Covering tragic anniversary a delicate balancing act

Memorial stone in memorial garden

The memorial plaque that now sits in the gardens built to honour those killed in 1996.      Picture: Trina McLellan (taken in 2005)

This opinion piece was first written in April, 2006

The fact Australia’s media, like its citizens, wish to remember the loss of life at Port Arthur 10 years ago is not only healthy but essential.

However, some individuals in newsrooms fail to acknowledge that their anniversary coverage choices will have real, lasting and sometimes damaging consequences for others, and themselves, that will endure well beyond this week’s publications or debate. At the very least, this is naïve and insensitive.

The best journalistic research, interviews and packages can end up constructive, highly newsworthy pieces that shine a light on the truth or – simply by selective content and visual treatment, headlining and promotion – end up sensationalist and incredibly damaging.

This is not something unique to Port Arthur coverage. It’s a global issue gaining more attention in newsrooms everywhere.

In Australia, some in the media are yet to comprehend or acknowledge the full extent of the impacts of a traumatic incident like the shootings of April 28, 1996. As a consequence, they fail in their duty to understand and depict the real extent of what has gone on.

Relying on well-honed hard news instincts, they can all-too-easily become fixated with sensational aspects but miss subtle, important clues to much better, deeper stories that better expose the truth and do less harm.

The Weekend Australian Magazine opted to run a close up of Martin Bryant's eyes to mark the 10th anniversary of his violence, which was especially ironic given the ethical fallout from its original blatant manipulation of the killer's eyes in its April 29, 1996, front page coverage of the massacre.

The Weekend Australian Magazine opted to run a close up of Martin Bryant’s eyes                      to mark the 10th anniversary of his violence, which was especially ironic given the                  ethical fallout from its original blatant manipulation of the killer’s eyes                                           in its April 29, 1996, front page coverage of the massacre.

In defending flawed coverage choices, journalists can become defensive, wrongly arguing that protests about their “honest” coverage of the truth insult the notion of freedom of speech. Meanwhile more enlightened and thoughtful colleagues quietly cringe. They know there is a different way.

With coverage that clearly continues to elevate a perpetrator to maximum prominence years after he has admitted his guilt and been punished by the courts, we should ask: Where is the freedom of speech for those most closely affected by his actions?

The reality is, in this case and others, that sensational media coverage is silencing them. Very few of them trust anyone in the media because of the actions of those who choose sensation over substance, competition over compassion.

The high death and injury toll – and the fact that hundreds of tourists and locals were locked down for hours after this murderous rampage – means thousands of people who live in all states of Australia and, indeed, around the world, live daily with the brutal reality of what Martin Bryant did to them and their loved ones 10 years ago.

Whether these people wish him dead or simply couldn’t give a toss about him, they live and breathe the blunt fact that, while he is alive and incarcerated, Bryant is yet to give anyone peace of mind.

As journalists increasingly strive to stay in touch with their audiences, they will eventually realise even more how great the impact – positive and negative – their stories can have.

The most traumatised of the people connected to Port Arthur know the perpetrator will be discussed in the media as the 10th anniversary approaches, but they and the rest of the country do not need reminding of his evil intent in the form of blaring banner quotes and the re-running of dramatic, distressing photographs and lurid private discussions and trial excerpts. They lived through that 10 years ago and have physical and mental scrapbooks packed with the stark horrors they have endured.

There are viable and newsworthy alternatives if journalists pause to reflect.

reflection pool

The beautiful reflection pool in Port Arthur’s memorial gardens is in a quiet spot that is     tucked away at the historic site.

Without balanced coverage of what is real, today, how does the rest of the country come to know that the Port Arthur Historic Site is attracting more visitors than ever; that young adults who were young children at the time are now doing great things as they transition from school into promising careers; that while some individuals are still deeply affected a majority are not only surviving but prospering; that families who themselves still have unanswered questions still want most for their loved ones to remembered in a respectful way?

As journalists we must not drag everyone back to 1996 and the most likely unanswerable question: Why did he do it? We must resist the urge to drawn on formulaic, largely negative  approaches to such coverage and be wary of being even a little bit seduced by vacuous conspiracy theorists. It’s hard but essential to move away from a comfortable if predictable way of framing stories that will sell. And we must not covet the role of judge, jury and executioner lest we wish to be judged ourselves.

Those affected by Bryant’s actions deeply resent being forced to rehash their worst nightmares and, if we as journalists deny this, then we fail to see that these people will quickly realise their predicament is being used as cheap cannon fodder by the media.

It’s hard for journalists to hear, but survivors, witnesses and their families very often find it offensive in the extreme that they must, once again, deal with sensational coverage instead of a constructive spotlight on what has really happened since that tragic day in April 1996.

Privately and publicly they acknowledge and genuinely appreciate that some sections of the media – Peter Blunden, Neil Mitchell and the ABC are just a few among them – are deliberately trying to approach the story differently, with greater levels of respect and, as a consequence, their coverage will be more constructive and more forward-looking. In time these news outlets will be rewarded for their patience and sensitivity.

A publish-and-be-damned approach leaves the affected facing an unwanted and regrettable resurgence in the notoriety and public profile of a sad, pathetic man while much more important stories – of their Herculean struggles to rebuild their shattered lives and their remarkable achievements along the way – go untold because someone in a newsroom far, far away deems them not “sexy” enough.

The whole country knows this story will not go away in our lifetimes and even those most closely affected appreciate that it should not go away. It’s not, as some in the media would paint it, an issue of whether or not to report on something, or someone. It’s how it is reported that counts. And, if one looks back over a decade of coverage of these shootings, one quickly sees that Martin Bryant has already been overexposed.

Port Arthur memorial pin

The lapel pin awarded to those who assisted on the day of the Port Arthur massacre.

Those who are most affected know there will be interest in where Martin Bryant is now. But while they might not even agree amongst themselves about how that should be done, all want that particular aspect to be handled sensitively and for it to be balanced against other truths and stories of greater hope. That is the challenge that journalists face, whether they realise it or not.

Responsible news decision makers know Australian consumers easily recognise the titillation factor in sensational coverage that superficially rehashes gory details dressed up with fragments of “new” yet strangely predictable details – the mother who seems to be unable to accept reality or a lawyer who just might be testing the market for yet another “tell-all” book.

That same public also knows that those affected by the shootings, and themselves, really could live without yet another lurid exposé on this sick and savage gunman who stole 35 lives.

At a time when the majority of the country really wants to demonstrate respect, support and admiration to the survivors and the families of those who died, coverage that lack this not only diminishes public opinion of news media, it also shields the very thing it purports to expose: the truth.

Port Arthur Penitentiary

The Penitentiary on the Port Arthur Historic Site.


Of interest after this anniversary was a sharp backlash from industry peers after The Bulletin’s lurid rehashing of Martin Bryant’s violence – Making of a Monster (April 4, 2006) – and about his life since the massacre inside Risdon Prison

Oz journalism is in a sick state if we can’t report on Martin Bryant
March 30, 2006
Garry Linnell, then Editor-in-Chief, The Bulletin

Peter Blunden on Martin Bryant
March 31, 2006
Peter Blunden, then Herald Sun editor

Martin Bryant …
April 13, 2006
Greg Barns, Tasmanian Times


Words:            Trina McLellan
Pictures:         Trina McLellan

(This detail was current in 2006) Trina McLellan is a working journalist who volunteers time as a board member of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma – Australasia. She has also completed a masters’ thesis on the impact of news reporting on victims and survivors of traumatic incidents (accepted and published in early 2003). Her thesis grew out of information gleaned from in-depth, face-to-face interviews with people who had been affected by the Port Arthur massacre or other traumatic incidents. The Australasian chapter of the Dart Centre, in conjunction with the Australian Press Council, has recently fostered discussions around issues of anniversary journalism with journalists, the public and journalism students in Australia’s eastern states.

One response to “Covering tragic anniversary a delicate balancing act

  1. Thanks for your comment. You might care to see the Style Matter section of this website (and the Training for Journalists section). Site’s a work in progress, so I’ll be adding content along the way that looks at ways to improve your writing. Hope you come back again soon.

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