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'It goes way beyond a language barrier.' Why our approach to south-west Sydney isn't working.

I’m on a WhatsApp group with my cousins on my mum’s side. I come from a very large Lebanese family and there are 56 of us on this chat. Despite the various personalities and age differences, the latest NSW lockdown has brought us closer together.

It’s united us in our frustration over the way politicians are handling the COVID-19 cluster in south-western Sydney and also how the media has responded to it. 

The vast majority of relatives in the WhatsApp group live in western and south-western Sydney. The men predominantly work in construction and the women in beauty and care. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up as dozens of messages get fired off. Some are comedic takes on lockdown, but others are confronting videos of helicopters over local neighbourhoods, or the army patrolling the streets. 

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The frustrated search for answers is never-ending:

"Why are they treating us like this?"

"Isn’t this discrimination?"

"How come people in the east are still allowed to go and get Botox but we are locked up and can’t work to put food on the table?"

"Why does the media talk about us like we’re stupid?"

I do my best to respond, given I work in the media and after giving it more thought, there’s something Australians aren’t talking enough about.

We know that western Sydney is the most culturally diverse region in the whole country, and given research has shown that people trust those who look like them, the lack of representation in our media and politics is a major problem. 

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For example, the ABC’s Western Sydney reporter is a blonde, white woman and I’m not for a second suggesting she isn’t great at her job. I know her, I really like her. Yet in the face of a media trust deficit, and a global health crisis disproportionately impacting the suburbs with the highest number of migrants and refugees — all of our institutions should be doing some self-reflection about whether they’re fuelling the problem. 

Despite SBS being the multicultural broadcaster, their new policy is to avoid sending any journalists into the hotspot LGA’s. Yep, the outlet meant to be telling our diverse stories is doing its best to stay away from the epicentre of the health crisis. 

Channel 9 tried to do a good thing with its in-house vaccination advertisement, but those efforts quickly fell flat. The 18 personalities from the broadcaster were all white. It looked like the vaccine was being promoted exclusively for the use of white people.

Last year’s landmark report Who Gets To Tell Australian Stories by Media Diversity Australia captured how white our media is. 

I helped spearhead the research alongside four universities and the journalism union the MEAA. It revealed only six per cent of people on our television news screens are from non-European and Indigenous backgrounds, despite making up an estimated 25 percent of the population. 

Why does it matter? When I hear a newsroom colleague proudly say things like "Campsie and Campbeltown what’s the difference? It’s all the same to me," it’s a reminder that when journalists don’t have connections to different regions, cultures and communities, it impacts the sophistication of their reporting. 

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Research from 2017 found Australians born overseas were less likely to get their news from traditional sources. Instead, they're turning to other online sources such as social media. 

The University of New South Wales also examined how best to communicate COVID-19 messages to multicultural communities and noted that WhatsApp and WeChat are used to share information. I see this on my family WhatsApp group and worryingly it is also where a lot of disinformation is widely distributed 

Our politics isn’t much better when it comes to being out of touch with a significant chunk of the population.

Late last year it was revealed the Federal Government was using Google Translate on its website for in-language information. Not actual translators who could translate essential health advice with accuracy and nuance — but a feature we all have on our smartphones.

On the eve of the Delta strain outbreak, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced a new Minister for Multiculturalism — one Natalie Ward. A blonde, white woman. 

Just weeks after this appointment, Health Minister Brad Hazzard announced he was sending the army to help "communicate" the public health message to western Sydney.

These "boots on the ground" are another kick in the face to communities that are not understood or represented, and then blamed for any shortcomings. 

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I’m not absolving individuals of their civic duties. There’s no excuse for recklessness and selfishness during a health emergency. Yes, I miss my relatives but it’s not OK to hang out at my aunty’s house with all of her kids because her cooking is divine and she’s like a second mum. 

But the issues surrounding this outbreak are larger than this. Last week Hazzard used generalisation about the millions living in the region: "They come from countries where they haven't built up trust in government," he told ABC’s Insider’s program.

"What we need to do [is] build up trust in that area," he added. 

There’s plenty of evidence about what actually works to build trust. Seeing yourself in the media and politics. Properly engaging ethnic media and community leaders. Research has also shown that using humour to find light in dark places can drive home a message. 

Unfortunately, the current whitewashed efforts by the government and media is the wrong kind of joke. 

Antoinette Lattouf is a multi-award winning journalist at Network 10. She is the co-founder of Media Diversity Australia. Antoinette is currently writing a book, How to Lose Friends and Influence White People, which will be published by Penguin Random House in early 2022.

Feature Image: AAP.

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