17th April 2019
By Tom Law

Ethical Lessons for Media in Coverage of the Terror Attacks in Christchurch

Aidan White

One month after the mass killing of 50 people at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch, media are still considering the major ethical challenges facing journalists trying to cover terrorist violence in the age of the Internet.

The killer, in this case, was tech savvy. This self-confessed white supremacist chose to spread his message rapidly and deployed the full range of online tools for this purpose by live streaming the attack itself on Facebook and by circulating online an incendiary 74-page manifesto of hate.

Media covering the incident had to make sure they did their jobs as journalists and told the story of what was happening, but did not amplify the message of hate or assist the circulation of propaganda.

In Britain, some media woefully failed this test of their professionalism.

Although the attacks were broadcast live on Facebook, the social media giants reacted quickly and did what they could to take down the video from their platforms. They suspended suspect accounts and the killer’s manifesto was removed.

At the same time, the New Zealand police asked the media to avoid spreading this information. But some of the press in Britain – the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, in particular – published edited versions of the terrorist’s video.

The Daily Mail even gave access to the manifesto and made it available to download. The Sun, Britain’s biggest-selling tabloid, also ran a clip from the video on its homepage.

This provides a real and depressing example of how the business model of the Internet – click bait and the use of sensationalism to attract attention and advertising – is in danger of destroying the ethical base of journalism.

Journalists have a duty to do no harm, to avoid hate-speech and not to incite violence. That’s part of their contract with the public. But in this case, the rush to publish and to exploit the violence being fed into their system took precedence over ethics and the public interest.

It was only after an immediate backlash and widespread outrage by members of the public, other parts of the press and public figures, that the papers took down the offending content from their websites and issued weak apologies for their behaviour. But the damage has been done.

Most of the British media showed restraint and responsibility, but when the largest-selling newspapers behave recklessly, it damages public trust in all media. It shows that there is still much to do for regulators inside the industry.

In particular, media and journalists have to remind themselves of a few core ethical principles.

When covering acts of terrorism and mass violence it is vital that news media show restraint. They need to think particularly carefully before the publication of disturbing content, particularly the showing of explicit images of violence or human suffering.

But as with the New Zealand attack, they also have to ensure they do not fall into the trap of spreading propaganda on behalf of media-wise terrorists.

Journalists have to be careful as to how they frame their stories – to be careful in the use of words like “terrorist”; or in decisions over the footage to use, or naming the people involved.

My personal view is that there should not be external attempts to control media messages – that will only lead to formalised forms of censorship. It is always best to leave the decisions to journalists and editors themselves, even if, as in the case of some UK tabloids, they can make serious mistakes.

Journalists have to ask themselves – if I show this picture or run this video does it add something to the story that is not already covered in the written report?

And while it might be important to report that a terrorist has issued a manifesto setting out his justification it is extremely rare that this should be republished, unless it contains serious additional information that the public needs to know.

As for naming the terrorist involved, it may have been appropriate for political purposes for New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, whose response to the attacks has been widely lauded – to avoid naming the man concerned, but journalists have a duty to tell the public as much of what they know as they can – including naming suspects in police custody.

Even so, they should guard against the undue focus on the suspect, particularly, as in this case, if they are looking for public attention. For the record, the man arrested in Christchurch is Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian who faces 50 charges of murder and 39 of attempted murder.

Above all, media should avoid publishing any information that might empower terrorists, or encourage “copy-cat” acts of violence. Media should take account of what police and public authorities are advising in making their judgements.

The ethical obligations are clear – report accurately, show humanity to the audience, do not publish harmful material, and, above all, do not sacrifice the public purpose of journalism by rushing to publish and exploit sensational information for profit.

These might be simple and well-understood virtues of journalism, but in some corners of media they are still to be learned and acted upon.

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