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June 14, 2019, 8:16 a.m.
Reporting & Production

As the Christchurch massacre trial begins, New Zealand news orgs vow to keep white supremacist ideology out of their coverage

“We’re going to do our job — we won’t chill our coverage in any way — but we’re not going to spread hate or misinformation.”

As the trial of the man accused of the Christchurch mosque massacres began a few hours ago, New Zealand’s major media organizations had a plan.

They will refuse to run coverage in which the accused and his supporters champion white supremacist or terrorist ideology. They won’t cover, broadcast, or print messages, “imagery, symbols, or signals (including hand signals)” made by the accused or his supporters during the trial. They also won’t cover the shooter’s manifesto, a document that made its way around the Internet following the March shooting in which 51 people were killed and which has since been banned in New Zealand. The shooter, who livestreamed the massacre on Facebook, faces 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder, and one terrorism charge.

(In a move some found surprising, he pled not guilty to all charges today, which means a lengthy trial is now set to begin in May 2020. That sets up the possibility of something like Anders Breivik’s 2012 trial for killing 77 people in Norway, which some criticized for giving the killer an extended platform to advance his racist ideology.)

New Zealand’s five leading news organizations — NZME (owner of the New Zealand Herald, the country’s largest newspaper), TVNZ, RNZ, Mediaworks, and Stuffreleased their coverage plan on May 1:

(a) We shall, to the extent that is compatible with the principles of open justice, limit any coverage of statements, that actively champion white supremacist or terrorist ideology.

(b) For the avoidance of doubt the commitment set out at (a) shall include the accused’s manifesto document.

(c) We will not broadcast or report on any message, imagery, symbols or signals (including hand signals) made by the accused or his associates promoting or supporting white supremacist ideology.

(d) Where the inclusion of such signals in any images is unavoidable, the relevant parts of the image shall be pixelated.

(e) To the greatest extent possible, the journalists that are selected by each of the outlets to cover the trial will be experienced personnel.

(f) These guidelines may be varied at any time, subject to a variation signed by all parties.

(g) This protocol shall continue in force indefinitely.

You can see the degree to which New Zealand news organizations are downplaying the trial by looking at their homepages today, hours after the surprise not guilty plea. The top of the New Zealand Herald’s homepage makes zero mention of it; you have to scroll down five screenfuls on a laptop screen to get to this story. (Look for the red arrow.)

That Herald story does use the shooter’s name in the headline and body and feature his photo — moves some disagree with. The paper published an editorial today explaining their reasoning: “Our role in the court proceedings is to be the “eyes and ears” of the public in the courtroom. We have an obligation to faithfully report to the public what is taking place…the naming of the accused is necessary for open justice, and open justice is a foundation of our free society.” Check the replies to this tweet to see what some New Zealanders think of that.

Stuff also put its story low on the homepage — there are 32 other headlines currently listed above it — and led with survivors’ reaction to his plea rather than plea itself. RNZ did put a story higher on its homepage (currently in the fourth most prominent slot) but again framed it around “Mosque attack survivors’ and families’ painful day,” mentioning the plea in the third paragraph.

As terrorist attacks by extremist white men increase worldwide, news organizations have grappled with how to cover them. For instance, at the time of the Charleston, South Carolina attacks in 2015, in which a white man murdered nine black churchgoers, it was still a matter of debate whether people like him should be referred to as terrorists; since then, the term “domestic terrorism” appears to have become more of a part of the conversation.

Research shows that the way the media covers mass shootings can actually affect the number of future attacks — something that reporters have sometimes been reluctant to acknowledge. In 2017, University of Oregon researchers who surveyed 1,318 U.S. newspaper journalists found that “journalists were largely supportive of coverage of perpetrators and were ambivalent about acknowledging a relationship between media coverage and a contagion, or ‘copycat,’ effect. A participant’s age was generally the strongest predictor of attitudes toward media reporting on mass shootings.” From that paper:

Older journalists held a more favorable opinion of the state of mass shooting coverage, more strongly supported coverage of perpetrators, and were less receptive to the idea that mass shooting coverage is an ethical issue. Non-white respondents were more likely to be critical of mass shooting coverage…

Most journalists were in favor of perpetrator coverage and did not believe it glamorized suspected perpetrators. They also largely did not acknowledge a connection between coverage and a contagion effect, which is not necessarily surprising. Most news workers likely do not want to believe that their work contributes to further carnage and suffering, despite evidence showing that fame-seeking mass shooters and a contagion effect do, in fact, exist…Accordingly, journalists’ perceptions of their own coverage may ultimately be less important than the actual effects of that coverage.

The suicide prevention nonprofit SAVE’s Recommendations for Reporting on Mass Shootings note that reporters should use the shooter’s name sparingly and “only quote a manifesto, social media or other writings when it adds important information to the story. Use drawings and graphic material sparingly. Avoid images that glorify violence.”

The New Zealand agreement is noteworthy because it takes the relationship between media coverage and a copycat effect — and a lack of desire to glorify a shooter — as a starting point. “We are aware that the accused may attempt to use the trial as a platform to amplify white supremacist and/or terrorist views or ideology,” the publishers said in their statement.

“What was interesting was how quickly we were able to agree,” said Paul Thompson, CEO and editor-in-chief of RNZ, New Zealand’s public broadcaster. “Normally getting [New Zealand’s major publishers] to agree is like herding cats, but this was a special case where we quite quickly got onto the same page. We’re going to do our job — we won’t chill our coverage in any way — but we’re not going to spread hate or misinformation.”

Thompson said RNZ will be particularly careful around images. It may not publish the shooter’s photo at all; if it does, “we’ll have the editorial decision-making layers to make sure we aren’t doing something that’s going to inflame people.” While RNZ will use social media to share its trial coverage, there will be “more thorough levels of control” than usual.

The decision has received both support and pushback. The shooter “might very well use his defense to propagandize, but even if he does, so what?” wrote Jack Shafer in Politico, adding “both New Zealand’s chief censor and its leading news outlets seem to think that expressions of white supremacism are as irresistible to the general population as an open bag of potato chips.”

Others applauded the agreement.

Thompson stressed that each outlet will be doing its own coverage, but that they’ll be able to communicate with each other throughout on how things are going.

“This is a balance between doing a really important job very well, independently, and robustly, but also making sure we don’t magnify or amplify some of these extremist views,” Thompson said. “It’s a fine line we’re going to have to walk.”

Photo by Suzanne Wilkinson used under a Creative Commons license.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     June 14, 2019, 8:16 a.m.
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