Leading the way: newspaper sets sights on vaguely offensive puff piece

Over the weekend, the Sydney Morning Herald posted a story about a year seven student who wants to be Prime Minister. It was even a feature article on the homepage.

You’re probably questioning the newsworthiness of the article since the student, Jay Dent, isn’t exactly the only year seven student who wants to be Prime Minister. Nor he is more likely to fulfil that ambition than others with similar aspiration.

Academic achievement and wanting to be prime minister are both incredibly soft indicators of future Prime Ministership. There are thousands of students with similar aspiration, almost none (if any) of whom will actually achieve that goal. In part because only a relative few of each cohort can practically fulfil that goal, but mainly because your ideals and aspirations are hardly set in stone in year seven.

It’s not news.

That’s why it doesn’t get written about. Generally. Unless you have something else to act as a hook for the storing – something like ‘Leading the way: indigenous student sets his sights on the top job.’

This isn’t a post railing against “favourable” coverage for indigenous students. Far from it. Aside from the implication embedded in the judgement that an intelligent and ambitious indigenous student is newsworthy (i.e. that others among that subset of students are not intelligent and/or ambitious), the article also adopts a soft tone that verges on condescending at times.

It’s reasonable to question what exactly the purpose of the article is. It isn’t to inform, since we’ve established that year seven students wanting to be Prime Minister isn’t news.

By default, then, it would seem the purpose is entertainment – “human interest.” But that entertainment comes from the sense of “novelty” put forth by the article, and also through making its readers (white people) feel good – inspired and comfortable. (That the article also goes out of its way to mention that Dent and other indigenous students are on scholarships provided by other [white] parents feeds into this reading).

It’s probably a coincidence the article also appeared the same week as a campaign by the Australian Indigenous Education Fund on the likelihood (or lack thereof) of having an indigenous Prime Minister, since the each conveys exact opposite messages.

The AIEF campaigned uses the claim that an indigenous Prime Minister is unlikely as its main hook for fundraising, inspired by a Newspoll showing that 2/3 of Australians believe they will not see an indigenous Prime Minister in their lifetime. While the article paints such an outcome as almost inevitable. “Meet Australia’s first indigenous Prime Minister – in waiting,” it opens with, which, in light of the previously-mentioned poll results, seems ridiculously optimistic at best and horribly naive at worst.

Even with innocent enough intentions, the effect of the article could be to undermine its premise. If the strategy behind the recent campaign is shake people out of complacency, the article seems to promote it. It presents a picture of progress using a sample of one. (That is manages to do so while also subtly pointing to the novelty of the piece is an impressive balance of contradictions, neither of which individually supports the ambitions of its subject).

Presenting positive images is a good thing, but it’s a question of audience and of properly contextualising these images. The article doesn’t harness the fact that we haven’t had an indigenous Prime Minister in the same way the campaign does. It uses it as a cheap hook on which to hang a puff piece.

Perhaps this is too deep a reading of article that comprises only a few hundred words (indeed, perhaps more time has been spent on this piece than the original), and that may indeed be its defence. It certainly doesn’t intentionally undermine its subject, but it’s the unintentional side effect of a light treatment of a topic that needs deeper engagement.

By Matt Hickey

Matt is part of the Ideas at the House programming team, outside of which he is a part-time writer and post-grad economics student.