top of page

Asian Settlement and the Media in Australia

An address written for the public conference on "The Influence of the mainstream media on the settlement of migrants and refugees", part of the Multicultural Celebration 1997, hosted by the Vietnamese Community in Australia/NSW Chapter, on Friday 28 November 1997




  1. Introduction

  2. Impact of Negative Media on Individuals

  3. Effects on the Collective Settlement Efforts of Ethnic Communities and on Racial Harmony

  4. Impact on Government Policy

  5. Positive Reporting

  6. Media and Australia's Cultural and Social Future

  7. Conclusion




It is not easy to measure or see in a tangible way all the effects of the media on migrant and refugee settlement, especially the positive aspects of media influence on this long process of adjustment to a new life in a new country like Australia where freedom of speech means that the media can publish any opinions it deem being "good" for a democratic community.


We may begin first with what we are more familiar with – negative media reporting and its effects on refugees and migrants after their arrival in Australia. This negative reporting may have been done on purpose with the aim to harm the community concerned, or it may be done without bad intent but the effects on the community may be equally similar and long-lasting.


It seems to be the norm that bad news are good stories for the media, and some newspapers appear to relish in even embellish their stories to make things look worse than they are. Good news only make it occasionally to the pages of newspapers where politics, controversial issues or personalities, crimes, drugs, suicides and murders dominate. For migrants and refugees, settlement needs and services are often mentioned by the media. Although these needs and barriers are real and have to be addressed, their regular reporting may make some readers overlook the migrants’ qualifications, the rich talents and traditions that they bring to this country. It may create the impression that migrants and refugees are a group of whingers who have little to give to this country, but only expect to be given hand-outs and services, or to take and take and take (as the One Nation Party of Pauline Hanson describes it in a recent 60 Minutes report). Features on settlement problems such as long-term unemployment, lack of English proficiency or occupational skills and welfare dependency experienced by migrants and refugees are useful in themselves. They inform governments and the public about the needs of new settlers in this country, and what needs to be done to assist these people. However, where those from a particular birth place are often associated with a particular problem, then the media has an important impact on both the public and the community concerned.


For example, the Centre for Population and Immigration Research at Monash University, publishes in its journal "People and Place" many articles on Vietnamese welfare dependency, migrant residential concentration, or the welfare impact of family reunion migration. These articles usually send out alarming messages which are almost always picked up by the mainstream media which may go out searching for their own stories to confirm the academics’ debates. This chain of events has created the perception that Vietnamese and other similarly placed migrant groups are unable or unwilling to become self-supporting, because they are alleged to see Australia as a "welfare paradise". The fact that many of them – more than 80 per cent of the total Vietnamese population here – are employed or running successful businesses is often ignored.


Stories about welfare dependency and unemployment are, however, one thing. More common in the print and electronic media are negative stories which depict migrants and refugees as being involved in a large range of undesirable activities – from cheating on social security to being major importers of illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Obviously many of these stories are also real, like the settlement needs and problems. But racially based headlines and sensational media reports tend to lead the public at large to associate certain ethnic groups with certain criminal activities. This is despite the fact that such activities are undertaken by only a few individuals within those communities. Examples of such headlines include "Asian drug cartel back on streets" (Daily Telegraph, 13.11.97, p. 21), or "Asian gangs spread fear in Cabramatta" (Sunday Telegraph, 5/6/88, p. 143).


Migrants and refugees, especially Asians, settling in Australia, therefore, have a public image problem: the problem of too much negative media exposure. Not a week or month goes by without the media carrying prominent stories on Asians or other migrants doing something undesirable or illegal. Sometimes, these reports may refer to members of a particular nationality like Vietnamese or Korean, but often suspects are lumped together as, for example, having "Asian" appearance. The same is also done when referring to immigration - with such broad term as "Asian migration" or "Asian migrants". This lumping together of people from 23 countries in the Asian region (according to DIMA definition) means that certain images are identified for the whole group in the mind of the general public. Often, these are not flattering images, when connected with crimes or when put forward by anti-immigration groups.


Criminal elements exist among Asians in Australia as they exist in other communities. The difference is that Asian offenders are almost always described by the local police and the media in the most colourful and racist terms. Vietnamese shootings in restaurants or in the streets of Cabramatta are described as "street warfare", "gang-land shoot-out" or "organised crimes" even when a lone gun-man is involved or may have done it for personal reason. Most of these colourful terms are often direct quotes from the police making the investigation. Chinese illegal gaming or shootings are seen as being the work of "the Triad".


Japanese tourists in Queensland face screaming headlines about the Yakuza in the Courier-Mail such as " Japanese Organised Crime in Battle for the Gold Coast" or "Asian Gang Preys on Japanese" (16/11/91). Asian residents in Cabramatta, going about their normal business like in any other suburbs, often find their life experiences at odd with the Sydney newspapers’ big headlines like "Terror as Asian Gangs Rule the Streets" (Sun-Herald, 30/5/93), "Chinese, Key to Heroin" (Telegraph-Mirror, 11/12/91), "Bandits Hit Rich Asians" (Sunday Telegraph, 21/3/93), and "Terror Gangs Target Asians" (West Australian, 16/3/93). This is only a small sample of these headlines, often on the front page, that any casual visitor to Australia would easily come across.


Again not denying that these crimes do occur, what is common to these newspaper headlines is their direct mention of the term "Asian" along with the crimes. When these newspapers report on crimes committed by Anglo-Australians, the ethnicity of the offenders is rarely mentioned in the headline. This aggregation or lumping together of people from many ethnic and language backgrounds can be at the detriment of the whole group or of particular member community. For instance, I am told that Khmer or Lao young people caught by the police for illegal activities Cabramatta may tell the police that they are Vietnamese – because of the inability of the police to tell the difference between a Lao or a Vietnamese. The media will then be informed that Vietnamese young people are involved, and the Vietnamese community is dealt another blow by the process.

There is a tendency for the mainstream media to use an "us/them" approach to reporting on people of ethnic backgrounds. Such an approach often resorts to myth, stereotypes and sensationalism without the need to check for accuracy or sensitivity. For instance, recent reporting on problem gamblers, Casino loan sharks, and crimes in the Kings Cross area attribute them to members of the Korean community. Some of these stories could not be confirmed or involved only a few individuals. This has, of course, to be acknowledged and dealt with, but sensational reporting on them by the media often compounds the situation as it can lead to increased racism against members of the groups in question, thus making it difficult for them to get accepted in their new country. This is particularly the case when the issues are picked up by television current affairs programs or by the talk-back radio stations.


This negative press or media reporting has affected migrants and refugees in a number of ways, both at the individual and the group levels.


Impact of Negative Media on Individuals


At the individual level, the most profound impact seems to involve second-generation young people. Because this group tends to read and understand English better, they are well informed about what is being said or perceived about their community by the media and the public at large. This negative group perception can give rise to negative self-perception and low self-esteem. These in turn can lead to feeling rejected by the host community. The young person may then react to this rejection by rejecting in turn one’s own group (some of whose members are the cause of community problems such as drug dealings or murders, which attract the bad publicity in the first place).


The impact of such negative self-image may also lead to rebellion against one’s family or against society. For example, it is said that youth drug dealings in Cabramatta are seen by some of the young people involved as a way of "pay back" to schools for treating them harshly and causing them to drop out of these schools, or as "pay back" to society for being unable to give them decent jobs or to find them any kind of employment. On the other hand, negative media reports may also have positive impact when youngsters try to refute the negative group identity by trying to over-achieve or outperform peers from other communities in order to be accepted as equals or to feel that they too can make it in their new country.


Effects on the Collective Settlement Efforts of Ethnic Communities and on Racial Harmony


Migrant and refugee leaders have tried to counter these negative stories about their communities by going to the Press Council, consulting with the Anti-Discrimination Board or the Ethnic Affairs Commission. Some have undertaken research and educational projects in order to counteract what they see as the media onslaught. Others have undertaken training on how best to handle media issues.


One organisation, the Australian Arab Council, even goes so far as presenting annual media award to the best and most positive reports in the mainstream media about the Arabic and Muslim communities.


All these efforts obviously are the result of the effects of negative publicity on the different ethnic groups in Australia whose attempts at peaceful settlement have been perceived by them to be put in jeopardy by the media. All migrants and refugees wish to be able to pursue their new life successfully, to contribute socially and economically to their new country. They have no wish to see their community’s name and reputation tainted by racially based allegations or by media reports on members’ misdeeds or settlement difficulties. To assist members to overcome these difficulties, many ethnic communities have formed their own self-help organisations. There is no doubt, however, that many of these groups feel hampered in the provision of their services by negative media reporting.


For example, a common feature found in the major mainstream newspapers are columnists’ comments and reviews on topical issues of the day. In regard to the current government non-discriminatory immigration policy, critics are often quoted by the media as saying that the increased ethnic diversity of the Australian population would eventually lead to race riots and break-down in social cohesion. Britain and the United States are often cited as examples where the "melting-pot" has boiled over into race rioting such as the one in Los Angeles in 1992.


Critics also fear that large concentrations of a particular ethnic group in one area will create "ethnic ghettos" and prevent the group’s integration into the Australian community. Such ghettos will also become breeding ground for gang crimes and other undesirable behaviour. Cabramatta in Sydney and Richmond or Springvale in Melbourne are been named as such examples involving Vietnamese.


As recent as September 1997, this issue has been raised in the print media following analysis of ethnic concentrations in Melbourne and Sydney, based on the results of the 1996 census, again published in People and Place by the Centre of Population and Immigration Research at Monash University. One paper (by Healy) raises confirm the continuing high number of Vietnamese in Cabramatta, prompting the following headline in the Melbourne Herald Sun, "Migrant ghetto concern" (24/9/97, p. 14). Another paper by Professor Viviani of Griffith University dismisses the idea of ghetto in Cabramatta. Again, this was widely reported by the mainstream media, for example: "Ghetto theory blasted" (SMH, 30/9/97), and "Vietnamese ghetto paranoia is strictly for the xenophobic" (Australian, 24/9/97).


"Potential ghettos" are residential areas or housing estates where there are large numbers of disadvantaged residents living in a confined space with problems such as high unemployment, delinquency, drug addiction and the reputation as "problem neighbourhoods". If these needs and problems are attributes of "potential ghettos", Cabramatta in Sydney as depicted in some media may be perceived as one such area. With its large concentration of Vietnamese refugees and other recently arrived migrants, the number of unemployed people is often higher than in other local government areas. There are also many young people who spend most of their time in the streets or local game parlours, who have been subject to police strip searches or are said to be passing drugs.


Illegal gaming, prostitution, gold chain and handbag snatching incidents in Cabramatta are all faithfully reported in the local English language newspapers. Past and present local aldermen in Fairfield Council have been quoted to say that Cabramatta is "unsafe" at night. Similar comments and reports are not known about other areas. Racial harmony will not be achieved if the local council take Vietnamese shop-keepers to court for breaching the Clean Food Act and then issue media releases to newspapers to gain the maximum publicity on these prosecutions.


Nor will racial harmony come to pass if local politicians call for recruitment of "culturally appropriate" police from Hong Kong to deal with the local Vietnamese population every time a robbery takes place. This political point-scoring will only reinforce racial prejudice against Asian migrants in Australia by members of the community at large – helped in large measure by reports on these issues by the media.

Impact on Government Policy


There is no doubt that this negative media reporting has also affected government policies towards refugee and migrant intakes. Following many critical reports and studies published on different aspects of Australia’s immigration program in last ten years, many significant changes have been made to the program such as the introduction of medical bonds, the need for assurance support, the balance of family principle, the two-year wait for permanent residence for fiances and overseas brides, the point-test with emphasis on English proficiency, the more recently introduced two-year wait for social security support, and heavily reduced family migration.


As the Sydney Morning Herald recently stated, the "welcome mat is wearing thin", (6/11/97, p. 17), as "Australia’s open door is only slightly ajar" (Illawarra Mercury, 7/1/93, p. 9). Most of the recent changes to Australia’s immigration program have been explained by the Government as attempts to save money and bring the most benefits from the program to the country. More to the point, however, these cuts have been directly influenced by media publicity and the Government’s fear of losing electoral support from a better-informed public which has increasingly questioned the Government’s immigration policy.


Positive Reporting


So far, attention has focused on negative media reporting and its effects on migrants and refugees. Like everything else, of course, the media has its positive side – although probably not enough of it.

In the early years of the Communist take-over of Indochina, the media reacted positively to large intakes of Indochinese refugees from refugee camps in Southeast Asia, or to "boat people" from Vietnam who were often seen as brave survivors of perilous journeys across the seas. Migrant centres were opened to accommodate them/ Government and non-government resources were mobilised to provide the necessary settlement services during this early period from 1976 to 1985. Gradually, however, there is a shift of attitude towards this sympathetic reception as petty crimes and high unemployment surfaced, and the flow of refugees from Indochina appeared to see no end.


Today, the print media appear to be more sensitive to reporting on ethnic issues. Largely through much criticism from the ethnic communities themselves and the intervention of bodies such as the Anti-Discrimination Board or the Ethnic Affairs Commission, more sensitive headlining can now be found and self-regulation by some section of the media seems to be in place. A recent report in the Daily Telegraph (12/11/97, p. 24), for example, carried the simple headline of "gang sought over murder" in a story involving a group of Asian youth sought for a stabbing murder in Campsie. The word "Asian" is not in the headline - as expected in previous years.


Another recent story called "Investors in Misery: Heroin dealers jailed after police uncover a fortune" was published by Daily Telegraph (14/11/97, p.15) with a photograph of an Asian-looking woman involved in the case. Only the names of the accused were mentioned without any reference to their ethnic origin or nationalities. This is, of course, what should be the case.


And still on the more positive approach by the media, we have all the hypes about migrant and refugee students in the top ten of the HSC results each year. There are also the occasional success stories of refugee families who have made it in Australia, particularly during Refugee Week, with headlines such as "Peasant migrants our new yuppies" (Daily Telegraph, 24 Sept 97, p. 15), or "Migrants find life is rich in the promised land" (Courier Mail, 24/9/97, pp 1 and 2), and "The mighty migrants" (The Bulletin, 30 April 1995). As you would all agree, we need more reporting of this positive nature. Not only do these positive stories enhance the settlement of migrants and refugees in this country, but they also contribute to racial harmony and make us feel good to be in a new country, good about ourselves and good about others around us.


Media and Australia’s Cultural and Social Future


If we look at the current Australia population and its cultural diversity, there is no doubt that the mainstream media is not reflecting cultural diversity. This is true of the print media as well radio and television. Ethnic broadcasting and newspapers are available, but they are run as special services or ethnic-based businesses. They are not part of the mainstream. Research has found that members of the ethnic communities see the ethnic media and SBS radio/TV mainly as the source programs in their own languages, or homeland news. For general entertainment and news within Australia, commercial television is usually used. However, here they often find stereotypes about themselves or stories involving crimes and killing within their communities. This negative and superficial version of themselves in the mainstream media not only let down these migrant and refugee groups but also the wider community by reinforcing false and often undesirable images. Even SBS TV has been seen as catering mainly for middle-class Australians and the larger ethnic communities. The challenge for SBS and the mainstream TV stations is to make their programs relevant and identifiable by all Australians, regardless of their language and ethnic backgrounds.


A publication by the former Bureau of Immigration and Population Research called "Media and Immigrant Settlement’ (1992) found that the media, especially radio and television, is not effective in conveying settlement information to new migrants, or in teaching them English. However, it can be useful in informing about where information could be obtained, or in helping migrant communities to maintain their cultures. If this is the case, it is obvious that the media does have a positive role to play in the settlement of migrants and refugees. However, much change in attitudes and reform are needed, especially with the mainstream media, in order to help foster more positive representation of ethnic communities. Some strategies for change have been suggested in a book edited by Professor Andrew Jakubowicz of the University of Technology, Sydney, entitled "Racism, Ethnicity and the Media" (1994). Among these strategies is the need for more research which will lead to criticism and advocacy to overcome institutional barriers to participation in the mainstream media by members of minority groups. Until the latter takes place, misrepresentation of ethnic people and issues will continue to occur.




The Broadcasting Services Act 1992 aims among other things to: (1) promote broadcasting services which develop and reflect a sense of Australian identity, character and cultural identity; (2) encourage broadcasting providers to be responsive to the need for a fair and accurate coverage of matters of public interest and for appropriate coverage of matters of local significance. However, these codes of practices were to be developed by broadcasters themselves and their observation is voluntary. This provides little for those who wish to obtain more equitable and positive portrayal of minority groups in the mainstream media. They may help in making media people more sensitive to ethnic issues, but without effective sanctions for breaches, broadcasters are free not to adhere to these codes of practice. One thing is certain, however: more research clearly needs to be done into the needs of ethnic audiences, and on the impact of media on their lives. Some initial research has been undertaken, but too little is known on this issue at present.

Impact on Govt Policy
Effects on Collective Settlement
Impact of Negative Media
Positive Reporting
Media & Australia
bottom of page