An examination of media ethics and journalism pedagogy for news communicators: Theory and practice implications of a framing analysis of The Mercury (Tasmania)’s coverage of the Dunblane (March 1996) and Port Arthur (April 1996) mass shootings
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
School of Arts and Humanities
Mass shootings have a birthday.
After the murder of 16 people at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966, scholars from a range of disciplines have noted that the crime of random mass shootings went from an oddity, a rarity, to widespread. Inherent in the identification of a starting point is the way news media began to report the crime: what became known as the script for coverage. Random mass shootings, while still relatively rare, are getting worse, in body count and as horrific spectacles (Lankford & Silver, 2020). Yet journalism as a practice, and journalism as a field of scholarship, have failed to acknowledge their possible impact and been slow to respond to opportunities for change.
This thesis examines the worst mass shooting in Australian history, treating it as a case study to interrogate the elements of reporting that constitute the script. Using a news framing methodology, the thesis compares the coverage of two mass shootings (46 days apart) in one newspaper: The Mercury in Tasmania. Tasmania is the location of the second shooting, at Port Arthur in April 1996. The comparison shooting occurred in Dunblane, Scotland, in March 1996. The case study examines how the coverage of a similar crime might differ within the same news outlet, The Mercury, according to whether the crime being reported was remote, or local. Dominant frames used in The Mercury’s coverage are analysed and contextualised to determine how they relate to an understanding of media effects theory, as well as to concepts of copycat and contagion.
The news framing case study is complemented by long form semi-structured interviews conducted with journalists who covered the Port Arthur massacre to determine the structures and principles of news gathering, and priorities and strategies for news presentation, in a time of crisis. There is also an interview with the Forensic Psychiatrist who conducted an analysis of both the Port Arthur perpetrator and Australia’s previous worst random mass shooter, the man who carried out the Hoddle Street killings in Melbourne, in 1987. For reasons which will become apparent, this thesis chooses not to name random mass shooters.
Given the cultural resonance of the Port Arthur massacre, it may be considered surprising that there has never been an analysis of the reporting of Dunblane massacre in Tasmania, comparing it with the coverage provided for the subsequent Port Arthur murders. This possibly reflects the fact that, even though mass shooting research generally has grown substantially in the past decade, few journalism scholars have contributed. Those that have participated have provided vital insights, but more work is required within journalism studies. As Australia’s gun ownership levels now exceed those that existed prior to the Port Arthur killings in 1996 (Alpers, 2017), the need for continued vigilance is apparent.
This thesis also investigates the sole historical precedent for random mass murder—the amok phenomenon. It explores whether contemporary societies could potentially learn different ways of understanding and responding to the crime of random killings, and the possible role of the media script within these. The intention is that this work, both in its historical examination of amok, and in the case study of The Mercury, will contribute to the evolution of research into mass shootings, and mass shooters, strengthening the journalism studies perspective.
Finally, this thesis discusses recommendations for change in the reporting of random mass shootings, arguing that such changes will make a difference.
Access to this thesis is embargoed until 27 August 2026.
Greensmith, G. (2021). An examination of media ethics and journalism pedagogy for news communicators: Theory and practice implications of a framing analysis of The Mercury (Tasmania)’s coverage of the Dunblane (March 1996) and Port Arthur (April 1996) mass shootings. https://ro.ecu.edu.au/theses/2444