We know who sponsors the Walkleys Awards, but who judges them?

Last year, the Walkleys rightly came under fire because so few accolades went to regional-based climate change or extreme weather event stories.

Christine Tondorf is based in northern NSW and reported on the Black Summer bushfires and Northern Rivers floods. She did an audit of last year’s judges to find out who actually judges the Walkleys.

This coming Thursday, the winners of the 2023 Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism will be announced and despite calls for a boycott of the Walkley Awards (because a petroleum company is a sponsor), entry numbers were up this year.

Last year the Walkleys came under fire because few accolades went to climate change or extreme weather event stories. I counted only four finalists from a list 84.

In the previous 12 months, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria had experienced severe flooding while Western Australia battled unseasonal bushfires. I live near Lismore, hard hit by flooding, and began to wonder: who judges the Walkleys? Why did I think about this? Because regional people are significantly more likely to have experienced floods and fires than urban Australians. I wanted to know if we were fairly represented in the judging cohort … so I did an audit of last year’s judges. 

The Walkley Foundation, with a 16-person board, thanked 88 judges – a pool of 104.

I looked at judges’ LinkedIn profiles. These are never entirely accurate (people forget to update, two judges weren’t on LinkedIn), but I hoped for an indication of the urban-regional mix.

The results: 61 of the judges lived in Sydney, 18 in Melbourne. That means 76% of judges were based in Australia’s two largest cities, compared to around 40% of the nation’s population.

Overall, more than 90% of the judges lived in capital cities, compared to 66.9% of Australia’s population: three in Adelaide, five in Perth, two in Canberra, one in Darwin, and one in Brisbane.

It was unexpected to find only one Brisbane judge (0.96%) as about 9% of Australians live there, and most news outlets have Brisbane offices. Brisbane was the capital most affected by 2022’s floods.

Nine judges lived in regional areas – 8.7%, while 33.1% of Australians live outside cities.

Most of these lived in large regional towns, like Toowoomba, Newcastle and Ballarat.

Just one judge lived in a small town – with a population less than 100,000.

That’s 0.96% compared to 9.7% of that nation’s population (or 2.3 million Australians) – a 10-fold under representation. That single judge lived in Berry, a coastal tourist town about 10km from the suburbs of Wollongong.

There were zero judges from inland towns like Alice Springs, Kununurra or disaster-impacted Lismore.  

The bulk of 2022’s prizes went to reports on the Ukrainian war and Scott Morrison’s multiple ministries.

Deakin University Wildlife and Conservation Professor Euan Ritchie asked on Twitter, “Why so little specific attention and recognition for the environment @walkleys? Arguably the two greatest threats (cries) that humanity faces are climate change and biodiversity decline and extinction”.

Melbourne University ecosystem and forest-science research fellow Dr Yung En Chee responded, ‘Excellent science/environment/climate journalists, we see you, we value your reporting’.

Hunter Valley media trainer, Saffron Howden tweeted, ‘The Walkley’s is out of touch with day-to-day modern journalism in Australia’ – 326 people ‘liked’ the tweet.

Is there a connection between the lack of recognition for climate change reportage and the fact that the vast majority of judges are city based, and statistically less likely to be impacted by an extreme weather event than those not urban-based?

Could there be an unconscious bias among the collective that ‘real journalism’ focuses on Machiavellian schemes in Canberra and foreign wars – not of the misfortunes of regional Australia?  

I also checked the language abilities of the Walkley judges, as there are rarely finalists from Australian ethnic media. 22.3% of people speak a language other than English at home in Australia.

13.5% of judges listed language skills on LinkedIn, most citing proficiency, basic ability or study. The most common languages (outside English) in Australia are Mandarin, Arabic, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Pujabi.

The most common language listed by Walkley judges was … French! Eight judges claimed some ability. The only non-European languages were Arabic – five judges (including one judge who was learning) and a Farisi speaker.

That’s 5.7% of judges cohort, and on par with research finding that while about a quarter of Australians have non-European backgrounds, only 6.1% of TV journalists and presenters do. 

Where did the judges go to school? A British study found private-school educated journalists were grossly over-represented among editors (close to seven-fold), and disproportionately represented among leading journalists.

Walkley judges tended not to list schools, so I’ll refer to my lived experience. I met a lot of Anglo-Australians with private school educations in newsrooms. If the British study was replicated here, it would help answer the question who shapes the news.  

Does the cultural/social demographic mix of Walkley judges mirror that of the media’s upper echelons – news editors and the most senior reporters? And what does it mean for Australia if most reporting, analysis, and commentary is controlled by Anglo-Celtic urbanites from private schools employed by metropolitan newsrooms – a narrow band of privilege?  

Did the bulk of reportage and commentary on the Voice referendum come out of cites? Is most coverage on cost-of-living pressures produced by Anglo-Australians in city newsrooms?

The UN forecasts that climate change will disproportionately affect the world’s poorest people. Would the Walkley Foundation still accept fossil-fuel sponsorship if more judges and board members lived in towns damaged by floods and fires? The Walkley Foundation also resisted calls this year to introduce a new climate change award following a review of categories described by the judging board chair as ‘thorough and exhaustive’. 

In a statement responding to questions from Mumbrella about the demographics of 2022 judges, the Walkley Foundation said that every effort was sought to ensure a mix of news organisations, experience, location, gender, diversity and other factors. The Walkley Judging Board, the Walkley Board of Directors and other leading media professionals submit nominations of potential judges, but the foundation said more than half of journalists approached to judge declined. 

“This can be because they are entering the awards themselves or because of the time commitment, work or family pressures,” said Walkley CEO Shona Martyn. 

“Judges are not paid and the work in judging a first-round category, some with more than 100 entries including multiple stories, takes several weeks. In 2023, more than 50% of the prospective judges approached had to decline to judge.

“The concentration of judges from larger cities reflects the concentration of news organisations in larger centres. It does not reflect the approaches made to prospective judges. Journalists working in smaller newsrooms are often less likely to have the time to judge … I would be happy to hear from any experienced journalists who would like to be considered for judging in 2024.” 

How many regional and culturally and language diverse journalists did the foundation approach and how many declined?

Are regional and CALD journalists declining to judge the Walkleys – and perhaps not even enter the awards  – not because of time paucity, but because they perceive the awards as city-centric and Anglo … and predominantly a celebration of the work of the major media organisations?

Last year every finalist in the community and regional affairs category was from the ABC. One country journalist asked on Twitter if the city judges were aware other media organisations reported on regional Australia.

An Australian Community Media journalist tweeted, “Walkleys has become a media club, of sorts, to which only a selected few organisations are genuinely invited. The rest of us sort of mingle at the door and hope.” 

According to the Reuters 2022 Digital News Report, 41% of Australians avoid the news.

In Finland and Denmark, countries with historically low levels of wealth inequality, only 20% of people do. Australia is on par with the US and UK (42% and 46%). Donald Trump often fuses the media and political elites in his speeches, his catch cry of ‘fake news’ resounds with his support base.

Australia’s most celebrated journalists don’t produce ‘fake news’ but do people – disengaged from news  – perceive them as inauthentic narrators, with inauthentic defined as not genuinely belonging [to their locality or ethnicity]?

Most journalists are conscious of the need to be objective, but do journalists spend more time asking if the industry has a dominant cultural lens? And is that lens serving Australia?

Is the lack of diversity among senior journalists part of the reason Aussies increasingly turn to social media for information? It’s often inaccurate and unregulated … but it delivers diversity. 

And to everyone up for an award tonight – bonne chance mes amis!

Christine Tondorf is based in northern NSW and reported on the Black Summer Bushfires and Northern Rivers Floods . The opinions expressed in this piece reflect only her views, not present or past employers. Christine has lived in regional Australia for more than 25 years.



Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.