Pacific islands grouped as monolith in international coverage

With nearly 2.3 million Pacific islanders in the world, spread over 15% of the earth’s surface, there are at least hundreds of islands with people of Oceanic backgrounds — but we never see them. Pacific islanders, or people with connections to islands in Oceania, remain largely invisible and behind the scenes in the media.

Pacific island journalists said that national outlets with international ties tend to portray the region as one monolith. When advocating about climate change, the journalists said that grouping the islands as a single entity makes sense. Otherwise, media outlets need to spend more time training journalists living in the Pacific to write about the region, journalists said.

“I don’t tend to see the Pacific region as separate from Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia because they’re the Pacific,” said Bernadette Carreon, a Palau-based journalist raised in the Philippines. “They would have the same issues like climate change. It’s what you call the Pacific way. It’s always about unity.”

There’s strength in numbers when Pacific islands talk to each other, Carreon said. In the case of the Paris Agreement, the three regions of the Pacific banded together to address a global issue that caused them disproportionate harm: climate change.

“When it comes to the world stage, you have to have one powerful voice,” Carreon said.

But COVID-19 has taught people that the development of journalists starts from home, in front of a computer screen.

“I always believe in capacity building and training of local journalists,” Carreron said. “Most countries in the Pacific don’t have universities and big learning institutions to teach journalists. From the outside world, they could help in the development of local journalists on the ground who understand what’s going on.”

For Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson, a journalist from Samoa who writes about her home, the profession attracted her since she hardly read about her island in national newspapers.

“There are common issues across the society that we face – isolation, the diversity of approaches, the language barriers that when the media covers the Pacific as this one region, I personally do not see it as a problem,” Jackson said. “It’s when the issues, for instance like health, financial or economic issues, are covered with the broad stroke of the Pacific that it becomes a problem because there are nuances within the subregion that differ.”

In the West, Jackson has noticed that publications refer to the Pacific in stereotypical terms, especially when they compare the developing economies of one island to another. “When one says that the Pacific economies are struggling, you are referring to a diverse range of economic sizes,” she said. ‘There tends to be this broad stroke of they’re all having problems. They’re all poor. They’re all trying to survive.”

For instance, Jackson said that a person can’t compare the economies of two Pacific islands. The economy of Papua New Guinea, which falls under Melanesia, vastly differs from that of Tonga in Polynesia. Yet media outlets refer to both regions as part of the Pacific. 

As a Pacific islander, Jackson said broad strokes painting her islands in stereotypical ways don’t offend her. “I don’t need affirmation from an international media outlet to know who I am,” she said.

But as a journalist, Jackson said she considers a work unprofessional if a reporter fails to study the nuances of a region, and quickly dives into topics like climate change.

As a Reuters Fellow at the University of Oxford, Jackson studied the coverage of climate change reporting. Her research found that international media outlets lacked interest from editors, newsrooms and decision makers to include tiny islands. There’s the logistical problem of sending reporters to each island, then there’s the notion that Pacific concerns stir less controversy than war-torn or developed countries, Jackson said.

“In Singapore, you will see that a lot of the coverage that may include the Pacific, which comes under Asia on the beat, tends to not include the Pacific,” Jackson said.

Still, recent years have seen journalism progress on the Pacific front. In the past five years, media outlets such as The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The New York Times have placed desks in the region.

“But they’ll hire a New Zealander or Australian to cover a Pacific island issue,” Jackson said. “So even though there’s an attempt to cover an island, there’s still a very Western approach to it, and they’ll still pick the big country that’s not an island.”