New Zealand media and the Christchurch terrorism attacks

Bryce Edwards
Member with delegated authority on
Political Party Integrity, Media, Anti-corruption policy & legislation

Bryce Edwards
TINZ Member with Delegated Authority: Media

The terrorism attacks at two Christchurch mosques on 15 March 2019 present major challenges to the New Zealand news and social media. The media – like many other institutions – is under increased scrutiny in the wake of the attacks.

Firstly, there is scrutiny in terms of how the media have operated in the past. Secondly, there is greater scrutiny about how the media will deal with the reportage of the terrorist.

New Zealand Media under scrutiny

There is a lot of anger as a result of what has happened in Christchurch. People are casting around for explanations for why this has occurred with fingers pointed in a number of directions. These include the security services, various politicians, social media, gun control laws, and the Police.

Many argue that the event shows New Zealand has major issues with racism, hate, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. For some, the media have played a significant part in enabling this negative climate. Various mainstream media outlets and certain individual journalists and broadcasters are called out as being “part of the problem”. After all, media have at times published and reported on views that could be seen as racially ignorant, discriminatory or bigoted.

There will now be greater evaluation of the role of the media as informing democracy, or in stoking bad ideas and sentiments.

Media coverage of this terrorism event

There is no doubt that the New Zealand and international media have invested in huge amounts of coverage into this terrorism event. At times they have got parts of the story wrong, and had to be corrected.

There have been some particularly difficult issues in covering the attacks in Christchurch. These are due to its horrific nature and the involvement of a terrorist who is actively seeking media coverage in order to achieve notoriety. The media has, therefore, had to find ways of being sensitive and providing good taste and decency. There will be different views on whether they have achieved this.

Certainly, the New Zealand media have covered the event differently than international media. Initially, some media websites included footage from the terrorist’s own video of the attack, but most soon took it down. Some countries have been much more liberal in including this footage – especially in the middle east, where TV channels broadcast the footage as a matter of fact.

Elsewhere, there has been liberal use of the terrorist’s image and identity. For example, Australian and British newspapers published large photos of him on their frontpages. They covered his backstory in relatively large detail.

In New Zealand there has been something of a blackout of the terrorist. This is partially due to legal reasons, and increasingly due to a moral consensus that the terrorist shouldn’t be given the personal publicity that he craves. As the Prime Minister has said, she will never speak his name. There is pressure on the media here to do something likewise.

How will the media cover the terrorist’s trial?

There are fears that the judicial trial of the terrorist will allow him to achieve greater infamy and to spread his hateful messages. There will be great pressure on the media not to report many of the details. There is even some suggestion that the trial not be covered at all. Obviously, the international media will present a particular problem for this strategy. Questions about media freedom will arise out of this.

Possible clampdowns on media and political freedoms

Debates about “free speech” and “hate speech” have been growing over the last year. These are rapidly escalating in the wake of what happened in Christchurch. There is likely to be a greater public appetite for clampdowns on what is seen as unhealthy and dangerous political ideas. This will have large implications for the media.

In the sphere of “new media” or “social media” there is likely to be some big changes. In many ways, their issues mirror the issues faced by the media in general. But because of technological differences, the messages which gain traction are often much more extreme and problematic.

Much debate is needed on these issues.