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Journalism and ethics after Christchurch

  • 22 March 2019


A couple of days ago I messaged a friend I studied journalism with at university. She's now working for Fairfax in their Sydney newsroom. She told me that working since the Christchurch terror attack has been 'hectic' to say the least.

Instead of its normal pace, the office has been full of stressed and exhausted journalists scrambling back and forth from their editors' desks. They've all been trying hard to work out what should be, or what deserves to be reported.

She also told me the days have been so busy, she hasn't even had a moment yet to properly process the severity of the event. Reporting massacres, after all, takes an enormous emotional toll. And often, we as journalists only get time to sit and reflect long after the moment has passed.

The difficulty for journalists live reporting emergencies is they're having to make important and hugely impactful ethical decisions right in the moment. In balancing those tough decisions, how often does the common good start drowning in what will draw the most attention from an audience, and away from competing news organisations?

Good journalism should exist on the former level. Ideally, a journalist will provide a facts-based story which is carefully and sensitively curated. But, as news broke of the attack in Christchurch, the professional lines were blurred for many journalists working in news rooms around the world.

For a few hours, journalists across mainstream media seemed to forget terrorism is not only a physical act of violence, but a form of mass communication in itself. Terrorism relies on the media to publicise fear, incite reactions and even inspire or recruit copycats.

This publicity in the case of the Christchurch attack was magnified as media chose to use the video footage filmed from the perspective of the attacker. Many radio and television stations also read out and reproduced the killer's manifesto, or allowed their guests to directly quote the document on air.


"It's hard to justify taking a time-out for editorial choices. But if they had, perhaps they would have been better able to think critically about the information in front of them and their own motivations for publishing it."


Before long, many journalists recognised they were in fact broadcasting a version of hate speech through reproducing the terrorist material on air. In breaking news, it's hard to justify taking a time-out for editorial choices. But if they had, perhaps they would have been better able