists did in the 1980s in the lead-up to establishment of the Royal Commission. Although a very brief outline of key moments in the deaths in custody journalism follows, there is insufficient space here to outline this history in much detail. See Bacon’s (2005) paper for the 20 years to 2005. Work to update this history is underway, and media, academic and other resources are linked throughout this article.

A recent history of Aboriginal deaths in custody journalism
Media reporting in the 1980s helped to create the conditions that led to the establishment of the Royal Commission. Reporting by journalists Jan Mayman and David Marr stood out.

The signing and release of the Royal Commission’s Final Report was a black-lives-just-could-matter moment in Australia. Here was the blueprint for transforming the life chances of Aboriginal people, and the relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. Implementing the report’s 339 recommendations would reduce deaths in custody, imprisonment rates, inequality and disadvantage.

The media was interested and engaged. “Few Australian Royal Commissions have attracted stronger, more passionate media attention than the 1991 Final Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody,” Bacon wrote (2005, p. 20). Aboriginal points of view were heard, and Aboriginal deaths in custody became an important story that was worth sustained coverage. But this kind of reporting soon fell away. As Aboriginal imprisonment rates and deaths in custody continued to climb, as the Sydney Morning Herald said at the time, “the story was over” (quoted in Bacon, 2005, p. 28).

In the mid-1990s, the Australian Institute of Criminology was reporting deaths in prison at record levels. At the same time, governments were claiming successful implementation of the royal commission’s recommendations. Rather than investigate these claims in the face of the record deaths, the media reported government implementation claims as if they were true (Bacon & Mason, 1995). Between 1996 and 2005, “Most Australians … received almost no information about deaths in custody since the Royal Commission” (Bacon, 2005, p. 31). Bacon lists the infrequent in-depth stories that did appear (2005).

While most Aboriginal deaths in custody pass in silence, every now and then a particular death breaks through. Prominent examples of deaths in custody reporting since 2005 include Chloe Hooper’s coverage of 36-year-old Mulrunji Doomadgee’s 2004 death on Palm Island. Senior journalist for The Australian Tony Koch’s reporting was important in keeping Mr Doomadgee’s story in the public eye (Waller, 2013). It provided an independent perspective because, while other journalists were embedded with police (Hooper, 2008), Koch says he and a photographer “flew to the island on a helicopter so they would not be met by police and could stay with a well-respected local family”.

Other examples, both from Western Australia, include the 2008 death of Mr Ward, 46, and the 2014 death of Ms Dhu, 22, after being arrested and detained for unpaid fines. The possibility of justice for her death was kept on the media agenda by Ms Dhu’s family, with support from the WA First Nations Deaths in Custody Watch Committee. WA is at the top of the deaths in custody leagues table. It also tops the charts on youth and adult Aboriginal imprisonment. Legislation to stop people with unpaid fines from being sent to prison is now before the WA Parliament.

By the time of Ms Dhu’s death, an Australian online edition of The Guardian had arrived. This online publication, and journalist Calla Wahlquist who wrote at least one story each day from the first week of the 2015/2016 inquest into Ms Dhu’s death, makes a difference to deaths-in-custody reporting in WA. The Guardian also set up and maintains Deaths Inside, a national data base of Aboriginal deaths in custody since 2008.

Black Lives Matter protest: Adelaide, June 6, 2020.

Is this a moment of change?
It took an event in the US to spark the Aboriginal lives matter response in broader Australia. As journalists, we can and must report the chain of events that have led to yet another black death at the hands of the state. We can report the facts – Aboriginal adult and youth apprehension and imprisonment rates, Aboriginal youth and adult suicide rates, coronial inquest findings. We can interview witnesses, family members, and representatives, police and prison officers, experts and report what they and other informed commentators say about the facts, consequences and causes of those deaths.

With more time and perhaps resources, we can investigate and discern the patterns that emerge from the repeated deaths, the similar facts and common factors, the same systemic failures, the ongoing evidence of institutional racism. We can describe and record these things for history, and this is vital work.

Through our journalism we can also help to humanise the person who died, perhaps bring some comfort to the family.

But how do we understand and explain the deafness, the lack of response to the pleas of Aboriginal people? At the height of protests about how the police treat Aboriginal people, how do we make sense of a Sydney police officer kicking a young Aboriginal man’s legs from underneath him and planting him face down on the ground, apparently for giving some lip? How do we explain the fact that our journalism, for death after death, coronial inquest after coronial inquest, achieves so little of the change in systems, institutions and policies that would help to prevent the state from failing to care for and killing so many Aboriginal people?

What we can do
We can start by listening to the calls for truth telling, as a way to begin to dismantle discrimination and domination of Australia’s first peoples. This truth-telling can’t wait. It represents an opportunity for journalists to improve our understanding and our reporting.

We can include Aboriginal people as sources in our stories on a range of topics. There are too few specialist Aboriginal affairs journalists in Australia, but those we do have know that taking time to build trust and relationships with Aboriginal people is critical (Waller, 2013).

Many non-Aboriginal journalists and journalism students don’t tell stories concerning Aboriginal people because they don’t know where to start, and are worried they’ll cause further harm or offence (Mason, et al, 2016). Don’t be. Aboriginal people are used to well-meaning white people making mistakes and are overwhelmingly generous if we are sincere, show respect and listen.

Some Aboriginal people prefer to be contacted through their organisations, such as justice and prisoner groups, health services, land councils and land and sea ranger services. There are many Aboriginal media organisations all over Australia, a good source of story ideas, content and contacts.

There are guides and reporting and filming protocols, such as at the ABC and SBS.

Keep your independence from authorities who are adept at obscuring the facts, until you already have a solid idea of what the story is from the people affected.

Avoid being distracted from questions about imprisonment rates, injustice and premature and unnecessary deaths by debates about statues.

Stay alert to our political leader’s language, and what it implies about their priorities.

Keep asking questions, even when information is withheld by authorities – report that if nothing else. Political journalists do this all the time.

And remember, positive stories are important, such as the recent one on Background Briefing (Brennan et al, 2020, from 33 minutes, 19 seconds) about a justice reinvestment Aboriginal community-police program in Bourke, NSW.

All of us can listen to and take the lead from Aboriginal journalists, for whom this ‘story’ is personal, but who often also struggle to be heard.

Journalist Bridget Brennan suggested to the ABC’s Insiders program that it include an Aboriginal voice, especially when discussing the concerns of Aboriginal people. Follow her, Amy McQuire, IndigenousX, Stan Grant and others on Twitter.

Take care: of your story sources, subjects and their communities; and of yourselves.

Former ABC journalist Allan Clarke says he has spent most of his time as a journalist reporting stories concerning Aboriginal people, most of those stories seeking justice. Last year, he stepped away after a break-down.

To be honest, I just couldn’t keep reporting on all the injustice levelled at my community and that’s because I am also part of that community and these things are happening to my family. The final blow came at the end of reporting for six years on the unsolved murder of Gomeroi teenager Mark Haines. The exhaustion of trying to get some justice for Mark’s family and trying to convince the public, as well as the police, that his life mattered ate away at me until I had nothing left to give.

Allan Clarke tells this part of his ‘story’ on a Background Briefing program on Black Lives Matter and in an ABC opinion piece. He says it’s not just the justice system that devastates Aboriginal people:

Our media are also complicit, they pander to the mentality that I am lesser; that my people are somehow lesser. White journalists who step off the ledge to dip their toes into the raging pool of racial turmoil can produce award-winning work and win kudos from ‘woke’ colleagues. But in the end, they go home. My mob pay the price. Our pain and suffering is often their career gain. Rarely are deaths in custody presented in context; rarely is our culture presented in context; rarely is our history presented in context.

I have dipped my toes “into the raging pool of racial turmoil”, and have won kudos for it, as have some of the journalists mentioned in this article. But, like the journalism that helped create the conditions for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, we can present individual deaths in custody in context, present the multitude of First Nations cultures and histories in context and in as much of their fullness as we’re able. As Allan Clarke concludes his piece:

Australia, we can do better and we must do better.


References and resources

Bacon, Wendy. 2005. “A Case Study in Ethical Failure: Twenty years of media coverage of Aboriginal deaths in custody”. Pacific Journalism Review, 11(2), pp. 17-41.

Bacon, Wendy and Mason, Bonita. 1995. “Aboriginal deaths in custody: A dead issue?” Reportage, 5(Autumn). Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, University of Technology, Sydney.

Baillie, Mike. 2020, 17 June. “George Floyd – ACT NOW!”, Avaaz email message, and accessed 17 July 2020 from:

Brennan, Bridget, Clarke, Allan and Goyette, Jared. 2020, 28 June. The Rallying Cry Heard the World Over. Background Briefing.

Clarke, Allan. 2020, 28 June. Covering black deaths in Australia led me to a breakdown, but that’s the position this country puts Aboriginal journalists in. ABC.

Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma: communities –; yourselves – See other resources on the site.

“Deaths Inside: Indigenous deaths in custody 2020”. The Guardian. An important resource for journalists and journalism students.

Faruqi, Osman. 2020, June 20. Deflecting from the real issues of Black Lives Matter. The Saturday Paper.

Hooper, Chloe. 2008. The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island. Camberwell, Vic: Penguin.

Office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. 1996. Indigenous Deaths in Custody, 1989-1996: Report Summary.

Jenkins, Keira. 2020, July 16. Truth telling must come ‘well before’ negotiations, says NT Treaty Commissioner. NITV/SBS.

King, Michael 1990, “John Pat – an update”, Aboriginal Law Bulletin 11; 2(43)”John%20Pat“.

Marr, David 1985, “Black Death”, Four Corners, ABC Television. Jan Mayman, who persuaded Four Corners to take up the story (Mayman, personal communication 2012), also worked on this program.—1985/2835060

Mason, B, Thomson, C, Bennett, D and Johnston, M. 2016. Putting the ‘love back in’ to journalism: Transforming habitus in Aboriginal affairs student reporting. Journal of Alternative and Community Media. 1, 56-69.

Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, multiple national, regional, individual deaths and underlying issues reports:

Milliken, Robert. 2018, 11 December. Breakthrough at Bourke. Inside Story. Accessed 15 July 2020, from:

Nagle, Peter and Summerrell, Richard. 2002 (revised). Aboriginal Deaths in Custody : the Royal Commission and its records, 1987–91. National Archives of Australia.

Waller, Lisa. 2013. “It comes with the territory: ‘Remote’ Indigenous reporting for mainstream audiences”. Australian Journalism Monographs, 14(1), pp. 1‐42.

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