They say you get the media you deserve.
This week, New Zealand deserved and got first-class public interest journalism – almost across the board – as media organisations first scrambled and then delivered in covering one of the biggest, saddest and most shocking news stories in the country’s history.
We should expect nothing less. But for too long the day-to-day one-dimensionality of what passes as news, the collapse in the finances and resources of commercial media and the heightened partisanship in the community around politics and social issues have lowered public expectations and appreciation of journalism and why it matters.
For all its perceived and real failings, this week New Zealand journalism served the public well. Many public institutions and leaders likewise. An event this profoundly important and serious tends to bring out the best in people.
When major live news breaks, the first imperative is for news media to inform – the what, where, when and what the authorities are telling the public to do. It is usually a highly-charged and fast-moving period and inevitably misinformation is circulated (not always by fault of journalists, sometimes through official and witness statements). This time we were variously told on radio, television and websites that there was a possible third reported attack, at Christchurch Hospital, that bombs were in three cars, that a high school might also be under attack after reported gunshots and by implication, because of their arrests, four people may have been involved.
In all cases, there were grounds to alert the public to these possible developments and in all cases media corrected those details once they could get straight answers from those who knew – the police.
(In that first phase, a number of media outlets – including, for a time, Newsroom – showed still photos or brief edited clips of the moments caught on the gunman’s own video outside the mosque preceding the shootings. Most were promptly removed after public criticism.)
The earliest moments of reporting a breaking story present unusual dilemmas. On RNZ during the Jesse Mulligan show mid-afternoon on Friday, the host did his best to update the scant details from Christchurch. But there was a need for more time, more news gathering and information, and Mulligan had to continue presenting a guest musician who was in studio to play live. The guest said he felt awkward continuing, as did we the listeners, but Mulligan re-assured him some listeners had texted to say the music was providing some calm among the sudden, brutal shock of the news.
For all the millions of words written and spoken, there were very few mis-steps in tone or content.
From Friday evening, through the weekend and into this week was some outstanding broadcasting, website reporting and newspapering. In this next phase, which deals with the who, how and why, many news outlets excelled.
RNZ’s Checkpoint programme anchored by Lisa Owen continued live long into Friday night with revealing and detailed first-hand interviews and reporting; Newshub‘s reporter Thomas Mead in Christchurch, duty presenter Mitch McCann and later national affairs editor Patrick Gower disclosing and making sense of what happened; and 1 News had the benefit of assigning John Campbell to do what only he can on the ground.
All backed by their organisations’ commitment to go live continuously and with the help of large newsroom teams getting vital information to air.
International media have been in Christchurch in large numbers, with CNN, the BBC, Al Jazeera and some of the world’s major newspaper brands sending teams and giving prominence to the attacks and the aftermath. RNZ hosted US and French teams at its Christchurch newsroom. New Zealanders were among those assigned back here for foreign media and helped portray the country’s shock, grief and response to the world.
Even in this age, the hometown newspaper carries a particular responsibility and The Press, Christchurch’s morning daily, was at the heart of Stuff.co.nz‘s massive Friday reporting effort and consistently succeeded in broadening people’s understanding of what went on. Its rival website, nzherald.co.nz was by Friday evening matching that range of explanation and insight through the voices of survivors, families and reporters on the ground. Both major websites threw everything into serving their readers, for the most part with empathy and sensitivity. (Stuff disabled comments on stories relating to the attack.)
Through the weekend and beyond, the media did well in identifying and exploring fundamental issues beyond the shootings themselves: Islamophobia, gun laws, racism, political rhetoric and past failings. Big topics, approached and presented powerfully and directly.
Muslim commentators understandably were sought, broadcast and published – and rightly opened the eyes of the media and broader community to longstanding issues for their community, the experience of minorities, insights into their faith and practices and constant examples of fortitude and forgiveness.
News organisations have also been challenged over their portrayal of Islam and lack of diversity and representation of Muslim journalists and voices in their ranks. This is inarguable and the tragedies of Christchurch could help change that. There are obvious benefits in newsrooms better reflecting their audiences and being able to reach into and reflect communities.
One example, among many this week, was in an interview obtained by The Project on Three in which host Kanoa Lloyd sat down in Ashburton with Ambreen Naeem, whose husband and son were killed in the terror attack. It was among the most remarkable interviews aired. Ambreen spoke of her husband and son, her faith and her pity for the killer with an astonishing serenity which few viewers could have failed to have been moved by.
That interview was later tweeted to the world by Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan. Mahvash Ali, a Pakistani-born associate producer on The Project, responded to that by tweeting “I was the producer on that segment. We have been absolutely blown away by the attention it has got.”
Substantial media resources have focused on the victims, their families and others who survived. Beyond the individual interviews and profiles, the stories of their lives, with photos, were brought together by both Stuff and the Herald in dignified and powerful examples of digital storytelling.
There is much work to do in New Zealand media, both on the news angles exposed by the attack one week ago and on improving understanding of – and representation of – our communities. But through a week of crisis previously unimaginable in this country, the New Zealand Journalist played her and his part.