On March 15, 50 people were killed in Christchurch’s Masjid Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Mosque. The massacre was live-streamed on Facebook and the alleged gunman’s so-called ‘manifesto’ was distributed online. The accused appeared in the High Court in Christchurch faced with 50 counts of murder and 39 attempted murder charges.
The news coverage is in the context of post-September 11, 2001 attacks. Since then, Western media’s coverage of Islam stereotyped Muslims negatively, linking the religion to terrorism (Powell, 2011). In 2018, so-called ‘alt-right’ Canadian speakers received significant coverage in New Zealand for their views on topics like Sharia law as part of a so-called ‘culture war’ (Kinsella, 2018). Overseas, the news language used regarding migrants played a role in Brexit and negative migrant sentiment (Pencheva, 2019). Meanwhile, New Zealand media featured similar opinions – such as a column (now taken down) by Newstalk ZB’s Chris Lynch questioning Islam’s place in public swimming pools (Stuff, 2019).
Ward (2009), the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA), the New Zealand Media Council, and the Journalist Code of Ethics highlight ethical principles in journalism. Some are applicable in the coverage of Christchurch:
- Privacy vs. public interest
- Accuracy, fairness, and balance
An evaluation of New Zealand news media’s coverage during and after the attacks reveal, with a few exceptions, evidence of restraint and consideration of the mentioned ethical issues during the gathering, writing, and publishing of news. However, overseas media lacked constraint in comparison and covered the attacks unethically in some instances.
Ethics in journalism
Ethical journalism applies “norms of responsible journalism” (p. 295) in virtuous behaviour (Ward, 2009). Various schools of thought define what is ethical. According to Rachels and Rachels (2010):
- Consequentialism deems actions as ethical or unethical based on the consequences it produces. Utilitarian thinking under consequentialism says the action that creates the most happiness – the principle of utility – is ethical.
- Deontology (duty-based ethics) deems the action itself, regardless of consequences, as ethical or unethical. Universal directives determine moral actions.
- The ethics of care, which emphasises empathy, caring, relationships, and minimising harm in reporting (Ward, 2009).
These underpin ethical principles of journalism – for example, deontology in the directives of privacy and balance in the BSA and the Media Council, or ethics of care for reporters’ conduct.
Privacy vs. public interest
The BSA (2016) states people cannot reasonably expect privacy in public, with an exception for people affected by a tragedy. The Journalist Code of Ethics states journalists must respect the grieving (E Tū, n.d.). However, there are times when public interest is significant enough to justify an invasion of privacy (Penk & Tobin, 2016; Media Council, n.d.), reflecting a consequentialist viewpoint that informing the public can lead to a greater good. Public interest describes matters a significant group of people have a legitimate interest or concern about because they may be affected (BSA, 2016; Media Council, n.d.).
Morse (2014) considers death newsworthy for its social significance, thereby requiring the balance of privacy and public interest. Morse says images of weeping survivors are used as “implicit images” (p. 104) of the tragedy. Where taste and decency are concerned, these are generally more accepted than gruesome images as “an alternative way to engage the public with the horror” (Morse, 2014, p. 104).
Activist Guled Mire says in an RNZ article some families of victims were overwhelmed and struggled with media enquiries (RNZ, 2019a). However, there is evidence of ethical newsgathering balancing privacy and public interest.
New Zealand news media ethically balances the need to show the magnitude of the attacks while caring for sources to minimise risks of re-traumatisation (Peacock, 2019). An ethics of care approach where journalists showed sensitivity and empathy was evident in many breaking news interviews.
From a consequentialist perspective, possible breaches of privacy may also be offset by the benefits of privileging the Muslim community’s voices over the alleged perpetrator.
Who should get a voice? Accuracy, fairness, and balance
The Journalist Code of Ethics states:
The Media Council’s principles also state:
No Notoriety, which advocates for a reduction in the news coverage of mass killings, sets guidelines for the media (No Notoriety, n.d.):
- Balance public interest with the potential harm that may come from coverage of mass violence
- Downplay naming and coverage of perpetrators. No names in headlines.
- Do not publish material made by perpetrators
- Provide more coverage, instead, of victims
Weimann (2008) finds terrorists use news media to recruit with propaganda. Weimann says terrorists act “according to media preferences, trying to satisfy the media criteria for newsworthiness,” (p. 383). Curtain University lecturer Greensmith (2019, as cited in RNZ, 2019b) says mass shooters expect infamy in the formulaic reporting of mass shootings that delve into perpetrators’ backgrounds. Therefore, he says the media should starve terrorists of attention and avoid naming them.
Stuff, NZ Herald, and 1 News adhere to the guidelines by only naming the alleged when necessary, such as reports from court (see link). They primarily focus on victims’ stories. In a statement by RNZ’s CEO Paul Thompson (2019), he says RNZ uses the accused’s name sparingly out of RNZ’s duty to comprehensively report the news. RNZ’s charter obliges it to provide comprehensive news in the public’s interest (RNZ, 2017). According to Peacock (2019): “Reporters were told delving into the background of the attackers was part of rigorous reporting, but only verified information about the attackers’ activities and backgrounds should be reported – judiciously and in context,” (para. 18). This reflects standards of accuracy, fairness, and balance outlined by the Journalist Code of Ethics and the Media Council where all of a story’s details should be reported with careful judgement, while also being ethical in trying to reduce consequences that benefit the alleged. Thus, with a focus instead on victims’ stories, journalists begin to take on an activist role by challenging the status quo (Ward, 2009) of previous negative stereotypes about Muslims in the news. Although this is a move away from traditional principles of objectivity as part of fairness and a balance of perspectives, it is fitting in this situation to choose voices of tolerance over terror.
Where RNZ acted unethically, though, is it outlined parts of the ‘manifesto’ during Checkpoint on the afternoon of the attacks (Peacock, 2019). This is unethical due to the potential consequences of spreading the alleged’s propaganda, which would not adhere to the principle of utility for its probability of producing adverse outcomes.
Some foreign news organisations reported ethically by minimising potential harm through reducing airtime to the alleged. For example, the Huffington Post mentions they would not provide links to the live-stream or ‘manifesto’ (Campbell, 2019).
There are also examples of unethical reporting. These examples are unethical as it has the potential to make the alleged infamous and consequently spread his views.
The Press Gazette criticises the Daily Mirror’s front page which includes the headline “Angelic boy who grew into an evil far-right mass killer” and two pictures of the alleged (Mayhew, 2019). The Daily Mirror’s online coverage also features photos of the alleged at the top of its story, with photos of victims being rushed to hospital and law enforcement only at the end.
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail delves into the background of the accused with little mention of the victims (Hill, 2019). It fails to adhere to the principles of fairness as coverage of the alleged is hardly contextualised within the terror attacks, reading instead like a human interest story.
Commercial pressures behind the coverage
Advertising is one possible reason for the differences between domestic and international reporting. The more people visit a news website, the more advertising revenue the organisation can receive.
Major New Zealand news organisations exclude advertising from their coverage of Christchurch so as not to profit from increased traffic to their websites in the wake of the attack. Therefore, any pressure to use clickbait headlines or sensationalise the story is mitigated.
However, overseas media continues with advertising.
A click-driven digital news advertising model is vital to the survival of news organisations like The Mirror and Daily Mail, as outlined in the video below.
The Mirror and Daily Mail are owned by Reach PLC and DMGT respectively. Both organisations hold diverse portfolios for their investors, who expect returns. From a duty-based view that “it is right to keep promises” (BBC, 2014, para. 8) as a universal moral rule where there are obligations to investors, some perspective can be gained as to why these publications have covered the attacks seemingly for clicks. However, against the potential consequences of notoriety, their reporting is unethical.
After evaluating media coverage on the terror attacks against the ethical principles of journalism, ethical news practice of the Christchurch terror attacks do the following:
- Focus on the stories of victims, not the alleged perpetrator, his ‘manifesto’ or his background – especially when challenging the historically biased coverage of the Muslim community
- Minimise the naming of the alleged
- Show care during newsgathering
- Consider people’s privacy when grieving
Against these, the piece concludes New Zealand media coverage, on the whole, reported ethically. However, just as Peacock (2019) concludes: “Overseas media had fewer scruples about what to publish and broadcast,” (para. 19).
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