The economic case for greater diversity in media

 

The push for more diverse faces on our screens has gained some momentum in recent years, aided in part by discourse in the United States. When the Oscars failed to include non-white nominees in its acting categories two years in a row, it generated heated discussion around merit, power and cultural barriers.

John Boyega and Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Force AwakensIn particular, the composition of Academy membership exposed the same insider dynamics that keep minorities from penetrating other spheres like politics and business.

The Board responded by altering voting rights, opening up executive and recruitment processes to favour representation, and committing to double the number of diverse members by 2020. (It is worth noting that these decisions were facilitated by Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is the first person of colour to become the Academy's president in 89 years, and only the third woman).

Such adjustments shed light on what it would take to begin correcting similar imbalances in Australian media and entertainment industries, including news production.

Change may be made possible through humble introspection. But it can only be made real through political will, structural modification (to ease recruitment and retention), and some pain — especially for those who have benefited from a shallow competitive pool.

Michelle Guthrie, the new managing director at the ABC, seems to be signalling that shift. Since taking the reins from Mark Scott last May, she has advocated closer attention to a 21st century audience. 'Australia has fundamentally changed in terms of cultural diversity,' she points out. 'If you really think about making sure we are relevant to all Australians, then that requires us to be reflective of all Australians.'

This is a great thing to hear from the chief of the most trusted institution in the country, but also well overdue in practice. As far back as 1992, a report for the now-defunct Office of Multicultural Affairs found that Australian media 'assumed that the point of view of the audience was that of Anglo-Australians to the exclusion of any other people'. It also noted that 'ethnicity was presented continually as problematic, rarely as a positive quality of a multicultural society'. Have things changed in the 24 years since?

Progress remains difficult to define, though the ethics of representation is regularly argued (here, here, here, here, and here). Even in instances where non-white presenters like Lee Lin Chin and Waleed Aly break through, their achievement is brought into doubt, such as when Karl Stefanovic suggested to his Today co-host Lisa Wilkinson that she may have been 'too white' to be nominated for a Gold Logie.

 

"To insist that merit determines success is to accept that the scarcity of black and brown Australians in the media and elsewhere must be due to an intrinsic inferiority."

 

Reverse discrimination is not a thing, of course. Racism in simplest terms is an expression of an imbalance of power, so attempts to correct its reproduction in the media can only be viewed as a matter of order. To insist that merit determines success is to accept that the scarcity of black and brown Australians in the media — and elsewhere — must be due to an intrinsic inferiority. No one says this last bit out loud, but we do hear about merit a lot.

Perhaps what will ultimately convince media and entertainment companies that it is in their interest to be sincere about diversity is that there's money in it. A UCLA study found that in 2014, eight films that had diverse casts (out of 163) also had the highest median global revenues and returns on investment. In addition, TV shows with majority non-white casts rated extremely well, even among white households. This challenges conventions around what media consumers find appealing. It bears logic: engaging a more diverse audience widens the revenue base.

Market forecasters are in fact increasingly interested in 'multicultural buying power', which is growing at an exponential rate. American Latinos, for instance, are avid consumers of entertainment, accounting for nearly a quarter of all movie ticket sales despite being 17 per cent of the population. They are the fastest-growing demographic, along with Asian-Americans.

Given that the non-Anglo Australian population is also growing, the strategic imperative should be clear. As a recent PWC report bluntly puts it: 'A lack of diversity in Australia's media and entertainment workforce in terms of ethnicity, gender, age and thinking is dragging on the industry's growth.' At some point, our local industries will have to catch up with international research. Mckinsey analysts found that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

It turns out that diversity is not a matter of charity, something for dominant groups to dispense when pressed and only if it makes them look good. Perhaps it is a pity that we can't argue for representation on ethics alone, but the fact that diversity pays dividends should make resistance silly and futile.

 


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.

Main image: John Boyega and Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, diversity, White Oscars, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Michelle Guthrie, ABC

 

 

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