“We take the side of the people we’re interviewing. We want to stand in their shoes,” says the You Can’t Ask That series producer and 2019 Media Diversity Australia Award winner.

Clare Fletcher
Sep 16 · 9 min read
(From left) Kirk Docker, Josh Schmidt, Pauline Ernesto and Aaron Smith from You Can’t Ask That at the 2019 Mid Year Celebration. Photo: Adam Hollingworth.

Media Diversity Australia Award

Aaron Smith, Kirk Docker, Loni Cooper, Pauline Ernesto and Josh Schmidt, ABC and ABC iview, “You Can’t Ask That — Deaf, African Australians and Intersex”

In the very first year of the Media Diversity Australia Award, the judges had lots of great entries to choose from. They decided to award the inaugural award to the team from ABC’s You Can’t Ask That, describing it as a show that “puts diverse Australians in the hot seat, fielding hard questions that speak to broadly held attitudes of prejudice and discrimination.

“What results is a program that confronts both prejudice and discrimination in an honest, open, tender and sometimes funny manner. The program is groundbreaking and tackles issues humanely in a way that has never been done on mainstream television outside of news and current affairs. You Can’t Ask That — with its large audience — has the capacity to confront us, challenge us and educate us about what it is to be a member of a minority group or simply just different.”

Series producer and director, Kirk Docker, spoke with us on behalf of the team about the research and planning that goes into “putting faces on TV that you don’t normally come across”.

We usually ask journalists “how did you find this story?”. But for you the better question might be how did You Can’t Ask That get started, and how did you select these particular topics (Deaf, African-Australians and Intersex)?

Each season, picking topics is a combination of elements. We research more topics than we end up making. Firstly, we need to have a strong misunderstanding about the topic. Then we are looking for a mix of topics across the entire season — episodes that are humorous, that are visual, harder-hitting, hidden, surprising and importantly, putting faces on TV that you don’t normally come across.

We want episodes that are topical — last season African Australians and Ex-Politicians for example. We look at ethnicity, addictions, disability, mental health, socio-economics as drivers for topics. Plus we let our curiosity take over. That’s where Carnies & Show People came from. That was inspired by the Italian version of the show’s episode on Gypsies. Finally, we are always looking for a topic that will challenge us. Both Intersex and and Domestic & Family Violence did that this year.

This win was a team effort; can you talk us through who’s on the team and the roles they played?

Our team is deliberately small and agile. Aaron Smith and myself are Series Producers and Directors and are responsible for delivering the show. Aaron also shoots the show, records sound and takes wonderful photos. My role is also primarily to interview the participants.

Our producers Josh Schmidt, Loni Cooper and Pauline Ernesto mastermind the episodes, finding and pre-interviewing dozens of potential participants. Kenny Ang and Jenny Hicks were our incredible, fast-paced editors on Season 3. They have 3 weeks to compress up to 14 hours of interview per episode into an interwoven 30 minute narrative.

Andrew Sampford composes 30 minutes of original music for each episode in an extremely tight turn around. Shane Sakkeus has designed our graphics since season 1, that beautifully reinforce the prejudices our participants hear. With 64 participants to interview across the country, our PA Ruth Arundell was integral in organising our travel, and would often come with us to welcome participants on arrival. From day 1 of production, we have strong support from ABC Legal and ABC Editorial Policy — particularly because our episodes are only from the point of view of those experiencing them. So defamation and impartiality are concerns. Our grade, mix and online are done internally at the ABC. Finally, we get wonderful support from our production manager Kieran Bycroft and Frances O’Riordan our EP.

What time and resources go into making these programs? What challenges did you face?

The show takes six months to make. Four weeks of pre-production, six weeks of shooting (we are still finding key participants while we shoot, so we can adapt to what we’ve already shot). Three months in the edit.

Initially the challenges are in rapidly finding so many authentic interview participants, particularly for sensitive topics, Australia-wide. Then working with ABC Legal and Ed Pol to tell their stories unchecked while providing the participants the support and care they need.

Then the challenge is encouraging those people to come on a show where they have to answer the toughest, most personal questions on who they are. Building a relationship with them so they entrust us with their story.

The edit is also extremely challenging: looking after eight very different stories per episode, compressing them down while maintaining the essence of their personality and their experience.

How do you find and choose the talent in the programs?

We find people any way we can. We lean on our own contacts, go through organisations, websites, Facebook pages, the news, we street cast (the only way to find Carnies for example). We try to stay away from finding people on Google, we want people who haven’t told their story before. We speak to dozens of people per episode — they’re not all appropriate to be on the show, but they might put us onto someone that is.

Choosing is about having eight different stories that fit, break, challenge, contradict the stereotypes of that particular topic. We are looking to surprise our audience, and challenge what they thought they knew about a topic. We are looking for people who have a sense of humour. Most importantly, the people we interview need to own their label.

What impact did the programs have?

The show has had impacts in many different ways. We know it is widely watched and shared online. It has consistently been the most-watched, or second most-watched nonfiction program on ABC iView. A clip from our Down syndrome episode has been watched over 45 million times on Facebook, the most watched social media piece of content in ABC history.

We have fantastic engagement with our audience, receiving over 10,000 questions to be included in season 4 this year. The show averaged 803,000 first run viewers for season 4. The show is an original format, and is now the most successful ABC format ever, with 18 series being produced in 10 territories worldwide.

In other ways, the show is used widely in schools and universities as a learning tool, and there are now ABC Education edits of the show. Episodes are used in training sessions for the Australian Federal Police and other government sectors. You Can’t Ask That content is on permanent display in The Australian War Memorial and the Sydney Jewish Museum. The show’s impact has been registered in the Hansard of the Victorian Parliament. We have presented live Q&A sessions at the Art Gallery of NSW as part of Vivid Live, the Sydney Writers Festival, Disrupted Festival of Ideas, University of Newcastle and others.

Personal testimonials have been many; I’ll share two. Professor Patrick McGorry AO, mental health expert and Australian of The Year in 2010 said, “It is incredibly moving and it contains material that most people would never have heard — every health professional will be helped by hearing this honest and inspiring testimony… Thanks to the ABC for groundbreaking program #YouCantAskThat on suicide. Illustrates the pathway and the road back to life.”

Thelma White, a participant on season 4’s African Australians episode, said on ABC Darwin radio last week, “I’ve had overwhelming feedback after being on the show. In my own Zimbabwean Australian community I’ve had people say ‘Thank you so much for going out there and representing all of us.’ And I actually never went there with the intention of representing everyone but it was interesting that that happened. Another time I was at the shopping mall and I was just sitting having lunch and this lady said ‘Excuse me! Excuse me! Were you on that TV show?’ And I said, ‘yes’ and I walked over to her to say hi. She said, ‘Oh my god, thank you so much. I’m so sorry you got asked those questions.’ And it was a beautiful moment. Then we both got emotional, then we hugged, then we cried and all of a sudden the show became a uniting factor. It was beautiful.”

The spirit of diversity and inclusivity is obviously at the very heart of YCAT; what do you think other newsrooms and media outlets can learn from the way you approach storytelling? Or what advice would you offer journalists who want to do a better job in representing diverse voices?

An important part of our show is that it is only people with lived experience answering the questions. We don’t have experts or family members or observers or anyone else commenting. Not that those voices aren’t valid, but often with journalistic stories on the topics we cover, they are dominated by those voices and those with lived experience are absent.

We also prefer people who have done limited media, if at all. We find they are more connected to their stories. Then within that, we like as much diversity as possible; between their experiences, the circumstances of those experiences, then age, ethnicity, physical and mental health, gender, sexuality and belief systems. It gives a chance to show the complexities and nuances of a topic, particularly when they are seated next to someone who thinks differently from them.

Finally, we take the side of the people we’re interviewing. We want to stand in their shoes. Although the questions are blunt and antagonistic, as program makers we are interested in genuinely understanding the lives of our interviewees rather than interrogating or judging them.

Kirk Docker.

What made you want to be a journalist?

It was about understanding the world I was uneducated about, and challenging the perspectives I was reading or watching. Not being satisfied with the opinions or angles of mainstream media. I was always interested in authentic expression, understanding the taboo or marginalised or weird. Plus I’m curious about people. This show in particular allows me to ask the most interesting questions to the most interesting people in Australia.

What are you most proud of about the stories you’ve told?

I’m most proud of taking topics that on the surface level may seem done or boring or taboo, and giving them a compelling new take, open to everyone from kids to adults. I’m proud of our willingness to push topics into new honest and authentic places. That our show encourages our audience to talk, consider new opinions and empathy.

I’m proud of the humour and humanity we find in tough stories. I’m proud of the team that delivers excellence from research to completion. And that the show has put so many misunderstood and marginalised Australians on TV, telling their experiences proudly and with dignity.

Kirk Docker is the producer, rarely seen interviewer and co-creator of the award-winning ABC show You Can’t Ask That. He first came to public attention for contributing vox pop segments to Hungry Beast. Shot by YCAT partner Aaron Smith, these voxies showcased the openness, compassion and curiosity that marks their work today. Before and after Beast, Kirk made shortform video for website Vive Cool City, Hello Stranger for the ABC and Demolition Man for A&E.

Follow Kirk on Twitter @kirkdocker

The Media Diversity Australia Award is supported by Media Diversity Australia, CoHealth and The National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters’ Council

The Walkley Magazine

Inside the Australia and New Zealand media – stories by and for journalists.

Clare Fletcher

Written by

Editor, The Walkley Magazine

The Walkley Magazine

Inside the Australia and New Zealand media – stories by and for journalists.

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