Journalist's one word about Voice proposal sparks uproar

Channel 9 viewers were less than impressed after the segment aired this week, but not everyone agrees. Find out why.

A single word from a Channel 9 news report has sparked backlash from supporters of the Voice to Parliament, who have labelled it “disgraceful” and “despicable”.

Newsreader Amber Sherlock was introducing a segment on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s recent trip to Adelaide where he presented a speech on the Voice – but it was a single word in her introduction that caused some viewers to react.

Sherlock began the story with the words: “The divisive Voice to Parliament…” with the word ‘divisive’ coming under heavy criticism.

9 News reader Amber Sherlock sits behind the news desk wearing a blue blazer.
Amber Sherlock came under fire for using the word 'divisive' to describe the Voice to Parliament. Source: 9News

“So Channel 9 are now officially referring to The Voice as “The Divisive Voice To Parliament” in their news reports? Just disgraceful,” one viewer wrote alongside the clip on Twitter.

Others labelled it “despicable”, while some claimed it showed bias. But not everyone agreed with the backlash, with a flurry of responses saying a referendum, by nature, is divisive.

What is the Voice to Parliament?

The proposed changes to the constitution would involve a new advisory body composed of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people called the Voice to Parliament. The group would advise the government on the issues that affect them and their communities, with an aim to improve the lives of Indigenous people.

Experts divided over use of 'trigger' language

While supporters of the Voice would likely interpret Sherlock’s introduction differently to those against it, one media expert believes the choice of language is intentional and harmful.

“I think the use of this word is intentional and consistent with a style of media commentary that plays to worst kind of emotive, irrational fears in audiences,” Associate Professor Tim Dwyer from the University of Sydney told Yahoo News Australia.

"It reminds me of Stan Grant’s recent comments about how the media are actually a part of the racism problem in Australia, which he sadly has been on the receiving end of at the ABC… it demonstrates that certain news organisations lack an ethics of care and set out to sow division and create conflict, usually for profit via clicks or eyeballs."

He added the language can “emotively pre-judge” the process and fuel division.

“Well, it’s a trigger word isn’t it? It says to media audiences ‘the Voice is divisive’ and that’s code for ‘a problem’, even before any further analysis or commentary is presented. It’s saying, ‘Hey you, this Voice referendum is a problem so be very careful when you vote’.”

On the flip side, Jane Stephens, columnist and coordinator of the journalism program at the University of the Sunshine Coast, believes Sherlock's choice of word was “absolutely acceptable”.

A graphic showing a map of Australia, and the Yes or No vote for the Voice to Parliament in each state.
A graphic showing a map of Australia, and the Yes or No vote for the Voice to Parliament in each state.

“Using the word ‘divisive’ is not, of itself, biased. By its nature, a referendum question is divisive, because there should be myriad opinions, given it is about something so important it could bring about a change to our constitution. In order to have rigorous debate, there must be sometimes-diametrically opposing opinion,” she told Yahoo.

“In this case, the journalist appears to have felt that the divisions caused by the referendum question was worthy of inclusion. Weighing up what to include is their call. I don’t imagine they could have foreseen that including this ‘fact’ was particularly inflammatory.”

The 'Yes' vs 'No' debate

Those voting in favour of the Voice say they believe the laws could:

  • Give First Nations people a route to help inform policy and legal decisions that impact them.

  • Be a big step in closing the gap.

  • Create a stronger sense of unity between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians.

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would finally be mentioned in the Constitution via the Voice, which cannot be shut down by future governments.

Arguments from those voting against it include:

  • That many First Nations people have lived through the formation, corruption and dissolution of other Indigenous bodies and have lost faith in the system.

  • That the group can only provide advice, which may be ignored and not taken on board, leading some to fear the Voice is only a symbolic gesture.

  • The constitution is a colonial document and they don’t want to be a part of it.

  • That they would prefer seats in the senate for Indigenous representatives.

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