Terror in Chch

Terror on TV news: Lessons from Australia

What can New Zealand learn from Australia’s broadcasting watchdog’s investigation into reporting on the Christchurch terror attacks? David Williams reports.

On March 15 in Australia, more than 4000 kilometres away from a New Zealand city in lockdown, live-stream footage of the terrorist shooting plays on the television news.

No Australian broadcaster shows a person being shot, injured, or killed at the two Christchurch mosques. But excerpts used by Sky News and the Seven and Nine networks show gunfire directed at people. Footage broadcast by Network Ten depicts extensive gunfire. In material sourced from overseas, and shown on SBS, smoke from gunfire is the only thing obscuring injuries.

Twenty-four seconds of edited footage airs on SBS World News showing the inside of a car, the camera panning, rockily and blurrily, to rifles. What is about to happen is clearly premeditated and highly planned. It is also publicity-seeking.

The voiceover says: “One gunman live-streamed the shooting, the start of a horrifying video shows him driving to the Al Noor Mosque, rifles by his side, playing music as he neared the complex.”

Serious questions prompt ‘productive conversation’

Was the use of this footage by SBS and other Australian broadcasters – difficult editorial decisions made in a confusing and quickly unfolding situation – responsible and ethical? Did they follow the codes of practice?

And even if they did, do those codes properly protect the audience from graphic and distressing violence? More broadly, were the right decisions made in the face of a terror attack apparently designed to spread a particular ideology?

These questions prompted an investigation – launched three days after the attack – by the regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Its report, made public last week – and panned by New Zealand-born academic Denis Muller as soft – says some material raised “serious questions” about whether broadcasters complied with the codes.

“However, given the level of responsibility shown by the broadcasters and the unique circumstances of this incident, the ACMA considers that finding individual contraventions of the codes would have little regulatory or educative benefit.

“Instead, the ACMA considers that this investigation would more usefully prompt a productive conversation with industry about whether its codes are adequately framed to deal with this type of material in the future—in particular, perpetrator-generated live streamed extreme violent material.”

Brash Aussies, cautious Kiwis

Radio New Zealand boss Paul Thompson says it is interesting that ACMA was so proactive, but he notes New Zealand media responded in a different way to Australian broadcasters.

“If a similar exercise happened here the issues wouldn’t be quite as serious. That may reflect that we were more cautious because it was in our patch, where for the Australians it was a bit at arm’s length. I also think it also somewhat reflects the editorial culture of the two countries.”

That brashness, particularly by Australian newspapers, disappointed Massey University journalism lecturer Cathy Strong. “It was shameful, what they did.”

She says after the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, Australian newspapers had generally not plastered the names and pictures of mass killers over their front pages. “Until this one came along.”

Given the proximity of New Zealand, and the ghastly nature of the crime, it was newsworthy. But the front page treatment gave the alleged terrorist the “glamourising” that some shooters want, Strong says. Such editorial judgment is knee jerk, she says – “more instinctive rather than thoughtful”. It was an attempt to localise the story rather than thinking about the social good.

“I think we’re all trying to balance doing a job at being robust and asking and answering questions for our audiences but just not seeing this as anything which we should play games with, we should sensationalise, or exploit just to get a sugar-hit of audience attention.” – Paul Thompson

New Zealand’s Broadcasting Standards Authority confirms it’s investigating a “small number” of complaints about broadcasts of the Christchurch mosques shooting on this side of the Tasman. Decisions are imminent, chief executive Belinda Moffat says.

But even before the decisions are released, the BSA has already signalled, in this year’s statement of performance expectations, that – like ACMA – it’s considering changes to its standards to take terrorism into account. (If it does take that step, it’ll have to be done in consultation with its 120 broadcasters.)

Moffat says agencies like Netsafe, the Office of Film and Literature Classification, and the Media Council have an interest in the effect of the coverage of violent extremism or terrorism. She expresses an interest to work with the council, which represents newspapers, magazines, video on demand, and digital news outlets like Newsroom.

Moffat: “We all have an interest in ensuring that we’ve got the right frameworks that can respond to these situations, as unfortunate and horrifying as they are.”

(The Media Council’s executive director Mary Major didn’t want to comment. It’s waiting for a Department of Internal Affairs report into coverage of the shooting, which is due out soon and will be considered by the council.)

The country’s major news groups have already agreed a proactive protocol for covering next year’s trial of the alleged terrorist – a move that was praised by an American expert on terrorism and mass media.

RNZ’s Thompson, a signatory to the protocol, says there’s a consensus to report the mosques attack frankly, and to use images and audio-visual where it’s warranted for news value. But media groups want to make sure that “we don’t become a part of the problem” – a mouthpiece for what he calls a “manipulative mass media exercise”.

“I think we’re all trying to balance doing a job at being robust and asking and answering questions for our audiences but just not seeing this as anything which we should play games with, we should sensationalise, or exploit just to get a sugar-hit of audience attention.”

A different attitude online

Massey’s Strong, who is from Seattle, United States, has researched media coverage of terrorism attacks. She says psychologists have been begging the media not to put the picture or the name of the shooter on the front pages of newspapers. Also for them to shy away from giving the shooter fame, and instead focus on victims.

Mainstream outlets, even those in the US, appear to be getting those messages, Strong says. But they take a different approach on their websites and promotions on social media. (That’s something Newsroom noted after the last appearance of the accused gunman.)

“What I found in tracking the media coverage of this is that the very same media outlets don’t put it in their newspaper but they will put it online. The unfortunate thing with that is online gets even more spread, more viral.

“For some reason that is not filtering down. The big media companies seem to heed the plea but they haven’t transferred it from print front page to what they do online.”

She uses the example of a shooting at a video game tournament in August last year, in Jacksonville, Florida, that killed two people. The game was being live-streamed on the internet as the shooting started.

“In the US, 98 percent of the newspapers covered it but did not put his picture or name on the front page,” Strong says, adding that media in New Zealand and Australia did the same. “But even our own [media] here in New Zealand put it online. And his picture was just plastered every place online. If you’re looking at what influences potential shooters it’s that online coverage.”

Unprecedented complexities

Thompson says RNZ recognises radio and online are different mediums – “and so the tolerance levels for various elements of the story might be different”. There’ll be a shared set of common guidelines but it makes sense, he says, for the online editor to have the ability to make a “slightly different decision” to a programme editor.

He adds: “It’s going to be challenging.”

RNZ editors have been having ongoing conversations with staff from day one, Thompson says. 

Thompson: “Our focus has been covering the facts, looking at things from a victim perspective, and being very restrained in our use of his name, the use of his image, and his name in headlines.

“None of us has come across a story like this before ... I think it’s an unprecedented case in terms of balancing those complexities.”

“It is probably timely to review ethics and whether we have guidelines that work in a digitally networked age.” – Paul Spoonley

Circling back to the media guidelines and standards, journalism lecturer and researcher Strong wonders if they’re still relevant as they are.

The test of what an average viewer or reader could be offended by doesn’t apply to a potential mass shooter, she argues. “Most average people don’t think that way,” she says.

Strong’s Massey colleague Paul Spoonley is in Germany, as a senior fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. In the hours after the Christchurch terrorist attack, while he was still in New Zealand, Spoonley talked of a loss of the country’s innocence.

Via email from Germany, he writes: “One issue was the presence of extremists – and the way that they use media, new and old. The other has been the reaction of the media itself.”

He points to a 2016 report, Fanning the Flames, from the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, which highlights challenges such as unknowingly amplifying the message of terrorists and extremists. Then there’s the 2014 report claiming a direct link between sensationalist media coverage of terror and more atrocities being committed. (Author Michael Jetter concludes: “If a main purpose of terrorism is to draw public attention, to generate mass hysteria and fear, then media coverage is exactly what terrorists are seeking to promote their agenda.”)

Spoonley says a challenge for media is the extreme nature of a terrorist incident – and whether it’s possible to think of all the consequences and issues while working under pressure. “For that reason, it is probably timely to review ethics and whether we have guidelines that work in a digitally networked age.”

Would Australian and New Zealand media outlets make different decisions after their experience of covering the Christchurch attack? Journalism lecturer Strong thinks so.

“I know the heads of a lot of media in these two countries, and they are thoughtful. They are looking out for what’s good in the community.”

The more articles written about responsible reporting, and the more thought going into the debate, the better, she says. That will make it more likely, Strong thinks, that media will act more carefully next time. “Unfortunately there will be a next time.”

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