Legal

How should media report the trial?

“We’ll be forced to hear him testify.”

The comment was made by a New Zealand Muslim on Saturday morning as the implications of Friday’s attack and arrest of the man accused of Christchurch's massacre sank in.

Since then the news he plans to represent himself in a trial has sent further disquiet through New Zealand and questions are emerging about how media should report on the trial.

Surviving the attack and pleading not guilty was the accused’s plan according to a rambling manifesto he shared before the shooting. He hoped survival would give him a chance to further spread his ideals.

There’s the obvious distress his testimony could cause for the family and friends of those he killed but there’s also the fear media reporting of the trial will give him new platform to share his message.

It’s a concern shared by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who said she thinks a conversation needs to be held with media.

“Of course people will want to know what’s happening with the trial but I would hope there are ways that could be covered without adding to the notoriety that this individual seeks.”

She said indications are he seeks attention from the trial.

“One thing I can assure you, you won’t hear me speak his name.”

“If he starts off on a sort of a dialectic rant, then it's within the power of the court to shut him up because it's not adding to the ability of the court to determine guilt or innocence.”

There are calls for media to restrict coverage of the trial and to not report on what the accused killer says, or to take photographs of him.

Media commentator Gavin Ellis understands many people, as well as media, do not want to give the man a platform, but thinks too much censorship is also problematic.

Media are the eyes and ears of the public in court, and play an important role in an open justice system.

“The media are in the court and granted qualified privilege to provide the public with a fair and accurate record of what goes on in the court.”

Ellis said in every murder trial journalists refrain from going into explicit detail for good reason.

“The public do not expect to know that level of detail because it’s deeply disturbing. I would expect the same sensibilities will be exercised by journalists in this case.”

While journalists use their discretion the court also can control the accused gunman’s ability to use the trial to share his ideology said Ellis.

“If he starts off on a sort of a dialectic rant, then it's within the power of the court to shut him up because it's not adding to the ability of the court to determine guilt or innocence.”

If he’s charged under the Crimes Act for murder, rather than the Terrorism Suppression Act, his ability to introduce evidence will be constrained to determining his guilt or innocence relating to murder charges.

There is concern, however, he’ll slip in coded messages familiar to the alt-right and white supremacists which media may unwittingly miss.

Already, at his first appearance in court on Saturday morning where he was charged with one count of murder, he sent a signal.

A photograph shows the accused, dwarfed by police on either side, with his face blurred. With his cuffed hands which are not blurred, he gives a white supremacist symbol.

Documentary maker Dylan Reeve has looked into subsets of online culture and is familiar with the in-jokes used by the alt-right and white supremacists. He worries media won’t know all the coded-messages which could be sent during the trial. Reeve has started a petition asking media to report on the trial with only the most basic of details.

“Being photographed, giving an ostensibly white power signal in court was a massive win. That will just continue.”

People on websites such as 8chan, where the accused posted are full of in-jokes and memes. His attack played up to these, from the choice of music in his car, to his call to subscribe to a YouTuber. 

Every joke the media reports unwittingly, is another point the accused scores according to Reeve and unless media are deeply involved in the communities these in-jokes come from, it will be easy to miss references.

“A huge part of their culture is about fame. The more famous he becomes the more points he managed to score in terms of getting things past the media and getting his little jokes out into the world, the more someone else is going to want to beat his high-score.

“The more it’s going to tip someone towards the idea I can do more.”

Reeve thinks media shouldn’t publish anything the accused gunman says, and or publish any photographs of him.

“This is one of the most traumatic events in New Zealand. There is a huge public interest in the trial and justice must be seen to be done.”

Auckland University professor Shaun Hendy has similar concerns around how the coded messages could slip past reporters.

“There are a lot of references those of us that are in the know will get, but for most of us outside those circles it’s very hard to interpret what’s going on.”

He suggested if enough journalists are interested, he and other academics could work on a guide for media to recognise these messages and avoid reporting them.

“We have an open justice system because we know it's important that we see justice be done" There was a risk that would be exploited "to get his crazy messages across.”

Massey University associate professor Jim Tully, a former editor and longstanding journalism academic, thinks a guide could be helpful for reporters.

“In this particular case, I think people should be briefed in some of those symbols or phrases that could be sending messages.”

Tully thinks talk of suppressing evidence though, is a minefield for journalists.

“This is one of the most traumatic events in New Zealand. There is a huge public interest in the trial and justice must be seen to be done.”

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