In August of this year, an Indigenous boy, Elijah Doughty died in Kalgoorlie. He was 14 years old and was allegedly run down by a car whilst riding a motorbike that had been reported as stolen the day prior. A crowd gathered outside Kalgoorlie court house during the proceedings of the 55- year-old man charged in relation to Elijah’s death, which have subsequently been described as the Kalgoorlie Riots. Many Indigenous members of the Kalgoorlie community were outraged that the man was charged with manslaughter instead of murder, seeing it as another example in which an Indigenous life isn’t treated as valuably as that of a non-Indigenous person. The suicide of a 34 year-old woman who was a relative of Elijah, on the site where he was killed, further reveals the complexity of this issue.
This article will analyse how media outlets framed the protests that erupted outside the Kalgoorlie Magistrate Court following the 55 year-old’s charge of manslaughter. It will do so by focusing on the number of police, government and expert sources used compared to Indigenous sources used as well as the characterisation of those involved in the protests, as criminal or not. Furthermore, an analysis of the way each article chose to frame the issue as either episodic or thematic, will reveal how in the majority of articles, the protests were largely delegitimised. Elmasry defines episodic framing as where the issue is restricted to and narrowly focused on specific events, and thematic framing as where the issue is ingrained in a more general contextualisation (2016, p. 6). This becomes relevant in consideration that of the articles framed through an episodic lens, the protests were characterised as “explosive” (McNeill), “ugly riots” (Butler et. al) and “angry” (Piotrowski), compared to the longer form articles which used thematic framing, which generally characterised the protests as a “black man’s uprising” (Graham) and a riot that “began as a peaceful protest” (Wahlquist).
In her 2008 study, Owens suggest that white sources, particularly expert sources are pervasively used in news articles and that non-white sources are rarely used. This is all the more pertinent in consideration of the media coverage of a racially-charged protest, such as the Kalgoorlie Riots. This is exemplified in the West Australian article ‘Windows smashed at Kalgoorlie court as boy’s death stokes racial tensions’, by Tim Clarke, Tayissa Sweetlove and Dylan Caporn. The article directly quotes the Western Australia Police Acting Commander, the City Chief Executive, the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder Acting Mayor and the police via a statement. The only use of a direct quotation from those who participated in the protests is via one of their placards which is quoted as reading “All lives matter. Save our kids, Australia against racism”. This impersonalised characterisation of the protestors, although portraying their intentions as noble and in a positive light, to some degree operates to delegitimise and dehumanise the protest. Identical sources were included in the SBS article, ‘Violent protests interrupted proceedings at Kalgoorlie Courthouse on Tuesday following the death of 14-year-old Indigenous boy’. Interestingly, the ABC article ‘Elijah Doughty death: Seven people charged in aftermath of Kalgoorlie riots’ by Nicholas Perpitch and Courtney Bembridge quotes an equal amount of Indigenous sources to non-Indigenous sources. However, all the sources, including the Police Minister, WA Premier, Attorney-General, Elijah Doughty’s aunt Donna Schultz, cousin Preston Colbon and Indigenous elder Mingli Wanjurri McGlade are all condemning the violence. The only difference is the latter 3, being the Indigenous sources, are also mourning the loss of Elijah’s life and are quoted in reference to the peaceful protest in memory of his life in Perth, rather than the protests in Kalgoorlie.
Law and Order
The lack of direct quotation attributed to those who were involved in the protest, namely the Indigenous participants, reveals how expert opinion on the protests was more highly valued than non-expert opinions, as were Indigenous sources that agreed with the experts. This to some degree reveals a value judgment on behalf of the authors, who delegitimized the protests to such an extent that there was no direct attempt to provide those involved with an attempt to explain their reasons for the protests and the subsequent violence used. Furthermore, Elmasry, in a 2016 study of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests in the United States after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, found that an increase in protestor quotes generally decreases the negative framing of the protest (2016, p. 8). This is very much the case in the abovementioned articles, all of which frame the protests in a negative light and fail to directly quote a protestor who was involved.
In consideration of how the protests were delegitimised through the media coverage, it becomes important to analyse the language used to describe those who participated in the protest. The continued use of active language to describe the actions of the demonstrators, operates to heighten the sense of aggression, as well as to downplay any justification there may have been for the violence used. This is seen in the article ‘Kalgoorlie riot: City tense after day of riots, mourning Elijah Doughty, 14’, by Joel Kelly and Phil Hickey published in Perth Now. The use of active language in, “Aboriginal youths smashing windows of police cars and jumping on car roofs, damaging shops,” frames the participants as aggressive, with no possible justification for their actions. This is similarly seen in the Daily Mail article ‘Smoking pot, skipping school and kicking goals on the footy field: The life of troubled but talented Aboriginal teen Elijah Doughty – whose suspicious death sparked the Kalgoorlie race riots’ by Daniel Piotrowski, in the description of “demonstrators pelting police with rocks and smashing a court window.” Ultimately, the continual use of active language operates to condemn the protests.
Furthermore, the majority of articles framed the protests as an issue of law and order, in which the police response to the protests became more important than the reasons for why the protest came about. This is seen in Kelly and Hickey’s article: ‘Extra police will remain on patrol in the Goldfields mining town until tensions simmer down.” The article also refers to role of alcohol in fuelling the protests, impacting on the police’s ability to remain in control, commenting that “liquor restrictions have been lifted, however they will be reviewed immediately if seen to be a contributor to anti-social behaviour.” This exemplifies the article’s focus on the authorities’ response to the riots, as opposed to the riots themselves. This focus on law and order is similarly seen in Clarke, Sweetlove and Caporn’s article: “In a statement released this afternoon, police said they would maintain a strong visible presence in the community”. The authors, like Kelly and Hickey, also point to the role that alcohol might have played, commenting, “Extra police have been sent to Kalgoorlie tonight and there is a ban on the sale of takeaway alcohol in the city as police attempt to regain control.” Furthermore, the headline of the ABC article written by Perpitch and Bembridge, reads “Elijah Doughty death: Seven people charged in aftermath of Kalgoorlie riots,” indicates that the criminality of the protest was the most important thing about it as it appears in the headline. The first paragraph, reading “Seven males aged from 15 to 25 have been charged after the riot outside Kalgoorlie courthouse on Tuesday, where people were seeking to attend the hearing for a 55-year-old man charged with unlawfully killing the teenager,” also makes no reference to the reason why the participants gathered outside of the courthouse in protest. This analysis connects with the findings of Dardis in a study of the 2002 anti-Iraq war protests (2006). Dardis found that the most negative articles were those that framed the protests as lawless and described police confrontations with protestors, relying heavily on official sources and framed the protestors as idiots (2006), which is essentially the case in the majority of the objective style reporting on the Kalgoorlie Riots.
Conversely, I will now turn to an analysis of the articles that framed the issue as thematic, as opposed to the episodic articles discussed above. These articles fell into two categories; those which framed the issue as Kalgoorlie crime problem, and those that investigated the systematic charging of white people who kill Indigenous people with manslaughter instead of murder.
The Sydney Morning Herald article ‘Slow-boiling rage finally ‘bubbled to surface’ in Kalgoorlie: council’ by Emma Young, justified the protests as symptomatic of the low level criminality that exists in Kalgoorlie –
“The council had organised a community group to work with police once a month on ways to tackle anti-social behaviour and coordinated state government representatives to work with the indigenous community on service integration…
…Commander Gaunt said it was “no secret” that crime committed by juveniles was the number one justice issue in the community.”
Referring to a string of car vandalism offences in the days after the riots, the author also makes the comment “it is not intended to suggest these incidents are linked; only to paint a portrait of the mood in Kalgoorlie.” This is somewhat of a strange assertion to make, considering the article’s focus on crime in Kalgoorlie in conjunction with the riots. She also makes the following comment –
“Increasing outrage at petty crime, mostly property-related, has led to one closed Facebook page with more than 17,000 members encouraging people to “name and shame” offenders.”
The above factual statement, asserting a causative relationship between petty crime and community outrage, was placed very early on in the article. This is interesting as seemingly the author incorporated it to justify the protestors anger during the riots as having “bubbled to the surface” due to low-level crime and theft that exists in Kalgoorlie. This longer, thematic objective style of reporting, despite evidencing none of the author’s own opinion, is implicitly linking the Kalgoorlie riots to existing crime levels that have plagued Kalgoorlie for quite some years, and does so mainly by using police and other official sources.
Conversely, the Guardian article, ‘Tell the world we want justice. Elijah Doughty’s death exposes Kalgoorlie’s racial faultline’, by Calla Wahlquist, is one of very few articles that points to racial inequality as a reason for the Kalgoorlie Riots. The following paragraph highlights Wahlquist’s belief that racial inequality in the past, leading to lesser or nonexistent charges when an Australian Indigenous person is killed, to some extent operates to justify the protests –
“The riot began as a peaceful protest. About 200 Indigenous people gathered outside the courthouse in Hannan Street, the main street of Kalgoorlie, to rally for justice for Elijah. (On the same street, in 2007, Elijah’s aunt, Blanch Ursula Smith, 25, was killed in a hit-and-run. The crash was caught on CCTV but no one was charged.)”
Similarly, the absence of the protestors as either agents or subjects in the following sentences, again indicates Wahlquist’s belief that the protestors should not be blamed or vindicated for the riots. In fact there is no reference to the protestors at all in relation to the damage caused, and if anything the following indirect quotation of Elijah’s grandfather implicitly indicates that the court guards should be held responsible for not allowing people inside the Magistrate Court –
“Doughty said the trouble started when the court guards decided to lock the front door.”
“Windows at the entry to the courthouse, which is tucked away in a courtyard, are evidence of what happened next. Two were smashed through with thrown half-bricks, others are flecked with gravel chips. Upstairs, a window in the jury room was smashed by a rock thrown from the street.”
The author then provided a variety of examples where the killing of an Australian Indigenous person by a white person, resulted in a charge of manslaughter not murder. For example –
“In Alice Springs, across state lines in the Northern Territory, another five men – not police – were convicted of manslaughter in 2010 for running over Aboriginal man Kwementyay Ryder in the dry bed of the Todd River, in what the court found was a racially motivated crime, and sentenced to between five and six years’ jail each.”
By pointing to other examples where an Indigenous person was killed in a hit-and-run, similar to how Elijah Doughty and his aunt were killed, the author is justifying the community’s outrage and demand for justice for Elijah, and an appropriate charge and sentence for his killer. She also points to the opinion of some members of the white community in Kalgoorlie who believe that race is not a relevant consideration in the justice system, an opinion which she disproves with fact –
“This was a story about the justice system, not race, they said. They also believed police were “afraid” to charge Indigenous kids, a belief not borne out by statistics: Indigenous children in Western Australia are 53 times more likely to be in detention than non-Indigenous kids, the highest rate of racialized imprisonment in the western world.”
Similarly, Wahlquist’s incorporation of a quote by Kalgoorlie’s acting police commander, in which he indicates that Elijah might not have stolen the motorbike he was riding when he was killed, highlights the author’s belief that Australian Indigenous people fall victim to the criminal justice system due to their race. It is one of very few quotes from official sources in the article, again reinforcing the author’s opinion regarding the credibility and legitimacy of the protests. This is given more weight in a consideration that it perceives Elijah in a positive light –
“Kalgoorlie’s acting police commander, Darryl Gaunt, told the media that the bike Elijah was riding had been reported stolen the night before his death, though it’s not clear where Elijah got it. According to his friends he had been handed it in the reserve.”
Furthermore, Wahlquist’s vivid description of the way Elijah was killed operates in favour of her central, underlying argument, that his killer should be charged with murder rather than manslaughter. This is seen in “the same man allegedly drove his four-wheel-drive Nissan Navara utility into the reserve after the motorbike and struck it from behind some time before 8.55am, dragging Elijah under the car.” In this regard, the author is framing the Kalgoorlie Riots as an uprising against racial injustice, as opposed to a violent protest that got out of hand. Her extensive quoting of Indigenous sources and restrained use of expert, non-Indigenous sources, is further evidence as to this.
Ultimately, the majority of the media coverage on the Kalgoorlie Riots painted the protestors as violent and unrestrained, who had no real justification for the protests, nor the violence used. Furthermore, many articles framed the riots through the lens of law and order, pointing to the high levels of crime in Kalgoorlie as playing a causative role in the riots. Despite this, there was a very small portion of the media that framed the riots as the outcome of proportionate outrage due to the systematic disadvantage of Australian Indigenous people under the current criminal justice.