Personal stories are powerful. As well as bringing issues alive, storytelling can create empathy and understanding. It’s no wonder the media seek out personal accounts, not only do they help capture public attention, they also provide evidence of a problem. But there’s always a flipside: personal stories and experiences reported on their own can oversimplify complex situations and perpetuate stereotypes, particularly when they relate to groups who are marginalised or stigmatised. When stories about individuals are written up devoid of any social or political context and critique, they can obscure other relevant and specific issues and distort priorities about what needs to be done.
Just as concerning are the ways in which ill-informed and sensationalist media reportage can hinder, and in some cases undo, the work of creating positive dialogue about immigrants and refugees, and in particular, immigrant women. Whether she’s an international student, a prospective bride, or a sponsored worker, the triple jeopardy of being an immigrant, woman and non-white looms large. While the earnest desire to garner attention and sympathy may come from the best of intentions, there’s always the risk of immigrant women being portrayed as helpless victims who are innately naïve and stupid (an implicit inference being that immigrant women are somehow inferior to their English-speaking, anglo-Australian counterparts and a burden to the nation).
When it comes to sexual and reproductive health, for example, we often read about immigrant women’s ‘lack’: lack of English language skills, lack of sex education, lack of knowledge about consent, lack of social connections. These challenges do exist for immigrant and refugee women, but our focus should be on highlighting why these personal ‘deficits’ become barriers to immigrant women’s access to safe and affordable healthcare. Immigrant and refugee women aren’t deficient or vulnerable, they’re made vulnerable by systems, structures, policies and practices.
This is where the reporting of personal accounts, including those of service providers and other experts, can play a complementary role in the evidentiary mix. By linking individual stories to the need for systemic solutions, media reportage can highlight the specific issues faced by immigrant women and promote the role governments can play in the solutions.
This is how stories can help mobilise public opinion and build community solidarity by convincing people of the need for change. Rather than reinforcing bias and prejudices, respectful and ethical reporting becomes part of the solution it is reporting on.