This project originated when deputy editor of Guardian Australia, Will Woodward, requested a piece that included the number of people that had died since the royal commission after a 22 year old Indigenous woman named Ms Dhu died in police custody in Western Australia while serving time for unpaid fines.
Calla Wahlquist, who was reporting on Ms Dhu's death, was unable to figure out the number as, ''[the AIC] didn’t have any data available.”
This prompted Wahlquist to start keeping a list and with Lorena Allam joining Guardian Australia as Indigenous affairs editor in 2018, greater resources allowed greater ambition.
Allam wanted to cover Indigenous affairs in a new way. “Our issues were just being absolutely bulldozed in the mainstream media,” she says. “When they were reported, they were reported by white people from the white perspective. Our people were very rarely given voice.
“On deaths in custody we were just the nameless, faceless dead … there was no interest and yet it just ground on and on.”
A Guardian investigation tracking the deaths “was everyone’s idea”, Wahlquist says, “because it was so desperately needed”.
Wahlquist says the database has become a resource for lawyers researching deaths, and has led to improvements in real-time reporting. It has also changed the way that media reports of deaths in custody, “One thing I noticed afterwards was how many more journalists were turning up to inquests than there used to be.”
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