How should the media cover next year’s terror trial? Academics, many of them ex-journalists, weigh in.

In 1995, Joe Hight covered the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing – the worst act of homegrown terrorism in the United States. He went on to co-found the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and, now, is the Edith Kinney Gaylord chair of journalism ethics at the University of Central Oklahoma.

But he’s a human first.

Asked for advice on how best to cover next year’s trial of the alleged Christchurch shooter, he starts with a message for the people of Christchurch and the Muslim community. “I first want to express my sincere sympathies to your community for the losses that you suffered there.”

Hight, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, says the media play a vital role in the aftermath of any tragedy. “While a news organisation does have a responsibility to provide coverage to all sides, it must be cautious not to become a vehicle for the continuing spread of hate. It must be careful not to sensationalise and always seek facts to counter conspiracy theories and misinformation.”

The aftermath of horrible events can be like a feeding frenzy for media, he says. But responsible news organisations and journalists will seek to be ethical in their coverage and sensitive to victims and the community. “They’ll be the ones who understand the need to make ethical decisions about the type and balance of coverage.”

Protocol anticipates plea

Even before Shane Tait, lawyer of the alleged Christchurch shooter, stood in court last Friday to say his client would plead not guilty to all charges, the media had ethical questions to answer.

Would their court reports run a picture of the accused? (Mostly, yes.) Would they name him? (Yes.) If so, how many times? (Sparingly.) Crucially, would his name appear in the headline? (In several cases, yes.)

Big media organisations anticipated the not guilty plea. Stuff, NZME, TVNZ, Mediaworks and Radio NZ pre-emptively agreed a protocol for the trial’s coverage. It puts clamps on statements that actively champion white supremacist or terrorist ideology – restrictions that extend to the so-called “manifesto” released before the attacks, and now banned as objectionable.

The fact the industry’s putting so much thought into the trial impresses Brigitte Nacos, an expert on terrorism and mass media at Columbia University in New York City. (Her 2002 book Mass-mediated Terrorism explores how terrorists “exploit global media networks and information highways to carry news of their violence along with ‘propaganda of the deed’”.)

She tells Newsroom via email: “For me, this is another sign that the way New Zealand deals with the horrific attacks on Christchurch mosques might become a model for handling these sorts of incidents in better ways than common in the past.”

It started with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s call not to name the alleged perpetrator, she says. That was an attempt to deny the public and elite attention, and wide recognition of their causes, usually afforded by media coverage. “It is noteworthy that her example has been copied in the wake of public shootings by police here [in the US].”

Of course, a free media in a democracy needs to inform and report on violent incidents and their aftermaths. The question is, Nacos says, how to report and how much?

More than one flavour to coverage

The answer comes with each court appearance of the alleged terrorist – the first person in New Zealand to be charged under anti-terror laws.

Last Friday, at the latest High Court hearing, most media outlets showed unpixellated pictures of Tarrant – including RNZ for the first time. The NZ Herald went as far as publishing an editorial, written by Shayne Currie and Murray Kirkness, telling readers why it was naming the terror accused and showing his face.

Several outlets, including RNZ and the Herald, chose to print the alleged gunman’s name in their headline. (Newsroom has decided to use his name in court reports and, sparingly where appropriate in other news reporting and commentary.)

Media commentator Gavin Ellis, a former Herald editor-in-chief, says the media protocol for the terror trial wasn’t designed to give “one flavour” of coverage. In fact it reinforces the rights of individual editors to make their own decisions.

“So far, we can be pretty pleased with the way our media have handled it,” Ellis says. “Certainly compared with overseas media. The Australian media had a field day after the shooting highlighting the accused at the expense of the victims. Whereas here, the vast majority of our coverage has been weighted towards the victims – as it should be.”

“I don’t think that’s a good reason for running it, just because you can.” – Gavin Ellis

For Ellis future coverage is a matter of degree.

The excessive use of the alleged shooter’s name would be problematic, he says. (As Columbia University’s Nacos puts it, there’s no reason to “over-cover” court appearances, in terms of the number of stories or prominence of stories.) But it’s the use of his image that the media need to treat with care.

Earlier this month, when Justice Cameron Mander ended a ban on the media being able to show the face of the accused, from the first court apperance, Newshub led its 6pm TV bulletin with the story – and showed his face. However, it hardly rated a mention on One News.

“I wouldn’t have run a picture,” says Ellis, while maintaining that when a judge rescinds an order it’s news. “I would have a small story about the order being rescinded, simply on the basis of keeping people up to date with what’s happening in relation to that case.”

Last Friday, most media ran unpixelated images of the accused. But, as Ellis notes, the image wasn’t from that day but from his court appearance on the day after the shooting.

“They weren’t actually reporting what was going on in court that day, they were using the opportunity to finally run a picture of him unpixelated. And I don’t think that’s a good reason for running it, just because you can.”

Legal questions also arise

The questions facing media at next year’s trial will likely not just be ethical.

University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis says the usual legal issues of the right to a fair trial and suppressions will likely arise. Another potential legal question he raises is if the so-called manifesto and video – both declared objectionable – are used as evidence. “That might raise issues as to how the media can use them. But I suspect very strongly that if they are put in then that court may well order them suppressed anyway.”

In terms of ethics, Geddis points to the trial of the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people in 2011. The feeling was that the line of defence made an idiot of him, that his theories and arguments made him look foolish. But one man’s figure of ridicule can, for a certain subset of people, become an icon – and someone they want to emulate.

“This is the problem,” Geddis says. “If you allow these people to speak in their own words are you exposing their ideas for the nonsense that they are, or are you setting them up as potential figures to inspire action by others? And I just don’t know the answer to that.”

The theme about words is picked up by Claire Konkes, a former journalist who now lectures in media at the University of Tasmania. She says quoting an alleged terrorist directly should be avoided, especially in headlines, in case it becomes a platform for a particular ideology.

The media will also have to think carefully about their own language. A shooting in Darwin earlier this month that killed four people was described as a “spree” – a word often associated with shopping, suggesting frivolity and lightness. Konkes: “You’ve got to think of a different word to describe someone’s one hour running loose in the city. It’s not a spree.”

After a series of one-punch deaths, Australian journalists changed their language from describing a “king hit” to a “coward punch”. “Again it’s about glorification,” Konkes says.

Imam Gamal Fouda addresses the crowd in Hagley Park a week
after the mosque shootings. Photo: SOPA Images/Getty Images

Terror expert Nacos, of Columbia University, says the most shocking acts of violence, whether terrorism or criminal, tend to have contagious effects because of huge domestic and international news coverage. Already the alleged Christchurch shooter has been named as the inspiration for a synagogue shooting in California.

“So, there is good reason not to help these persons to become household words in like-minded circles,” Nacos says.

She believes that should extend to not mentioning the accused’s name. But media commentator Ellis says that idea’s just plain wrong. He says if an alleged criminal’s name hasn’t been suppressed then the media have a responsibility to name them in court coverage, at least once at each appearance.

There are those who believe there should be no publicity of the trial, at one extreme. At the other extreme are those who think he should be allowed to say what he likes and everybody should report every word.

The best course for media, according to Ellis, lies somewhere in between. “It’ll be a wobbly one. It won’t be a straight line – it’ll be a wobbly course between those two points.

“Every time he appears in court there will be criticism of the way the media handle it. They just need to be satisfied in their own minds that the judgment that they apply is tested internally.”

At one media organisation, even minor details of the coverage are discussed by a group of editors. “It’s important that the media really do that,” Ellis says. “If they decide to do something, fine. But run it through the mill first.”

In terms of the overarching aim of the New Zealand media protocol, to not provide a platform for white supremacy, none have transgressed, Ellis says. Having said that it’s early days – and the alleged shooter is yet to say anything.

“They really haven’t been tested yet.”

And when the test comes?

Nacos says the focus should be on the victims of the attacks and the coming together of the community.

Hight, who covered the Oklahama City bombing, says providing a balance of coverage includes writing about the victims and their families, and the community. “All are integral in the overall coverage and the continuing healing process in the community.”

Australian journalism lecturer Glynn Greensmith, who’s researching mass shootings, has been asking media to change the script in their stories, away from focusing on the shooter.

In April of this year, Greensmith wrote a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald that refers to the perpetrator of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, who didn’t die as he planned and whose name is rarely mentioned.

“There was no glory for him, no infamy, no tiger spirit, no reclamation of honour or courage. He is despised and ignored.”

Think about last year’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Do you remember the killer’s name? It seems that students and survivors like Emma Gonzales or Sarah Chadwick helped to change the narrative.

On March 22 this year, a week after the Christchurch shootings, Al Noor mosque Imam Gamal Fouda spoke about seeing the hatred and rage in the eyes of the terrorist. But he changed the script. His words are worth repeating.

“Today, from the same place I look out and I see the love and compassion in the eyes of thousands of fellow New Zealanders and human beings from across the globe who fill the hearts of millions.

“The terrorist tried to tear the nation apart with evil ideology. Instead we have shown that New Zealand is unbreakable.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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