Naming Taboo – Journalism Ethics

“Even though the people I come from don’t have this practice, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have respect for those people that do” – Marcia Langton

Journalists not only use images to compliment their work, but also to identify individuals. At times, the chosen images added into a news report can be problematic for the audience when journalists do not adhere to the MEAA Code of Ethics. Issues can arise from images that insult cultures, convey graphic scenes and traumatic events, people in distress and many more. Specifically, the Aboriginal Culture has often been offended when the media displays pictures of their deceased relatives.

Naming Taboo” is referred to when a journalist or news source, mentions the name or displays a picture of a deceased Aboriginal individual. One of the MEAA Code of Ethics standards is to “Respect private grief and personal privacy”. For many Aboriginals, their Traditional Law, does not allow for a deceased persons name to be spoken. The Aboriginal belief is that each time a deceased Aboriginal’s name is said or an image is seen, it calls back their Spirit. When the spirit is disturbed, it can cause trouble within the Aboriginal community. Further, the more times the name is said, the longer it takes for the spirit to reach its resting place.

“The spirit in Aboriginal society is regarded as potentially dangerous, toxic, wicked and mischievous, and so it should be sent on its trajectory to spirit-land as soon as possible” – Philip Jones

In 2013, a member of the Aboriginal band, Yothu Yindi, passed away. Media websites such as Twitter, the ABC home page, ‘The Australian’, Fairfax, and many more included an image and full name of the band member. This caused distress for the family of Mr Yanupingu, who came out to the Northern Land Council, asking for his image and full name not to be published. He was from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, where Indigenous culture is still highly practiced. Most media platforms heard their plea and took down the images and full name. However, some companies ignored the families wishes and went ahead to print the image and full name of the band member.

Yothi Yindi Loses a Legend, Mumbrella, 2013

In 2017 a second band member of Yothu Yindi passed away. By then the media coverage had improved in relation to respecting Aboriginal culture. The news reports simply stated that the reason why the deceased person’s name and image weren’t used.

“We can no longer say his full name, because this is the Yolngu way.”  (ABC News)

Screen Shot 2018-05-11 at 1.41.50 pm.png
Dr G Yunupingu Obituary, The Guardian, 2017

Journalists face many ethical issues in terms of using images. Although an image may make a good story, journalists should follow a code of conduct to avoid conflict. As set out by the MEAA code of ethics, journalists are expected to publish accurate information.  The first standard suggests journalists “Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts”. However, this poses an issue when they are limited in the material they can use, such as in cases of indigenous Australians. Without using a full name and image, it’s difficult for journalists to report clearly. The lack of posting these details may confuse the reader and lead to misunderstandings. This is a significant issue when reporting death.

Many journalists also believe that high-profile aboriginals should be excused from “Naming Taboo”. However, issues arise when journalists don’t follow the MEAA Code of Ethics and also advice such as the ABC Editorial guide to reporting Indigenous Content. If families of the deceased have not consented to the image being posted, it could lead to the journalist driving away their audience and damaging their reputation.

What will the media do when Cathy Freeman or Archie Roach pass away? The Indigenous people of Australia can only hope that journalists make ethical decisions when choosing images.

– Sophie Leathers


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