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Media Coverage of the Port Arthur and Lindt Café Shootings

The next speaker at AoIR 2017 is Catherine Son, who examines the role of digital publics in Australian print media practices. In 1996, for instance, when the Port Arthur massacre took place, many of the digital publics that were in evidence during the 2015 Lindt Café siege in Sydney, and a review of these two events of national significance serves to highlight the evolution of the Australian media ecology over these twenty years.

Tasmania's Port Arthur, a former penal colony with a very dark past, was the site of a mass shooting that claimed the lives of 35 people, and prompted the introduction of considerably strengthened gun control legislation in Australia. In December 2015, a lone gunman claiming Islamist links took hostages at a café in Sydney, leading to the deaths of two hostages and the gunman himself after a lengthy siege. How did digital technologies affect how these events were covered, then?

This study draws on a selection of several hundred news reports from major Australian newspapers, as well as oral history interviews with journalists; it assesses the object and attribute salience in these news reports. As it turns out, the number of salient objects and attributes was considerably greater in the coverage of the Port Arthur massacre and its aftermath; there was broader societal debate about violence and gun control sparked by that event than by the siege in Sydney. During the siege, the bulk of the media discussion focussed more narrowly on Islamic extremism and Australian immigration policy.

But journalists nonetheless perceived digital technologies as a challenge to their role as agenda-setters and editors. They highlighted the growing attention to news metrics, and the possibility of major stories to appear from view if they did not receive sufficient clicks on their organisations' homepages; they also noted the substantial pressure they felt from the immediacy of social media. However, diminishing revenues, the 24-hour news cycle, and the influence of the PR and corporate communications industry are likely also major factors here.

The different contexts of the event must also be recognised here. Reporters had to travel to Port Arthur to cover the event, while they were already in Sydney to cover the siege there. Greater opportunities for public participation exist than ever before, but established media agendas remain central.