Sonya Voumard’s The Media and the Massacre is a chilling portrayal of journalism, betrayal, and storytelling surrounding the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. Inspired, in part, by renowned American author Janet Malcolm’s famously controversial work The Journalist and the Murderer, Voumard’s elegant new work of literary non-fiction examines the fascinating theme of ‘the writer’s treachery.’ The author brings to bear her own journalistic experiences, ideas and practices in a riveting inquiry into her profession that is part-memoir and part ethical investigation.
I’ve been sitting at my computer for the last hour, trying to put into words how I feel about Sonya Voumard’s The Media and the Massacre. Originally starting out life as a doctoral thesis, The Media and the Massacre is a look at the 1996 Port Arthur massacre and subsequent media coverage. If I’m being honest – you can tell it started out life as a product of academia. It is quite dry in parts, and if you’re not interested in the Port Arthur massacre, you might not be willing to wait out the dry spells.
It’s quite obvious that Voumard has done a lot of research. Voumard has interviewed journalists, lawyers, ethicists, and editors – even the artist Rodney Pople, who produced a number of controversial works about Martin Bryant and the Port Arthur massacre. She’s gathered a large amount of information, and she writes critically about it. At the centre of her critique is Robert Wainwright and Paola Totaro’s Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer.
One thing that I struggled to get around was Voumard inserting herself into the narrative. On the one hand, in a book about critiquing another author’s work… it made me scratch my head as the focus was pulled to Voumard. On the other hand, it showed the working practices of a journalist and it gave some insight into how journalists put their work together. In showing us her own prejudices against Wainwright and Totaro, Voumard demonstrates how easy it is to bring your own biases to work that is supposed to be objective.
As much as I liked this book, it felt like it was designed with one main purpose in mind: to discredit Wainwright and Totaro’s work. It should come as no surprise then, that Wainwright and Totaro declined to be involved in Voumard’s project and instead pointed her to the public record, a decision that proved challenging, as Voumard points out:
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. Voumard takes care to give context to the events that she talks about, something I appreciated, given our nation’s fascination with the Port Arthur Massacre.
Despite its downfalls, The Media and the Massacre is important work – it raises important questions in regards to the way journalists communicate with their subjects, especially in collaborative or long-form journalistic projects, and the way in which journalistic behaviour impacts those at the centre of their stories. It shows, as Voumard points out, that journalists “at our best, we do good work — bear witness, seek truth, give voice, explain. At our worst we exploit our subjects.”
Please note: this review originally appeared on my blog, What Kim Read Next. It has been reformatted and edited.