The Australian Press Council often receives complaints about the reporting of the race, colour, ethnicity and nationality of individuals or groups, and these raise important questions about the responsibility of the press in our multicultural society.
In the broadest terms, the Council has found that the tone and context of such reporting are usually the crucial elements in deciding whether its principles have been breached.
The Council’s principles state: “Publications should not place gratuitous emphasis on the race, religion, nationality, colour, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness, or age of an individual or group. Where it is relevant and in the public interest, publications may report or express opinions in these areas".
An obvious case where reference to a person’s physical characteristics or ethnic background is relevant, or in the public interest, is when they are part of police descriptions of wanted suspects. This is particularly so when the suspects are regarded as violent and dangerous. When a person’s physical characteristics or ethnic background are tendered as relevant evidence in court, they are then matters of public record.
The question of race and ethnicity is a difficult one. In the strict biological sense, "race" is the subject of complex scientific debate and particular care should be taken when describing somebody as being of “mixed race”, unless it is reporting direct quotes or self-description. However, there is no doubt that people are often perceived, and perceive themselves to be, members of a race in a broadly cultural sense. Ethnic identity, too, is sometimes difficult to define.
There is also the danger of using the term "race" where no such race exists; there is no 'Jewish race', equally there is no 'British race' nor 'French race'. Another danger is to accept too readily the race labels used by racist groups in hate campaigns; such labels should be examined carefully and critically.
The Council is principally concerned about references to race, colour, ethnicity or nationality which promote negative stereotypes in the community. It acknowledges that the question of stereotypes is not cut and dried, and much depends on the context.
The Council in principle condemns gratuitous use of offensive slang terms for minority groups. However, if someone controversially used such expressions, a publication may well be justified in reporting them in direct quotes. The Council also generally believes that the use of such terms is permissible in opinion articles, when it is to make a serious point, and sometimes in humorous articles and satire. But here again the boundaries are usually determined by tone and context.
The Council also accepts that some international situations are extremely difficult to report or comment on without causing offence to different groups in the community. The Israeli-Palestinian and Northern Ireland conflicts are obvious examples where deep-rooted passions among readers from various backgrounds are easily inflamed, even by impartial reporting.
In the Council's view, in general, the press needs to show more sensitivity in reporting issues when minority groups are perceived in the community to be more "different" or when they are the subject of particular public debate.