New research into the way Australian philanthropists are portrayed as ethical leaders in the national media has found that the portrayal reinforces social and economic inequality.
Researchers Helena Liu and Christopher Baker, from the Faculty of Business and Enterprise at Swinburne University of Technology, investigated how philanthropy has come to be constructed as an expression of leadership ethics through print media.
“We examined how 408 articles and 333 visual portraits in print media ‘constructed’ 18 high-profile Australian philanthropists across 16 major national and state/territory publications,” the researchers said.
“We found that the media portrayal of philanthropists as exemplary, ethical leaders is achieved through their representation via three seemingly paradoxical identities: Aristocratic Battlers; Caring Controllers; and Publicity-Shy Celebrities.”
“In other words, the ethical portrayals of the philanthropists emerge through their representation as cultured and refined yet identifiable with the ‘average’ working class; influential and interventionist yet entirely concerned with the social good; and illustrious and renowned yet humbly evading the limelight.
“We have concluded that these media representations are mediated by Australian cultural norms and serve to conceal yet ultimately reinforce social and economic inequality,” they said.
“There is definitely a place for such chronicling and celebration. However, we would argue that it is not sufficient on its own. There needs to be a balancing of the scales.”
“We found that there is the assumption in the media that if a philanthropist is highly successful at their chosen career and makes lots of money then he or she will be good at making solutions for all our social problems.
“The media’s broad brush approach to wealth suggests brilliance and wisdom and the sense of ‘thank God you have moved into this arena to help the needy.
“The problem is that this crowds out other voices and is without reflection allowing circumstances where hubris is writ large and we conclude that both donors and people who work in the sector can benefit from reflection.
“Reflection which recognises the need for donors and donor organisations to be conscious in their practices and process to try and ensure that their efforts function to redress rather than reinforce power imbalances; to reduce rather than reinforce social and economic inequities.
“Reflection which reminds us to be vigilant against simply accepting that wealth equals wisdom, or that financial success translates as a matter of course into superior insights into social problems and their amelioration or resolution.
“Reflection to ensure that the agendas and practices of donors do not distort collective, social priorities or crowd out the voices of those being serviced or providing services.
“Reflection to ensure that we do not automatically accept that the intervention of a donor or donor organisation, the exercise of control, is not necessarily a simple act of magnanimity and care.
“We trust that our media analysis has helped to highlight that nevertheless we should be wary of making unsupported connections between giving and wisdom, between giving and ethics, and between giving and leadership.
“These connections do indeed exist, but most certainly not as universally as media representations in Australia might suggest,” Helena Liu and Christopher Baker said.
The research paper, ‘Ordinary Aristocrats: The discursive construction of philanthropists as ethical leaders’ was recently submitted to an academic journal for peer-review.
This article, based on an interview with Lina Caneva, was published in Pro Bono Australia.