How to report on mass murders


Fear of contempt charges prevented The Mercury to write about the killer. CREDIT: Mercury

The killings began just before midday.

He started with people he knew. People involved in a property dispute with his late father.

But it was around 1pm, after buying and eating a meal at the Broad Arrow café, that the shooting began in earnest. Indiscriminate, horrific and utterly lethal. An attack that would become Australia’s worst mass shooting.

It only ended the following morning, when the killer ran from the house he had set on fire, after an 18-hour standoff with police.

Thirty-five people were dead, twenty-three had been injured. A scar on the nation’s soul.

Here is what you may not know.

He meant to die in the flames. He was a coward, of course. They all are. So he ran.

He was directly influenced by a mass shooting that happened a month before, in Dunblane, Scotland. A shooting that was covered extensively in local news, as all mass shootings have been for 50 years.

The news coverage of mass shootings has been repeatedly linked to the motivations of killers. We’ve been told that by the people who analyse and evaluate surviving killers. We’ve been told by criminologists, psychologists, public health experts. They seek glory in horror. The script of the crime is inextricably linked with the script of how they expect it to be reported.

Let’s be clear: the argument that exploring the life of the killer is journalistically relevant and important in order to provide clues as to motivation is simply not backed up by the evidence. In fact, the evidence that this style of coverage provides the direct link to motive is far more comprehensive and compelling.

Put simply: the ‘journalism and public interest’ argument strongly supports less of this type of coverage, not more.

I have written about the difference between the coverage of Dunblane vs the coverage of Port Arthur, in Tasmania’s main daily newspaper, The Mercurybefore.

If discussions about the value of applying evidence-based restrictions in mass shooting coverage seem purely conceptual, Port Arthur provides us a valuable and tangible case study.

After The Mercury published a front-page photograph of the alleged killer, alongside the headline “The is the man”, the public backlash locally was immediate and vocal. The then Director of Public Prosecutions in Hobart contacted the paper, and warned them the case could soon be sub judice, therefore coverage of this nature could leave the paper facing a contempt of court charge.

As a result, the paper dramatically changed the direction of its coverage, and it provides an insight into the type of reporting that can be applied when the traditional killer-focused narrative is disrupted.

They told the stories of the dead. The stories of those who had lost, and those who continued to suffer. Those who tried to help. They told the story of an island wracked with grief, and determined to do something with their heartache and anger. They told the story of gun control, and how political decisions can help the healing and move a society forward.

It was reporting that served its community.

And the killer wasn’t part of it.

He wasn’t then, and he shouldn’t be now.

We know these killers seek to be seen as dangerous, as demonic, as glorious. Simply, they wish to be seen. We took that away from the Port Arthur killer, in a way that mattered, and continues to matter.

He is pathetic, reviled, and ignored. And he should stay that way.

This occasion should be used to mark those who were lost, and those who have never been allowed to forget that day.

It should be used to mark the courage of a Prime Minister who stared down his own constituency to make changes that had to be made. An act so far from the craven politicking of the modern ilk as to seem exaggerated or allegorical.

It should be used to remind us that there are more guns in Australia now than at the time of Port Arthur. They are predominantly legally owned and monitored and in the hands of responsible people. But there are more of them.

Which should serve as a salutary reminder that there is more to our success in disrupting this crime than gun control alone. It’s an area we’ve been taking for granted for too long, and I worry our luck will run out.

When another Australian committed a mass shooting in 2019, the coverage in this country bore no resemblance to 1996. It was treated as another foreign massacre — one filled with horror and spectacle and imagery and manifestos and tears and outrage and sirens and fear — rather than a story that profoundly impacted our community, because we exported a mass murderer to our neighbours.

We denied the Port Arthur killer the infamy he sought. We gave it to the Christchurch killer. We shouldn’t.

The evidence tells us there is more to our success in keeping mass shootings from these shores than gun numbers alone. We must not lose the lessons we have learned these last 25 years.

Port Arthur was a day that changed this country, and still should.

Any focus on killers is not backed up by public interest, evidence around motivation, or audience demands. There should be no movie, no retrospective, no rationale, nothing that involves him.

This day is not about the coward who killed.

Let him rot.

There are so many incredible, tragic, heroic, unfathomable human stories in any mass shooting. We miss them when we focus on the killer. We miss stories that matter. Stories of us.

Those stories never age.

Glynn Greensmith is a journalism lecturer at Curtin University, a PhD Candidate at ECU researching mass shootings, and an ABC broadcaster.