Antoinette Lattouf

Antoinette Lattouf on why cultural diversity matters in media industry

Interview with Antoinette Lattouf from Media Diversity Australia

Antoinette Lattouf is an award-winning journalist and commentator and is the Director and co-founder of Media Diversity Australia (MDA). She spoke to us about the origins of MDA, diversity in the Australian media landscape, and what her organisation plans to achieve with their recently awarded Crescent Community Grant.

MDA was established in 2017 and is led by journalists and media professionals. Can you tell us a bit about how the organisation came about?

The organisation was founded by two women – myself and Isabel Lo. Isabel Lo is a Chinese-Australian woman who, at that time, had been a journalist for around a decade; I’m an Arab-Australian woman and I’d been a journalist for around a decade. We realised that, after a decade being in the industry, rather than the industry getting more diverse, it was either staying the same, or in some cases getting worse. And despite the fact that there were, among our generation, women who had entered the journalism industry, they weren’t staying if they were people of colour.

This is what we’d seen and heard anecdotally. We wanted to figure out why, after ten years in the industry, we weren’t seeing change, not only on the surface, but why weren’t we seeing people from diverse backgrounds going into editorial positions or positions of power. So, it stems from that frustration of seeing people of colour throw in the towel and go “Stuff it, this industry isn’t set up for success [for CALD individuals].” And watching these people leave the industry, we turned to each other and went, “right, we want to do something about it. We don’t just want to whinge about the problem, we don’t want to leave the industry. We want to formalise something that offers solutions and tackles the problem.” 

Why is cultural diversity important in the media, especially in Australia, and what are the consequences of a lack of diversity? 

At a very basic level, the media is one of the pillars of a democracy, and if the media’s not representative, then the democracy isn’t functioning at proper and full capacity. Seen through a social cohesion and representation lens, it’s problematic. When the people we’re seeing on the news aren’t representative of the community, that’s problematic for the quality of journalism and the type of stories that are selected and how they’re framed.

When there’s a representation deficit and a trust deficit, getting public health information out to diverse communities is really challenging. But the main vehicle for this messaging continues to be a media that, by and large, doesn’t look or sound like the communities it’s preaching to. It doesn’t have those connections, doesn’t have the insider knowledge of the attitudes and concerns of those communities. It’s playing out pretty badly, especially for Sydney, when Southwestern Sydney and Western Sydney are the most culturally diverse places in Australia. And we’ve seen that with case numbers, we’ve seen it with low vaccination rates.

I think that part of the problem is the fact that the media is so unrepresentative. There was a study a few years back by PricewaterhouseCoopers, and they found that the average media worker is a 37-year-old male who lives in Bondi. So, this whole East-West thing, this stereotype, is playing out to the detriment of the whole nation, because COVID is ripping through these communities.

Who is currently underrepresented, or most underrepresented, in our media? 

We did a report, the first study of its kind, which we released last year, on television news and current affairs representation. We looked at the census and what they told us about our demographic and then we looked at who was appearing on screens, and we found that the group that was least represented, despite being the largest group after Anglo-Australians, was non-Europeans.

Let’s take a step back: the Australian Human Rights Commission broadly categorises Australians into four categories; Anglo, European, non-European, and Indigenous. And after Anglo, non-Europeans form the largest group. They are Asians, Indians, Middle-Easterners, Africans, South Americans, for example. And the two groups that were least represented were non-European and Indigenous – so, broadly, people of colour were the least likely to be seen on our screens.

When we looked at boards and editorial leaders, it was even less diverse. 100% of television news directors at the time were white blokes, and any time there was gender representation, it was an Anglo woman. It’s absolutely these [non-European and Indigenous] communities that are at the heart of, and bearing the brunt of, these lockdowns, economically and health wise.

How do we compare to other countries, say to the UK, the United States, or European countries, in terms of media diversity?

Our report looked into that as well, and I guess the short answer is “badly” and the long answer is “very badly”. The conversation and the attempts are about a decade ahead of us, particularly in the UK. That’s not to say that they’re perfect, but they are further along in the journey, and they try things. One thing for example that’s worked in the UK, one of their major television networks, has linked reaching diversity targets to executive bonuses and – surprise, surprise – when it’s linked to financial incentives, all of a sudden, they did start to produce good results in terms of representation. 

The problem the report found at the time is that Australia is that some television networks aren’t even having the conversation, they’re not even trying. They don’t have a diversity plan or policy. They may give some lip service, they may allow a young woman with a hijab to come and do some work experience, but that’s not really diversity or inclusion. Tokenistic gestures that are not part of a broader plan, with targets and KPIs, are just lip service.

What sort of projects does MDA run, focusing specifically on the initiatives you’ll be running with the Crescent Foundation, and what sort of results have you seen from those so far?

We do research, we do networking events, we do paid internships, we run public debates and events, so we do a bunch of things. Interestingly, what we’re doing with the Crescent Foundation is addressing the very issue that inspired Isabel and I to want to do something. There we were, two women of colour, ten years into our careers, with these awards and international experience, and we felt there was no obvious path for us to be leaders in our industry.

With the Crescent Foundation, we’re running a mentorship program for mid-tier journalists of colour with a particular focus on women, to support them and mentor them over a twelve-month program, pair them up with somebody who is in one of those positions, to try and help develop a pathway to those editorial leadership positions where you have real influence, where you have agenda-setting roles. We do the entry level stuff, which is great, but getting in is one thing, and getting up is quite another. And with the Crescent Foundation, we’re hoping to support and inspire the next generation of editorial leaders, who are people of colour.

The Crescent Foundation supports initiatives that aim to bring about catalysing change in our communities. How does your project fit into that?

Influence is when you get a real seat at the table, and diversity is getting a door open and getting into the building. This program is going to enable us to ensure that journalists of colour of considerable experience actually get a seat at the editorial table where they set agendas, where they have real impact, where they have real say. They’re not just invited into the room, they’re at the table and they have a voice. And that’s what is so desperately lacking.

Finally, are there any trends that excite you or concern you, in Australian society generally but particularly in relation to diversity?

Some trends that excite me are that the digital world, in some ways, can democratise the industry. There are two young people of colour in their twenties who are journos who run this really impressive Instagram page, the Daily Aus, which is AU news for young people. And they’ve been able to establish their voice and footprint, bypassing legacy media. So that excites me. Oh, and they’re culturally diverse too!

What concerns me is, for many media outlets, their financial model is in trouble. Advertising dollars that historically went into newspaper classifieds or television commercial prime-time spots aren’t there anymore, so there’s been a move away from longer form, investigative, current affairs style journalism, because it’s expensive and it takes time. I guess what concerns me is when you don’t have that public affairs interest style journalism, which is more costly but speaks truth to power, then the quality of journalism will inevitably diminish.

Other articles