‘You Can’t Be What You Can’t See’: What Sarah Abo’s Today Show Role Means For Arab Women In Australia

Image courtesy of Channel 9
Today host Sarah Abo
Australian news and current affairs television continues to have a shakeup after a mass exodus from Channel 10's The Project was revealed over the past few weeks.
Now, after much speculation, Allison Langdon has been announced as the host of Channel 9's A Current Affair after Tracy Grimshaw ended her 17-year run on the show last week. Stepping into Langdon's place on the Today show is 60 Minutes reporter Sarah Abo, and this news has sparked a wave of celebration amongst many Australians.
In a media landscape that has long struggled to represent the country's multicultural population, casting a culturally diverse woman in a lead hosting role on a prime-time breakfast TV show is a rarity.
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Abo, who was born in Damascus, Syria and raised in Australia since the age of four, will be co-hosting alongside Karl Stefanovic after a string of white (albeit talented) women including Langdon, Georgie Gardiner, Deborah Knight and Lisa Wilkinson.
According to Australian journalist Simone Amelia Jordan, who is of Lebanese and Greek Cypriot heritage, an Arab woman like Abo hosting Today marks the first time she'll truly feel seen on breakfast TV.
"It can be hard to explain how critical representation is to a mainstream (white) audience that has only ever seen their faces reflected on network television," the Director Of Special Projects at Media Diversity Australia tells Refinery29 Australia.
"I'm a 42-year-old woman who was born and raised in Australia, and for the first time in memory, I will see a woman whose image reflects mine co-hosting a breakfast show. Her appointment feels both exciting and long overdue."
Jordan says that Abo is already a "respected journalist" in her own right, but the opportunity to become a "household name" on a show like Today will also be inspiring to other Arab women and women of colour who want to enter the media industry.
"Not sure how often this has to be said, but you can't be what you can't see," she says.
"The impact her new visibility will have on the growing number of emerging reporters from marginalised backgrounds is boundless." 
Abo's appointment comes a week after a new report examining cultural diversity in Australian news and current affairs TV shows was released.
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The Who Gets To Tell Australian Stories? 2.0 report by Media Diversity Australia (MDA) and academics from UTS and The University of Sydney concludes that 78% (up from 75% in 2019) of on-air talent on news and current affairs television are Anglo-Celtic. Meanwhile, only 6.1% are from a non-European background and 5.4% are Indigenous.
These figures were based on 25,000 items broadcast on 103 news and current affairs programs between June 1 and June 14 this year. This included breakfast news, early evening news, prime time news, late night news, weekend news and news updates, and various current affairs shows.
"Our findings showed a serious need for media leaders to support meaningful and informed adjustments and interventions to build a more representative industry," says Jordan, praising Channel 9 for taking a "step in the right direction" with casting Abo on Today.
However, more cultural representation on-screen is sorely needed and the opportunities to increase this are endless. With Sarah Harris replacing Carrie Bickmore on The Project, but still two places left in lieu of Lisa Wilkinson and Peter Helliar, there's a chance for Channel 10 producers to cast the net beyond the usual talent pool. Channel 7 is equally in dire need of a revamp to its Sunrise breakfast show and other programming, while the rest of free-to-air TV with ABC and SBS can also benefit from more diversity.
Let's hope that Abo's appointment marks not a moment of temporary action followed by complacency, but rather the beginning of a new chapter for Australian TV.
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