Teaching and Learning Forum 2011 Home Page

Category: Professional practice

Teaching and Learning Forum 2011 [ Refereed papers ]
The value of practical placements: What student journalists learnt while working with Aboriginal communities

Trevor Cullen
Edith Cowan University

Non-Aboriginal journalists seldom get to meet and talk with Aboriginal people about their life and beliefs, and this often results in narrow and misinformed reporting. This paper reports on an ongoing initiative between the Combined Universities Centre for Rural Health (CUCRH) and the undergraduate journalism program at Edith Cowan University. Every January and July (since July 2008), eight final-year ECU journalism students spend a month with Aboriginal communities in two Western Australian towns in the Pilbara region. This is a significant departure from the usual ECU journalism placement unit, where students apply for a one-month internship in a Perth based newsroom and seldom leave the confines of the city news environment. The aim of this project is to help students achieve a better understanding of Aboriginal communities and culture, and, consequently, a more informed approach to their reporting of Aboriginal issues. The paper explains how the project began and the difficulties involved in setting up and developing such a placement. It also includes feedback from journalism students.


Universities Centre for Rural Health (CUCRH) team in Port Hedland. Speaking at a guest lecture on 'Reporting Aboriginal health' to journalism students at Edith Cowan University's Mount Lawley campus in Perth in 2006, he invited students to visit some communities in and around Port Hedland. That, he noted, would be an important first-step in a long process of engaging with the Aboriginal community. One student took up the challenge in 2006 and two in 2007. All three students remarked in email correspondence how beneficial the experience had been because they had direct access to Aboriginal people and that, they said, had changed their attitudes towards Aboriginal issues.

In July 2008, eight ECU journalism students were placed for one-month with Aboriginal communities in two Western Australian towns. This was a significant departure from the usual ECU journalism placement unit (CMM3104), where students apply for a one-month internship in a Perth-based newsroom where they seldom leave the confines of the city news environment. CUCRH's invitation presented a new approach - a direct engagement with Aboriginal people to acquire a better understanding of Aboriginal affairs.

This paper reports on the process and outcomes of the placement program. First, it reviews recent studies on the reporting of Aboriginal issues in the Australian media and then applies the theory of Situated Learning to provide a theoretical framework and pedagogical rationale for the placement. Second, the methods and the placement are explained in the context of the students' feedback on their learning experience.

Background information: Reporting on Aboriginal issues

Hartley and McKee (2000) argue in The Indigenous Public Sphere that "compared with the proportion of Aboriginal and Islander people in the Australian population in the 1990s, Indigenous stories were massively over-represented in the media" (Hartley and McKee, 2000, p. 49). Their argument hinges on the fact that Indigenous Australians have a "right to be ordinary" and the media sould seek to "report Aboriginality via its mundane rather than its 'fatal' aspects" (p.45). This argument provides a pedagogical rationale for placing students within Aboriginal communities where they can experience the ordinariness of Indigenous people and the mundane aspects of Aboriginality rather than always encountering/representing Indigeneity as an "issue".

Meadows, Hippocrates and Van Vuuren (1997) compared the coverage of Aboriginal communities by newspapers (The Courier-Mail and The Cairns Post) and television stories (ABC TV and National Nine News) between Jan 28 and Feb 3. The case study examined the news coverage of Indigenous protest meetings in Brisbane together with a broader sweep of all news stories that dealt with Indigenous affairs in that period (Meadows et al, p. 73). They found 28 print news stories but only nine quoted Indigenous sources directly, and 15 television news stories of which only three allowed an Indigenous person to speak on Indigenous issues. In subsequent studies Meadows (2001 & 2005) remains highly critical of media presentation of Aboriginal issues.

Although the trend in the past 20 years has been away from the overt racism of the colonial press, institutionalized racism is manifested in the systematic omission of Indigenous voices in the news media. Indigenous sources make up a fraction - between a fifth to one third - of all sources used by journalists in stories about Indigenous affairs. This situation had remained unchanged in Australian journalism for the past 20 years. (Meadows, 2005, p. 36)

Meadows ends pessimistically: "The picture which emerges from a long history of indifference towards Indigenous people is a continuing media misrepresentation of their identities and lifestyles" (p. 39). He states that many indigenous groups have responded by turning their backs on mainstream media and engaging in their own forms of cultural production - primarily radio, television and new media technology - thus creating their own Indigenous public spheres, as alluded to by Hartley and McKee (2000) where Aboriginal communities are developing their own notions of Indigeneity, which previously were "hardly been under the control of Indigenous people (p. 3).

Roberts (2007) explored the representation of Indigenous Australians in the Herald Sun, The Age and The Australian newspapers between April 1 and July 10. He focused on the reporting of Aboriginal health and the social determinants of health. This study found 505 articles featuring Indigenous Australians with only six per cent related to Indigenous health. The Herald Sun focused on Indigenous sport and art while The Australian emphasised on Indigenous politics and art. The Age focused on Indigenous sport and politics. Roberts concluded that Indigenous health was not a high priority for these newspapers.

Australian health writer, Melissa Sweet, conducted a series of interviews on the topic of media coverage of Aboriginal health in March 2009. Simon Holding, senior researcher in the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, said the coverage tended to deal in stereotypes and unrelentingly negative. "There are so few stories on Aboriginal health that they don't rate as a major category."

Former television journalist, Jeff McMullen was equally unimpressed with the media's performance. "The truth is that the media is conveying a sense of hopelessness and despair that feeds the trauma, the general mental illness and the sense of powerlessness amongst the most disadvantaged people" (Sweet, 2009). McMullen thinks there are real problems in the reporting of Aboriginal health because many journalists and news editors are ignorant of Indigenous history and culture.

Tamara Mackean, president of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association (AIDA), describes the media's portrayal of Aboriginal people as perpetuating a discourse of "total negative deficit" and argues that Aboriginal people are hesitant to talk to the media because they see journalists portraying them as always fighting and lacking leadership. Mackean, offers a solution: "I would get small group of journalists together and get them to listen to the people, to hear Aboriginal peoples' concerns and how they are being portrayed (Sweet, 2009).

Theory of situated learning

Resnick (1987) pre-empted the notion of situated learning by proposing that 'bridging apprenticeships' be designed to link the theoretical learning in formal classroom instructions to real-life application of the knowledge in the work environment. The theory of situated learning (or situated cognition) was first described by Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) and developed out of observing successful learning situations by the researchers. They wanted to find examples of effective learning in any context or culture, and analyse the key features of such models. They found six common critical factors in all the successful models: apprenticeship, collaboration, reflection, coaching, multiple practice and articulation.

The key point for Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) is that meaningful learning will only take place if it is embedded in the social and physical context within which it will be used. Formal learning is often quite distinct from authentic activity, or 'the ordinary practices of the culture' (Brown et al, 1989, p. 34). Many of the activities undertaken by students are unrelated to those performed by practitioners. A means of achieving authenticity, they proposed, was the model of cognitive apprenticeships, a method designed to "enculturate" students into authentic practices through activities and social interaction based on the traditional apprenticeship model (Brown et al, 1989, p. 37). A critical aspect is the notion of the apprentice observing the 'community of practice'. Indeed, situated learning theory provides a pedagogical rationale for this journalism placement because of its focus on learning through observing Aboriginal communities/practices in their own environment and using this new knowledge to inform content.

Lave and Wenger (1991) proposed that participation in a culture of practice can initially be observation from the boundary or 'legitimate peripheral participation'. As learning and involvement in the culture increases, the participant moves from the role of observer to a fully functioning agent. Legitimate peripheral participation enables the learner to progressively piece together the culture of the group and what it means to be a member. "To be able to participate in a legitimately peripheral way entails that newcomers have broad access to arenas of mature practice" (p. 110). This was to an extent confirmed by feedback from the journalism students after their one-month placement. Their heightened awareness about Aboriginal culture gained from the placement complemented the conceptual and theoretical knowledge acquired in journalism lectures and tutorials. During the placement, the students were allowed to observe and experience the complexities of the life and problems that Aboriginal communities face in Western Australia. While the scope of the student placement was too limited to fully test the theory of situated learning, it provides a basis for a longitudinal study of similar journalism placements.

There are some difficulties when one attempts to construct learning environments that employ the principles and elements described by proponents of situated learning theories. The literature reveals a number of case studies, and some research, that support the situated learning approach as a successful model of instruction and learning: Griffin (1995); Bransford, Sherwood, Hasselbring, Kinzer, and Williams, (1990); Bransford, Vye, Kinzer and Risko, (1990); Young, (1993). Critics of the theory, however, argue that situated learning requires learners to be exposed to 'masters' or experts in the practice of their trade and therefore it cannot be, by its very definition, transferred to the classroom (Tripp, 1993; Wineburg, 1989).

In terms of a global context, situated learning has always been a central component for particular professional student placements, most notably those designed for medical students. Meanwhile, journalism educators in Australian universities are continuing to design journalism programs with situated learning as a key requirement and outcome, even though it is a struggle to provide all journalism students with placement opportunities. This is mainly due to large student numbers and fewer media outlets that allow such placements.

Closely linked to the theory of situated learning, is the 'theory of authentic learning' which has a strong focus on problem-based learning. This has been used by many vocation-oriented journalism programs. By definition, the term 'authentic learning' means learning that uses real-world problems and projects, and that allow students to explore and discuss these problems. This approach differs from the traditional 'lecture' where teachers impart knowledge, which the students often have to memorise.

Research design: Case study

This paper uses a descriptive and exploratory case study to detail what ECU journalism students did and what they said they had learnt from their one-month stay with Aboriginal communities in two Western Australian towns. The qualitative data were gathered from written reports by the eight students which is admittedly a small sample. This will, however, increase as the projects develops, and eventually the plan is to send up to 16 journalism students each year to the Pilbara - eight in January and eight in July. There was only one open-ended question - what did you learn from the placement? An assessment of whether the students had improved their writing on Aboriginal issues during the placement was not part of this study because the students had never written a news story or feature article on such topics before the placement. They, however, were encouraged to publish in local newspapers. The student feedback shows that most students succeeded in this.

The placements in Port Hedland and Geraldton in July 2008 were organised and financed by CUCRH, which is part of a national network of university departments of rural health funded by the Commonwealth_ Department of Health and Ageing. CUCRH is managed by a consortium that includes Curtin University of Technology, Edith Cowan University and University of Western Australia. They financed the flights, accommodation and students' living allowance. At each location there was a CUCRH staff member who acted as a guide and mentor. The placements were broken into two parts: first, an induction into the history, culture and tradition of the Aboriginal people in the region where the students worked and a visit to several Aboriginal committees (accompanied by CUCRH staff). Second, a focus on the journalistic process where students researched, interviewed and wrote their articles.

Two journalism students were placed in Geraldton (450 km north of Perth) in July 2008. First, they completed an introductory workshop at the Geraldton Regional Aboriginal Medical Service (GRAMS). Then they attended Wajarri language classes at the Irra Wangga Language Centre. They ended their induction with a media forum that included representatives from local media and Aboriginal organisations. In the second part of the placement, the students investigated issues specifically related to health in the local Aboriginal community and wrote articles for the local and Indigenous media outlets such as the Geraldton Guardian, the Yamaji News and WA Today on The West Australian website. The students covered various events surrounding NAIDOC week, which celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait people.

CUCRH hosted six students for a one-month placement in Port Hedland, 1600 km north of Perth and the largest town in the Pilbara region. First, the students participated in a cultural awareness workshop run by the Wangka Maya Language Centre and were mentored by a senior Thalanji Aboriginal woman. Accompanied visits were organised to Warralong a remote Aboriginal community, and to Roebourne, Karratha and Onslow. Students met various Indigenous organisations and were invited to participate in activities organised by Indigenous organisations such as the NAIDOC ball. The students worked with a journalist from the NorthWest Telegraph on a number of health related stories. The main project for the month was called 'The Health Heroes of the Pilbara'. Students were given a range of contacts and generated human interest stories with a health theme. They were encouraged to submit their articles to local and indigenous media outlets including the North West Telegraph, The West Australian, the Yamaji News, the Pilbara News and the Koori Mail. Two of the students attended a radio workshop, edited community service announcements and conducted a weekly radio program under the supervision of the station manager.

Feedback from the students

At the end of the professional placement, the students were asked to submit reports of what they had learnt from the placement. This section is divided into two parts. First, what the students learnt about Aboriginal culture and secondly, what they wrote about it.

Understanding Aboriginal culture

Practical outcomes (published articles)

Negative comments

While the majority of student comments stressed the placement provided a positive learning experience, there were some problems in adapting to a new physical and cultural environment. Here are some of the comments.


There were no great expectations about this project other than to expand the knowledge of Aboriginal culture and issues among third year journalism students so that, as future journalists, they might consider writing on Aboriginal issues, and that they would be armed with more knowledge than they had received in the classroom. A key finding from the sample of student reports was that the one-month journalism placement created greater awareness among the students about Aboriginal culture, about themselves and about their approach to writing articles on Aboriginal issues. The Aboriginal elders and people who gave their time to the students should be thanked for there was no gain for them in the short term.

It was difficult to assess whether there had been an improvement with the students' writing on Aboriginal issues because none of them had ever written a news story or feature article on such topics before the placement. The fact that they had many news stories published while in Geraldton and Port Hedland was a positive outcome. It is highly unlikely that this would have happened if the students had just relied on lecture and tutorial notes on reporting Aboriginal issues or if they had applied for a placement in a Perth newsroom. Two of the students now work as full-time reporters on the Geraldton Guardian and the Pilbara News.

Positive feedback from the ECU journalism students and the staff at GRAMS and CUCRH has resulted in the allocation of eight more journalism placements in Geraldton and Port Hedland in July 2010. This project is still at an early stage and can only really provide a description with limited feedback. The next case study on the 2010 placement will involve the use of a questionnaire that seeks more precise and detailed responses from students and staff, together with a wider range of views that include Aboriginal elders and health workers to determine the impact of the student placement and publications. A question about student expectations will also be included, and the list of negative responses from the students will be used as recommendations in future cultural training sessions. If the placement continues beyond 2010, then it will be possible to construct a longitudinal study to evaluate how worthwhile and viable such a placement is for all the stakeholders.

Another aspect is that a placement like this allows the students to experience the ordinariness of Indigenous people, rather than always encountering/representing Indigeneity as an 'issue'. An appreciation of the mundane aspects to Aboriginality may be what is necessary for achieving fairness and accuracy in news reporting on Indigenous people. Also, it would help if journalism educators were more exposed to the 'ordinariness' of Indigenity and Aboriginal communities in general. The lack of engagement and experience of Aborginal communities among many journalism educators inevitably influences the content and effective teaching of reporting Aboriginal affairs.

The placement allowed the journalism students to join an existing program set up for nurses to work in remote Western Australia. But this placement with its emphasis on acquiring a broader knowledge from being "out in the field" could have wider implications and challenge to journalism course coordinators in other universities, especially the possibility of offering different kinds of journalism placements? Apart from working in Aboriginal communities, there are other placements that move beyond the traditional newsroom placement for journalism students. These might involve asking the students to work alongside other professionals such as social workers, doctors, teachers, local politicians as a way to better understand the complex environment and related problems. Other possibilities are assigning students to job centres, drug rehabilitation clinics or emergency wards. Such close-up experiences would benefit future health, social, police and political reporters, especially learning in an authentic environment and providing a real context to understand complex human issues. These are ideas to ponder rather than a call for a drastic overhaul of journalism placements in Australian universities. There is an ongoing debate about the type and value of journalism placements (Furlan, 2007 p. 127). This placement adds some data and another perspective to the debate.


Brown, J. S., Collins, A. and Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 32-42.

Bransford, J. D., Sherwood, R. D., Hasselbring, T. S., Kinzer, C. K. & Williams, S. M. (1990). Anchored instruction: Why we need it and how technology can help. In D. Nix and R. Spiro (Eds.), Cognition, education and multimedia: Exploring ideas in high technology. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum,

Bransford, J. D., Vye, N., Kinzer, C. and Risko, V. (1990). Teaching thinking and content knowledge: Toward an integrated approach. In B.F. Jones and L. Idol (Eds.), Dimensions of thinking and cognitive instruction, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Furlan, P. (2007). Journalism Education and experiential learning. Australian Journalism Review, 29(2), 123-130.

Hartley, J, & A. McKee (2000). The indigenous sphere: The reporting and reception of indigenous issues in the Australian media, 1944-1997. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Griffin, M. (1995). You can't get there from here: Situated learning, transfer and map skills. Contemporary Educational Psychology, Vol. 20, pp. 65-87.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Meadows, M., Hippocrates, C. and Van Vuuren, K. (1997). Targeting the Media: Comparing Print and Television News Coverage of Indigenous Affairs. Australian Journalism Review, 19(2), 73-87.

Meadows, M. (2001). Voices in the wilderness: Images of Aboriginal people in the Australian media. Westport, Greenwood Press.

Meadows, M. (2005). Journalism and indigenous public spheres. Pacific Journalism Review, 11(1), 36-41.

Resnick, L. (1987). Learning in school and out. Educational Researcher, Vol. 16, No. 9, pp. 13-20.

Roberts, J. (2007). Analysis of the representation of indigenous Australians in mainstream print media: An exploration centred on the social determinants of health. Melbourne: La Trobe University.

Sweet, M. (2009). Is the media part of the Aboriginal health problem, and part of the solution? Retrieved from http://inside.org.au/part-of-the-aboriginal-health- problem/ on 2 May 2009.

Thompson, S. C., Green, S. K., Stirling, J. E. and James, R. (2007). An analysis of reporting of sexually transmissible infections in Indigenous Australians in mainstream Australian newspapers. Sexual Health, 4:9-16.

Tripp, S. D. (1993). Theories, traditions and situated learning. Educational Technology, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 71-77.

Wineburg, S. S. (1989). Remembrance of theories past. Educational Researcher, Vol. 18, No. 5, pp. 7-10.

Young, M. F. (1993). Instructional design for situated learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 43-58.

Please cite as: Cullen, T. (2011). The value of practical placements: What student journalists learnt while working with Aboriginal communities. In Developing student skills for the next decade. Proceedings of the 20th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2011. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2011/refereed/cullen.html

Copyright 2011 Trevor Cullen. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format, provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

[PDF version] [Refereed papers] [Contents - All Presentations] [Home Page]
This URL: http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2011/refereed/cullen.html
Created 22 Jan 2011. Last revision: 22 Jan 2011.