Heed the media lessons from the Port Arthur massacre

Sonya Voumard - deloitteIn this guest post, Sonya Voumard says when it comes to reporting on the anniversary of tragedies such as the Port Arthur massacre the media needs to move from regurgitating the horrors and focus on grief’s third act: the rebuilding.

April 28, 2016, will mark the 20th anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre in which 35 people were killed and 21 injured by Martin Bryant in what was then the world’s worst civilian massacre. It is a date many will dread.

In Tasmania, today, there are conflicting views about whether or not the anniversary of the massacre should be publicly commemorated at all.

It’s easy to understand why given some of the examples of ethically questionable ‘anniversary’ media coverage we have seen already – the harassment and privacy invasion of Martin Bryant’s sister Lindy; the release of previously unseen footage of Martin Bryant speaking soon after the events in material that should have remained subject to attorney-client privilege.

As the date approaches, once again media organisations are sending writers, reporters, photographers, camera operators and news presenters to Port Arthur to revisit, relive and re-tell.

What’s likely is that hundreds of people will be re-traumatised as old images, sounds and interviews bring it all back for the victims. These will include the friends and relatives of those killed, the many more who were injured, and the countless more again who were directly or indirectly affected by the events, many of whom are still struggling.

The fact that many in Tasmania still prefer that the perpetrator’s name not be spoken has led some media observers to perceive there is a form of shame-induced censorship – which they must nobly fight – about the events.

But sensitivities surrounding the repeated re-renderings of the Port Arthur massacre story exist for reasons more complex than censorship.

Those affected, especially the communities at Port Arthur, want to stop being defined by the events. While honouring the victims, many would prefer to focus on what they have rebuilt.

My recently released non-fiction book The Media and the Massacre delves into practices of journalism surrounding the massacre.the media and the massacre

Journalists’ coverage of the events in the two decades since they occurred has ranged from the very good to the very bad. ABC television’s recent 20th anniversary coverage on Australian Story, for example, was exceptionally good because of the way it empowered its subjects, giving them control over their narratives.

This is a rarity and arguably not always practical in the immediate aftermath of major trauma events, but I would argue it is more possible than many commercial storytellers allow.

A central case study in my book is the 2009 book Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer by two prominent journalists – Robert Wainwright and Paola Totaro. Their book is about the perpetrator of the Port Arthur massacre, Martin Bryant, and his mother Carleen.Born or Bred Martin bryant

Carleen Bryant received an undisclosed legal settlement over the best-selling book’s use of her personal manuscript without her explicit permission.

The Media and the Massacre explores the circumstances of the writing of Born or Bred? and its fall-out as well as many of the wider ethical and social issues that emerge in the storytelling surrounding the Port Arthur massacre and its place in our cultural memory.

It discusses who has the right to speak of these stories. Who owns them?

The American writer, Janet Malcolm, has said of journalists:

We are certainly not a ‘helping profession’. If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realise they are letting us take. I am hardly the first writer to notice the not-niceness of journalists

There is a huge chasm between the market-driven realities of commercial storytelling and the needs, concerns and human rights of those whose stories are being told.

And within that, there is an immensely wide variety of interview subject types, from powerful politicians and business people to criminals and victims of traumas like the Port Arthur massacre.

Despite its good intentions, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s Journalists’ Code of Ethics (MEAA 2012) and the bodies which regulate it impose only a light touch in terms of ethical responsibilities upon the journalistic profession.

The code’s language is suitably general, couched more in principles – honesty, fairness, independence. This leaves much up to individual journalists’ discretion.

In my career as a journalist, I, on more than one occasion, pushed my own interpretation of journalistic ethics beyond my comfort zone in the pursuit of a story my employer wanted and convinced myself that public interest was the higher principle, when it wasn’t.

I know I’m not the only journalist to have ever felt like that.

I didn’t start out intending to write The Media and the Massacre to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the 1996 massacre, but that date and my book’s completion coincided.

Recently, I have found myself answering questions about how we should deal with this anniversary. While I can’t possibly have all the answers, my research led me to the Dart Center for Trauma Journalism and to the idea that major traumas like this should be covered in three acts – a bit like the stages of grief: shock, anger, acceptance.

Act Three is where the events are placed in a broader social and emotional context rather than just picking up on the individual stories and digging up all the trauma images from the archives. It is time to let the people of Tasmania move on.

Sonya Voumard is a Sydney-based journalist, author and Doctor of Creative Arts (UTS)


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