Why this Australian report about Bali is unethical journalism and an example of white saviorism
“The white savior industrial complex isn’t about justice. It’s about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege” — Teju Cole
The Australian television program A Current Affair reported on the COVID-19 situation in Bali, Indonesia. I happen to be in Bali since March of this year and I was shocked to see the clickbaity video that the program produced. It was brought to my attention through Twitter, where someone I follow shared it saying ‘they didn’t manage to speak to one Balinese person’. And that’s just one of the issues here.
What is the story of the video?
A quick analysis of the video in case you haven’t seen it yet: the journalist raises the question if Bali can ‘bounce back’ now the island is on ‘life support’ after all the tourists left. The first and main person to be interviewed is a 22-year-old Australian man who came to Bali a few years ago to go to rehab. He is worried about the situation and organized a fundraiser run to collect money for Balinese families in need. His sorrow is being portrayed by footage of an empty and trashed hotel, without explaining how this hotel deteriorated like this.
The spooky footage of closed shops, zooming in on the graffiti and taking the camera through the empty streets of beach town Kuta, combined with dramatic music, sets the tone. We’re halfway down the five-minute report already when the next person, another Australian expat who writes an online tourist guide about Bali, mentions a positive note. She emphasises how lucky she feels to be here because there are good deals in a lot of the restaurants and hotels: ‘Bali is still operational, it’s more paradise than ever’.
The video ends with two more opinions of Australians, an entrepreneur and a travel agent, who both paint the picture of the island hugely relying on Australian tourists: ‘Bali will bounce back. But you’ll see a lot of changes and it will be torn by the time we get back there.’
What’s wrong with the report?
Besides the fact that the reporter didn’t speak to one Balinese person, she also constantly mentions ‘Bali’ where the whole video is really about Kuta, the beach town mostly popular by Australian tourists. Furthermore, the example of just one hotel that is abandoned without explaining the context, the choice of dramatic music and the phrasing of words as if Australians are the only ones to save the Balinese from this disaster, make it all very sensational. To not say gutter journalism.
How did we get here?
Apparently it’s not the first time Australian news reports in this way about the Indonesian island. An expat friend of mine told me how after the eruption of Mount Agung in May 2019 you’d think Bali had disappeared if you were only watching the Austalian news. A Indonesian journalism colleague from Jakarta shared her experience of the same kind of approach around the Bali Bombings when she was still reporting. Mind you, that’s almost twenty years ago.
Not much has changed over the years and in the light of inclusive journalism and media diversity and I’m not really surprised. Although one would hope with the global Black Lives Matter movement happening this year, that newsrooms would have a more critical look at themselves and the angles from which they report about ‘others’, people who look different than ‘us’.
I liked how my journalism friend explained it and her self-reflection is appreciated:
“It’s lazy journalism, using predated and rather neocolonialist presumption that plays on the “otherness” of the people/issue that we cover. I can’t pretend to not having done this in the past too, as a journalist working for foreign media, or even a Jakarta-bases journalist covering the region.”
But not everyone goes through a process of becoming more woke around these topics, so let’s not wait till everyone becomes ‘aware’. In order to change, we need to look at the root of the problem and implement real solutions in the profession of journalism.
Why is this white saviorism?
When watching the report, you can’t ignore the concept of ‘white saviorism’, referring to a white person who provides help to Black people in a self-serving manner coming from a position of superiority. Of course there is nothing wrong with organizing a fundraising to help Balinese families but when you put yourself in the middle of attention as a white man, ignoring the full story that lots of Balinese found alternative sources of income and local communities supporting each other, you’re acting like a white savior.
Using phrases that come down to a message of ‘we love the island, but now we are gone, the people are helpless’ and ‘we are so worried and if we don’t do anything, the island won’t survive’ are also examples of the same white savior complex.
The term ‘white savior’ is related to colonial history, based on the patronising and offensive attitude of the colonizers over the indigenous people. Since the Black Lives Matters protests this years, there is renewed attention to the colonial past of Western countries and especially to the topic of decolonization. The lack of knowledge about our own colonial history leaves footprints in nowadays society and the way we practice journalism as well.
Why is this reporting unethical journalism?
It brings me to the second point of this specific video, the lack of media ethics applied. Fair hearing should be the first thing to consider in journalism and without hearing one Balinese person in a report about their own island, that’s not even the case. Another interesting aspect to this topic is the social media approach. The instagram account of A Current Affair choose to post a one minute video of only the empty streets and desolated shops, with the text ‘Trashed hotels, empty streets, and no tourists…See what’s become of Bali, as the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic ravages the former holiday hotspot.’
With the critique I’ve just enumerated in this article, the newsroom could respond that the full video definitely shows more nuance. But the choice of leaving all nuance out on a social media account of nearly a hundred thousand followers is unethical. It shows also in the rude and sometimes blatanly racist comments. And by the way, nobody is doing webcare on those responses which is another example of not taking responsibility for the reporting.
What can we do?
When realizing not much has changed over the years, one could get frustrated, disappointed or hopeless. But this year 2020 brought to the surface what the root problems of this kind of white privileged reporting are. White journalists should educate themselves on their colonial history. The focus should be inclusive journalism and there are many resources out there to do a better job. Most importantly is that journalists turn the gaze inward and hold each other accountable. It’s great to see that the Balinese are talking back, the Bali Hotel Association commented on the report calling the content of the reporting ‘far from the truth’.
But if Australian and more broadly Western journalists don’t speak out about this topic, not much will change. It’s first and foremost a problem of whiteness that should be addressed by the white people who did go through a process of awareness on this topic.
So if you’re a journalist and you’ve finished reading this, send an email to A Current Affair (email@example.com) and link this article. Or share it on your social media with the hashtag of the program #9ACA .