Stereotypes. Do you deliberately illustrate them, deliberately debunk them, or ignore them altogether?

It’s a tricky one. 

On TV, you have two minutes to tell often complicated stories. Sometimes pumping up a stereotype, if only to then beat it back down, is the most straightforward way to structure a story.

I was doing a piece about a new scheme to temporarily house refugees in Australians’ spare rooms.

The stereotype is that red-neck Australians are furious about a wave of grubby asylum seekers, ‘invading’ their shores.

The scheme is partly about debunking that myth to show there are Australians who care. But it’s also about changing attitudes in order to address what truth there is in the stereotype. 

Once Australians see recent arrivals living with – and as – Australians in their communities rather than in Afghan or Iranian ‘ghettos’, harsh attitudes towards ‘boat people’ might change.

So, first, to illustrate the stereotype. The bulk of commercial television and radio coverage of the asylum seeker issue in Australia certainly  suggests people are fed up with asylum-seeker boat arrivals, cross with the welfare ‘benefits’ refugees get, and angry, even, at the comfortable conditions in detention centres. 

Politicians too talk tough, presumably because they think that’s what voters want to hear.

But I wanted real-life people to illustrate the stereotype. And that wasn’t so easy.  Maybe Melbourne city centre wasn’t the best place to try for them, maybe people were coy with their real views on camera, but in half an hour of stopping people in the street, just a handful gave me the stereotypical view. 

Sure, a few gave me the lines I was after: Not enough attention is paid to ‘us Aussies’.  ‘We spend so much on them’. But those people were greatly outweighed by those sympathetic to boat people appreciating the horrors they’d come from and the difficulties they faced.

Yet the stereotype persists and I felt the piece needed to reflect that.  So one of the more colourful responses I got in Melbourne – that asylum-seekers could be bringing in bombs – made it into the report.

But I didn’t want to dwell on that.  Most Australians are open-minded about the plight refugees face.  Right now, in Perth, they’re being reminded of it through a court case.

A tragic drama that played out eighteen months ago in the roaring sea off Christmas Island is being retold by lawyers prosecuting and defending three Indonesians accused of crewing a boat they knew was full of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia.

That boat ultimately crashed into rocks and sunk, killing more than half the 93 on board. But even before that, the court’s been hearing how conditions on board were "squalid", with "very little food". 

Passengers – who paid up between $2,500 and $6,000 each for the trip – had to help bail out water.

Australians do hear that story. They do care.  Most, though, also hold the view that Australia already takes more than its fair share of the world’s needy. 

Although sympathetic to the plight of those who arrive by boat, most think that their numbers are becoming unmanageable, and those on the boats have jumped a queue of more deserving cases.

And then there are those like Hilary and Noel McVey for whom all that is irrelevant.   They’re opening their door – literally – because new arrivals in Australia need the best start they can get.  And they think they can help.    

There are three wholly contradictory things you can say about stereotypes.  That they’re true.  That they’re false. And that the truth lies somewhere in between.

Stereotypes are helpful when it comes to structuring TV reports. But they’re a terrible reflection of the nuances of real life.