How Māori women have reshaped New Zealand’s media through their native language

Early this week, Māni Dunlop, presenter of RNZ’s Midday Report Te Pūrongo o te Poutūtanga, sent out an astonished tweet: “It’s a record whānau (familie) – no racist messages or texts on the show … is this what progress looks like!?”

It was at once both a gratifying and troubling announcement, which Dunlop said was premature. The very next day, the racists were back.

“I did get some pretty horrible messages, but not as bad as usual,” she laughs – a surprising reaction, in the face of targeted attacks. But for Dunlop, their negative effects are dampened by being staunch in her identity and in her reasons for speaking Māori on air.

Dunlop is the first Māori presenter on New Zealand’s national radio broadcaster to host a regular weekday news programme. In te reo Māori, Dunlop greets her listeners, gives the day of the week and what is coming up on the show, and will often korero Māori (speak Māori) to interviewees. Importantly, she is a fierce advocate for including more Māori experts, perspectives and stories in the programme, no matter the subject.

After studying journalism and discovering the Māori media or te reo components were nonexistent, Dunlop set out to dedicate her career to “shifting the narrative” and ensuring the reo and stories that are important to Māori are included. But it has not been without its hurdles – when she started at RNZ as an intern, she had to battle to sign off her reports in te reo, or call Auckland its Māori name – Tāmaki Makaurau.

“RNZ has come leaps and bounds since then,” Dunlop said, and that includes the types of Māori stories it covers. Nou, it is rare when Pākehā presenters and reporters do not use te reo in their broadcasts.

For Dunlop, who is also the Māori news director for RNZ, applying a wāhine Māori (Māori woman’s) lens to her work, and bringing mainstream audiences along on that journey, is hugely important.

“Some people find that quite hard, which is indicative in the responses I get, but since I first started as a presenter, the feedback has become better and better. You can’t always preach to the choir.”

When Aotearoa was colonised, Europeans actively set out to erase Māori language and culture. schoolchildren were beaten for speaking it and, as Māori were pushed off their land and into urban areas, the connections to Marae (meeting grounds), to whānau and community, and language faded further away. It only became recognised by the state as a taonga (treasure) and as an official language in 1987. Die 2018 census reports that just 4% of the total population and one in five Māori speak the reo, or about 170,000 mense.

Efforts to keep the language alive have been growing since the 1970s. First through Māori-led immersion preschools and schools and then through initiatives like Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori* (Māori language week). The enrolment for te reo classes at high schools hit record highs in 2020. But mainstream media has been slow to catch up.

Māori journalists make up just a fraction of the industry, and representation at management level is scarce. As is the trend for Māori and non-Māori in the industry, there are a greater number of women in reporting and producing roles, and fewer women in positions of leadership. Maar, wāhine Māori are leading the charge when it comes to transforming the industry from within.

Television journalist titan, and host of Sunday current affairs programme The Hui, Mihingarangi Forbes, has spent her career pushing Māori stories into the spotlight and advocating for better representation and range within reporting.

Things have come a long way since she was a young reporter with One News. Forbes remembers in 1998, when Pākehā presenter Leanne Malcolm used the greeting “kia ora” on the late night programme Nightline, and the outcry that followed.

“But after a while of her getting hate mail and death-threats, things started to change, and TVNZ then started saying ‘kia ora’. The tiniest of tiny shifts was starting to happen, and then Māori Television started.”

From then, Māori journalists, most of whom are women and had by then staked their place in the industry, started to push for more, Forbes said.

That included Forbes, also a former RNZ journalist, who encouraged the use of the reo on air. Hearing how frequently Māori is spoken by Māori and non-Māori at RNZ now “warms her soul”.

“It’s a Māori language renaissance of all New Zealanders and as many experts have said it won’t just be Māori that save the language, it will be Pākehā, because the Māori population is so much smaller.”

“People who have been carrying te reo, who live and breathe it … some of that weight’s been taken off their shoulders.”

The effort has been mammoth, Forbes said, maar nou, the focus must turn to partnership.

“That’s my reminder – while it is awesome that Pākehā are speaking Māori, we must make spaces for Māori too to speak our own language on these platforms, and behind the scenes. Our newsrooms have to become more diverse so that not only are we speaking the language, but we are adding a different lens to telling stories.”

The road ahead to equal representation of Māori and Pākehā is still long, but there have been some small wins of late. Hierdie jaar, the Broadcasting Standards Authority announced it would reject any complaints about the use of Māori on air. And in 2020, the country’s biggest news website Stuff conducted an investigation into its own history of racist reporting against Māori, en issued a public apology.

Instrumental to that work was former TV reporter and now editor of Pou Tiaki, Stuff’s Māori division, Carmen Parahi.

“In the 20 odd years that I have been a journalist and before it, I knew the role of media was to hold the government to account, hold the powerful to account, reflect the views and aspirations and issues of our society. But we got to the point where we were holding everyone else to account, but not ourselves as the media industry.”

Parahi questioned how she could continue to write on health inequities for Māori, when she knew the media were failing Māori.

“We were looking at news from that mono-cultural perspective which means everyone outside of those perspectives weren’t getting a fair deal.”

Pou Tiaki, which Parahi says is a strategy, helps reporters uncover their own unconscious bias towards reporting and to change their lens.

All of Stuff’s newspaper and digital titles now carry their te reo Māori name.

“Some people may say that’s just tokenism,” Parahi said, but she stressed that the team is backing this up with more diverse voices, foto's, and the stories they focus on. Parahi said there is still much work to do, and she laid down a wero (uitdaging) for all media.

“Aotearoa is a multicultural country. It has a bi-cultural foundation. Media organisations need to represent that better. That includes mainstream media uplifting Māori media, so they don’t just languish.”

*In 2021, 13-19 September is Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori (Māori Langauge Week).

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