Semester One Reflection: it’s a long way from theatre blogs to Rachel Maddow

Image: David Allen

Understanding Journalism Assessment: Semester One Reflection

I’m in a pair of gumboots standing knee deep in a duckpond in the middle of Footscray Park, working on a news story about local indigenous history.

It’s my second big journalism assessment for my Bachelor of Comms at RMIT and over the last six weeks it’s somehow become bigger than Ben Hur.

A small collective of mask-wearing public, going about their hour of daily lockdown exercise, watch bemused as my tour guide, a historian named Dieter[1], tramps through some reeds to my left.

He’s explaining this manicured series of ponds with its stone-arch bridges, lily pads and weeping willows is the remnants of a billabong and was home for an indigenous tribe.

“I’ve interviewed locals whose great-grandparents had stories about playing here as kids with Aboriginal children in the late 1800’s,” says Dieter.

He’s standing next to a stone platypus fountain, the only remotely indigenous thing left on the scene.

Footscray Park, close to thousands of residences and home to major music festivals, is visited by tens of thousands of people a year.

I ask Dieter why there aren’t any information boards describing this place’s incredible history.

“It’d have to talk about colonial industry smothering the tribe’s sources of food and fresh water and then driving what was left of them off their land at rifle-point,” he says.

“There’ll be places like this all over Australia.”

Dieter leads me around the pond and the park’s attractive floral trellises describing vivid oral histories (all colonial ones, sadly) of native crops, earthen housing and stone fire pits.

Wurundjeri families lived here for centuries at the heart of a vast gaming ground, rich in saltwater fish and flocks of waterfowl.

“Of course, what you really want to do is drop acid and come here on a full moon. The trip really helps you picture where everything was.”

… Wait, what?

I steadily extricate myself from the remnants of billabong and then work to extricate myself from Dieter, who it’s worth noting is a government employee.

He skirts around my questions about indigenous sources and talks more about tripping and the possibility of tripping with me.

I exit on the heels of a hasty Beatles joke and return to my apartment, reminded once again, my news story is actually a private parable of hubris.

When I enrolled for my Journalism major at RMIT, I knew this might be a problem.

In the 20-teens, I worked as a theatre blogger.

Despite writing to a growing audience about racism, misogyny and wage theft in the theatre industry, after five years hard work, I had no friends and no career.

It took years to stabilise my mental health enough afterwards to realise, I hadn’t been a journalist but an amateur, and passion for a subject didn’t qualify me as an expert.

Enter stage left: my indigenous history news story, and hubris, ready to show me just how far I had to go.

Out for exercise one day, 4.8 kilometres from home, I came across the remnants of a rock structure on the Maribyrnong River.

Further investigation told me it had been an indigenous stone fish trap.

Despite the fact this relic was known to be possibly thousands of years old, it had no identifying signage and had never been properly studied.

I contacted a local council planning spokesperson who brusquely told me council didn’t do things “just because [they] were a good idea”.

Here was the subject for my next journalism assessment: a colour news story about a rich indigenous local history squandered by local officials who didn’t know better and couldn’t care less.

Something you could sink your teeth into.

Six weeks later, while I had enough information to pitch an honours thesis about the fish trap, I hadn’t been able to find a single indigenous person willing to speak on the subject.

Emails, phone calls and text messages went out, nothing came back.

I had always assumed I would get a strong response from an indigenous authority and worse, I assumed it would fit the narrative I already had in mind.

Now I was stranded on the lunatic fringe with authorities suggesting discrete moonlit romps on ‘shrooms.

Hubris.

What I finally put together was a well-meaning, lightweight version of the newsworthy social change I had originally envisioned.

I stretched politicians quotes like pasta so statements supporting absolutely anyone else doing something about this stone fish trap acquired some shred of respectability.

I worked out what sort of quotes would be useful from my historians and asked leading questions.

In the final sentence, I marked the absence of the indigenous opinion I should have found before I began work on the story at all.

The result wasn’t bad writing, but it wasn’t good journalism.

At the end of my first semester, I’m closer to knowing what that is.

I have a stronger grasp of hard news, the influence of content on form and how to report an inverted pyramid of facts and events.

I’m still far too lost in my own love of vocab and my research methods are lengthy and lack coordination.

But I’m getting better at understanding what my job’s going to be and why it’s important I do it responsibly and well.

It’s a long way from theatre blogs to Rachel Maddow, but that’s the road I’m on. I’ll have better news in 2021, stay with me.


[1] “Dieter’s” name has been changed to protect his identity.