20 Years Later: Reflections on Covering Port Arthur
On April 28, 1996, a gunman with two semi-automatic assault rifles killed 35 people in a cafe in Port Arthur, Tasmania. On the twentieth anniversary of the shootings, Gary Tippet, former senior writer for The Age, spoke with ABC Radio Victoria's Nicole Chvastek about the effects of covering the attack and its aftermath.
"Frankly I never want to go to that place again," said Tippet, who arrived in Port Arthur the day after the shooting. He says for the first few days he buried himself in the story, hiding with his colleagues behind their "protective weapons": a notebook and a deadline. It was not until the following week that Tippet broke down. He was standing next to a tree where one of the victims was killed; friends and family had turned it into a makeshift memorial.
"Suddenly I just found myself weeping," he said. "Something happens to us as journalists who see too much death and do too much intruding into other people's grief. It sort of soaks into you. And after a week of just doing my job, it was that very, almost pedestrian thing. There were no bodies left, there was nothing but your imagination and this horrible place."
"In years and years of covering murders, suicides, road crashes, bush fires, massacres... these things work on you. They work on you like Chinese water torture. Drip by drip by drip. They do you harm," said Tippet, who saw his first dead body one week into his first reporting job as an 18 year-old.
For Tippet, covering the aftermath of a massacre like Port Arthur is "unfortunately just part of what we do, part of what I did for about 48 years."
He says in the past journalists were reluctant to acknowledge the effects their experiences had on them. "What we used to do - we would sort of cover ourselves with black humor. We'd joke about these horrible things we've seen and try to grow this thick skin. It's a form of self-protection. But doing that does you as much harm as it does good."
Tippet says attitudes are now changing. He likens the work of journalists to that of first responders. An ambulance worker once explained to him that every bad thing you see is like a "snapshot stored in the back of your brain. My problem is my photo album is overflowing."
The same can be applied to journalists, he says: "Eventually you hit a point when it becomes just too much. Journalists are human too. You can't pretend otherwise."