Non-fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 224 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Earlier this month (9 April) marked my 20th anniversary working in journalism, while earlier this week (29 April) marked the 20th anniversary of Tasmania’s Port Arthur massacre in which 35 people died. At the time it was the world’s worst civilian massacre by a lone gunman and it had huge repercussions on the Australian psyche, gun control and media reportage.
I remember the event clearly, because I had only started my first proper job as a reporter a few weeks earlier. While we didn’t actually cover the shootings in our pages (it was a rural newspaper in Victoria more focused on local events), we had the radio on in the newsroom listening to updates on the Monday. It was all rather strange and terrifying, because after Bryant killed all those people on the Sunday he held some others hostage in a local B&B for a day, before setting the property and himself on fire. (He was later found guilty and given 35 life sentences without possibility of parole.) Now, all these years later, any mention of the Port Arthur massacre immediately transports me back to that time with a kind of shuddering dread.
The relationship between journalists and their subjects
Sonya Voumard’s The Media and the Massacre, recently published in Australia by Transit Lounge, looks at that tragic event and explores the relationship between journalists and their subjects. It draws inspiration from one of my all-time favourite reads, Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, and it’s also clearly influenced by Helen Garner’s true crime reportage (specifically This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial and Joe Cinque’s Consolation).
But its main focus is on the best-selling Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer by Robert Wainwright & Paola Totaro, which tried to examine what made the killer carry out such a horrendous crime. In the process of writing their book, the two respected broadsheet journalists found themselves embroiled in an ethical — and legal — minefield when Carleen Bryant, Martin’s mother, withdrew her support for the project. She later sued them over the use of her personal manuscript and accused them of exploitation.
As any journalist will tell you, there are always two sides to every story, and Voumard, who is a respected journalist and academic herself, tries to flesh these out — with mixed results. For as much as I enjoyed this book, which is part memoir, part ethical investigation, I felt that it was designed with one aim in mind: to discredit Wainwright’s and Totaro’s work. Funnily enough, Wainwright and Totaro did not want to take part in Voumard’s project, directing her to the public record instead, a decision that proved challenging, as the author points out in Chapter 15:
Any suggestion that a writer should abandon a project because one or more of the key individuals declines to be interviewed would, I believe, be defeatist and contrary to the journalistic function of shining a light where some would prefer it not to be shone. […] When interview subjects decline to participate, you look and dig deeper elsewhere in the knowledge that no story begins with an exact destination mapped out. You discover the vast and rich landscape of the public record. If you are dogged and fortunate you may uncover hitherto unseen material that sheds light on some of the sorts of answers you need.
Despite this setback, Voumard slowly builds her case by examining written records — emails, newspaper articles, public appearances and passages from Wainwright and Totaro’s book. But that is only part of the story, for The Media and the Massacre looks at the wider issues of “the writer’s treachery” by looking at how journalists operate, what their roles are in the broader scale of things and how the media handles complaints.
Easy-to-read prose style
The best bit about the book, which originally began life as a doctoral thesis, is how easy it is to read. Voumard has an effortless prose style and despite tackling some big subjects she puts things into context using simple jargon-free language, as you would expect from any good journalist.
Like Garner and Malcolm, she inserts herself into the story, taking the reader on a journey as she uncovers evidence or interviews subjects for the book. I tend to like this style because by showing the working practices of a journalist the reader comes to understand how news stories and feature articles, or, in this case, a book are put together. And you can see how journalists often bring their own prejudices and subjectivity to their work even though they operate under the guise of “objectivity” and “truth-telling”. But at times I felt Voumard was adding extraneous detail that wasn’t always needed simply to emulate a narrative non-fiction “style”.
Yet there’s no doubt that The Media and the Massacre is an important book in the canon of literature that examines the pitfalls of journalistic work and the ethics surrounding the relationship between reporters and their subjects. It raises important issues about the ways in which journalists communicate with their subjects, especially when working on books or longer form journalism and collaborative projects, in order to prevent fallout (of both the ethical and legal variety) at a later date. And it also highlights the ways in which journalistic behaviour has ramifications for the people who are interviewed in the aftermath of tragic events whether these be victims, first responders or eyewitnesses. It shows, as Voumard so eloquently writes at the outset, how journalists constantly tread a difficult, sometimes morally ambiguous, line:
At our best, we do good work — bear witness, seek truth, give voice, explain. At our worst we exploit our subjects.
The Media and the Massacre is currently only available in Australia, where you can buy it direct from the publisher’s website.