The Implications of the Christchurch Mosque Shootings for Journalism.

BCM 113 – Task 2

Social media is a platform that is used for a multitude of reasons. From connecting to family and friends and sharing moments, the use of the internet is a key way to connect with others in today’s society. But what happens when it is used to spread race-hate and exhibit an act of terrorism to a live Facebook audience of 200 people? (Harwell, 2020.) On the 15th March 2019 this is exactly what happened as an armed white-supremacist stormed two mosques and killed a total of 51 innocent civilians in New Zealand (Menon, 2020.). The act of terror was shared on Facebook via a livestream and his manifesto was published on Twitter and 4chan for the world to see. Many ethical issues arose surrounding the matter as journalists were faced with a dilemma when reporting on the matter; provide, the name, footage and manifesto to the world and give the perpetrator what he desired or keep this information out of their coverage, leaving out clear evidence of the crime committed in their reports. Many journalists and news agencies opted to leave out the shooter’s name and not to quote his manifesto however those who chose the latter were met with backlash and even faced legal trouble. It is due to these reasons that the journalistic coverage of the Christchurch Mosque Shootings remains a major ethical issue and has had large implications on the way that journalists cover news stories.

Flowers & messages left out the front of the Al Noor Mosque following the shootings that killed 51. (via France 24)

On the 15th March 2019, an Australian man by the name of Brenton Tarrant stormed both the Al Noor Mosque in Riccarton and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, killing 51 people and injuring 49. The perpetrator had strategically planned the attack to be at the time of prayer for the Muslim community as this is when the Mosque’s attendance are at their peak. The 17-minute massacre was live streamed on Facebook from a camera strapped to the Tarrant’s head (Murrell, 2019.), making it the first shooting streamed on the platform and was viewed around 4,000 times prior to it’s removal (Harwell, 2020.). His published manifesto titled “The Great Replacement” made it clear that the intentions of his actions surrounded extreme right-wing ideologies as well as White-Supremacy and Islamophobia making the act of violence an act of terror targeted at innocent Muslims (Scroll.In, 2019.). New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern condemned the actions of Tarrant and called it “one of New Zealand’s darkest days” (Arden, 2019) and a royal commission of inquiry was established by the nation after the shooting was declared the deadliest shooting in the modern history of the country (The Guardian, 2019.). The event itself also led to a public outcry regarding the coverage by news outlets and journalists as it was the shooters main intention to have his motives and footage shared to the world, this therefore resulted in a large portion of media outlets and journalists excluding quotes and information regarding the shooter and his manifesto from their coverage as they believed that despite it limiting the facts being presented it was crucial in preventing the spread of his supremacist ideologies and trauma he caused.

Race-hate as a whole is an act of prejudice that has existed since the earliest days of tribalism. Race-hate or ethnic hatred is the discrimination against a certain ethnic group (AHRC, 2020.) and was a key motive in the Christchurch Shootings. Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto expressed extreme white-supremacist and anti-immigration views, following his court hearing Tarrant flashed the “OK” sign below his waist which is a symbol of white power.  

Christchurch Shooter holding up inverted white supremacy gesture in his first court appearance after committing the act of terror that killed 49. (via Reuters)

There are an array of laws and legislation that protect the rights of individuals of all race, age and gender but the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 is a key piece of legal framework that is in place to prevent these acts of hatred on a particular ethnic group. The act itself “promotes equality before the law for all people regardless of race, colour or national or ethnic origin. It is unlawful to discrimination against people on the basis of race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin.” (AHRC, 2020). In essence, this is the main legislation in place to ensure these acts of terror are illegal and that consequences will apply if they occur.

The Christchurch shootings had major implications on the world of journalism as it challenged many reporters to be extremely cautious with the info they were reporting on to limit the spread of the perpetrators message & not cause distress to viewers. Following the event, Sky News New Zealand were fined for broadcasting the event and airing footage of the attack that had ‘potential to cause significant distress’. The Broadcasting Standards Authority issued the network a $4000 penalty for airing the footage (Ainge Roy, 2019), in this instance it was evident that the BSA handed the fine as a means of retribution after Sky News inadvertently helped the white supremacist’s cause in showing the attack to the world. To avoid a similar penalty and ‘promoting’ the killer’s ideologies, many news outlets later refused to share quotes from his manifesto and even went as far as censoring his face and making no mention of his name. During all his court hearing after the event, his face was blurred as per request of judge (Menon, 2019). This was seen by many as the best course of action as the shooter’s face and name became synonymous with race-hate and his white supremacist views so by removing all mention this would be the ideal way to prevent exposure. 

The issues expressed relate extremely closely to the MEAA Journalist Codes of Ethics. The four values of the MEAA that members must abide by include honesty, fairness, independence and the respect for the rights of others. Apart from these four values, MEAA members also follow twelve standards, one of which being to “Respect private grief and personal privacy.” (MEAA, 2020) in the reporting of the Christchurch Shootings many journalists had to be wary of whether the footage, quotes and images they were using breached these values and standards whilst still giving the entirety of the story. In this situation, Sky News failed to uphold the value and were rightfully charged for it. This is crucial as another one of the MEAA standards is that journalists must not “suppress relevant available facts” (MEAA, 2020) this coincides with the fact that the shooter’s name and motives were hidden and could therefore be seen as a suppression of relevant facts despite the trauma they cause. As a result of these standards and values regarding the suppression of information and privacy, it is clear that these values carried major implications when covering the tragedy.

Following the public outcry against the Christchurch shootings, government officials created legislation which only furthered the difficulty of reporting on the matter by journalists. One of the largest changes came on the 23rd March 2019 when the manifesto was deemed “objectionable” by the Chief Censor of New Zealand and it was made illegal to distribute or be in possession of it in New Zealand (Lahiri, 2019.). This was due to its race-hate content and fears by government officials that it’d only incite more violence and evoke more radical thinkers to commit similar actions as the shooter. This meant that many journalists who covered the story in New Zealand were unable to use direct quotes from his manifesto and therefore were unable to use a key source to identify the motives of the Brenton Tarrant, this accompanied by the fact that the Broadcasting Standard Authority and MEAA prohibited the use of footage from the live stream and it is evident that many journalists faced a major issue when reporting this story when ensuring not to distress viewers or promote the shooter’s hate-speech whilst still providing facts and covering the entirety of the event.

The Christchurch Mosque Shootings also had vast impacts on the internet and wider community. At the United Nations General Assembly in 2019, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden promoted internet censorship as a means to combat against extremists and hate-speech (Peters, 2019), which could potentially be another blow for journalists reporting on these matters. Brenton Tarrant’s accounts were later removed from all social media platforms including his manifesto (Scroll.In, 2019) and the live stream of the attack which was posted to Facebook (Wong, 2019). Links and footage of the text and video remain difficult to access but can still be found today due to users re-uploading it to the internet showing a significant flaw to internet censorship (Daadler, 2020).  

New Zealand Prime Minister embracing a member of the Muslim community following the attacks (via Getty)

The event resulted in comments from Queensland Senator Fraser Anning which sparked outrage as he blamed Muslims for the shootings despite them being the victims of the attack (Koziol, 2019). A story in which journalists and the general public alike covered heavily. These events were the most significant for journalists in the aftermath of the event.

Following Fraser Anning’s controversial comments he was famously egged and made in a video that went viral (via Buzzfeed.)

In summary, it is evident that the events and coverage of the Christchurch Mosque Shootings had major implications for journalists and those reporting on the matter. The main issues arose from the content of the shooter’s motives being sensitive and deemed as objectionable by NZ officials. With the footage and quotes of the event being censored it was made extremely difficult for journalists to report on the matter and cover all the facts. This distance on media coverage meant that key information was missing from an impactful story and subsequently had potential ramifications on viewers who saw stories regarding the matter but were unaware about the extra details on the event such as the shooter’s manifesto and identity.

Reference List

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