The Media and the Massacre by Sonya Voumard

Geez… it’s always a bit tricky when something doesn’t do what it says on the label. That’s not necessarily a bad thing… But expectations and what-not…

Which brings me to Sonya Voumard’s The Media and the Massacre. The subtitle is Port Arthur 1996-2016 – most Australians would understand that the title refers to the twentieth anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre. The blurb suggests an exploration of the journalistic intent after the tragedy, with particular reference to the ethics of reporting traumatic events. Voumard poses the question, “Is there a right amount of storytelling surrounding the Port Arthur massacre?”

It’s the kind of non-fiction I like – the impact of words and images, and a meaty moral angle.

“Writing stories about life and death can induce a drug-like sensation for a journalist. You are driven to try to use beautiful or touching or compelling words to convey what happened.”

But the task of a journalist with their beautiful, touching or compelling words is tricky. Voumard writes – “At our best, we do good work – bear witness, seek truth, give voice, explain. At our worst we exploit our subjects.”

And this is where The Media and the Massacre veers away from ‘media’ in the broadest sense, and instead focuses on two journalists, Robert Wainwright and Paola Totaro – their 2009 best-selling book, Born or Bred? is about Martin Bryant, the perpetrator of the Port Arthur massacre, and his mother, Carleen. Initially, Wainwright and Totaro collaborated with Carleen to write ‘her story’, however, the arrangement was quickly terminated by Carleen, who felt her intentions for the book did not match those of the authors’. Carleen received an undisclosed legal settlement over the use of her personal manuscript in Born or Bred?.

Over half of The Media and the Massacre is devoted to Born or Bred? – the ethical and legal issues, and the fall-out for Carleen and others involved in the project. I found Voumard’s focus on Born or Bred? problematic. Apart from the fact that it made her own book a conventionally structured thesis hanging off a dry case study, the resolution of the Born or Bred? issue was undisclosed. Which means those involved are legally bound to zip their lip. And they did, despite Voumard’s best efforts to interview them.

And was Voumard doing to Wainwright and Totaro, exactly what they were accused of doing to Carleen Bryant…? Voumard flags this but doesn’t actually address it.

The early chapters of The Media and the Massacre include compelling accounts of other journalists’ experiences in the days after the massacre. Voumard successfully communicates the conflict these journalists felt – the need to report on events but to also show respect to the victims. Also interesting was the chapter on the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) Ethics Complaints Committee Panel findings in regard to the Wainwright/ Totaro/ Bryant case, and the position Carleen was left in. Voumard quotes Carleen’s lawyer, Steven Lewis –

“The court is not there to make moral judgements. The court is there to make legal decisions. A lot of people lose in court. Carleen Bryant had a moral right to have her problem resolved. She was lucky she had a legal entitlement as well and we were able to settle it. Often the line gets blurred and people are seeking to have a moral win and they end up having a legal loss.”

Voumard reflects that you can also have a “…legal win and a moral loss.” Interesting.

3/5 Lots of good debate to be had over the issues raised by Voumard but ultimately there was an inconclusive feel to the book because of the chosen case study.



9 responses

  1. An interesting discussion of the issues. I think “most people” think journalists rate sensationalism over respect for privacy – an issue also addressed in Maguire’s An Isolated Incident. Too often, I think, a big part of the story is the grief of the family.

    • I agree and the author acknowledges that the changing face of journalism – immediate response for online publication, and the fact that journalists have to be a ‘jack of all trades’ in terms of writing, filming, publishing – has had a big effect on this.

      It seems like every time I watch the news (and I don’t watch it on tv very often at all) I turn it off as they show some grief-stricken family. It doesn’t add to to the story. You can imagine what they are experiencing, you don’t need to see it – it feels like an invasion to me. I was acutely aware of this recently after the Melbourne Bourke Street tragedy – the number of times ‘they’ showed the image of the crushed baby’s pram was despicable.

    • If you knew nothing about Port Arthur it would perhaps be more informative however most Australians are aware of the situation and the aftermath – the book didn’t add anything to my existing understanding of how the mother was treated by the media. What was interesting in the book was how the journalists FELT about reporting these kind of events. That was what I wanted, and it was also the bit that was underdone. A shame.

    • It did feel very much like a thesis and it occurred to me that a decent thesis supervisor would have said “You need a different case study/ a change of direction.” The parts of the book I thought were excellent were the bits about how the journalists FELT about reporting the massacre – all of her interviews with other journalists (and artists) were really interesting and I would have been content with that.

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