Journalism and ethics after Christchurch

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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.

Television studio (simonkr / Getty Creative)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 to think critically about the information in front of them and their own motivations for publishing it.

Journalists have since been speaking out against their own editors and newsroom editorial standards. Many people feel the choice to use the terror material to tell the story of human death and suffering came from a place of ignorance.

Some Muslim journalists have said they feel disgusted now to work in media organisations who allow such material to be presented as news. And, despite the onslaught of trolls who ask 'What about freedom of speech?', journalists can and should be more conscious of making ethical choices in their work.

Since the attack, the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) has issued a simple and practical guide to remind journalists how they can identify and manage hate speech. The guideline aims to achieve 'tolerance' in journalism by encouraging editors and journalists to pause and consider the wider impact of spreading offensive or inflammatory content.

Following these guidelines requires a lot of self-control. This control however, shouldn't be seen as an attack on freedom. Instead, to understand the ethical dilemmas of your work is to understand the power media has, and the level of responsibility which comes with it.

When media conducts itself ethically, they provide a service to the nation. And, if they remain strong in their conviction, they become invincible against terrorists and other people who wish to take advantage of media power for their own benefit.

The main message in the guidelines from the EJN is to avoid sensationalising. It also urges journalists to not rush or get caught up in the atmosphere of the news cycle. 'Take a moment of reflection,' it says.

That moment to reflect could do wonders for all journalists. If not for the dignity of the people whose stories they represent, then for the confidence that they are contributing stories which make the world a better, and not a worse, place.

 

 

Francine CrimminsFrancine Crimmins is a writer and radio journalist. She has also contributed to the ABC and The Wire. She is on twitter @frankiecrimmins

Main image: Television studio (simonkr / Getty Creative)

Topic tags: Francine Crimmins, Christchurch attack, social media, journalism

 

 

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Existing comments

By its very nature journalism encourages haste. That is the nature of the beast. There's always a deadline and the bottom line: making a newspaper viable financially. When a big news story breaks this is all exacerbated. I'm always interested to read the 'apologies' for mistakes. Usually at the bottom of the second page in a small square in non-committal language. Reflection is a precious commodity for us all, but especially so for those whose living is made living up to headlines.
Pam | 23 March 2019


There are and always have been ethical media owners, editors and journalists. When I want to know the truth about what is happening in the Middle East I usually look to Robert Fisk. His is the sort of reflective print journalism. Live streaming of the massacre is still on the net thanks to the like of Kiwi Farms and other extreme right sites which will not take the post down. This raises all sorts of legal questions which need to be sorted out. Would watching the video clip of the massacre corrupt people so that their best interests would be served by having it censored? I would be very careful of showing this clip to very impressionable young people because I think it could really shock them, give them nightmares and make them think the world is a far worse place than it is. This is where responsible adult supervision comes in. You can turn the TV off or ask your child to turn their mobile phone off. What happens if you do not have an adult there or effective screening of what the child can see? A problem. As far as adults go, I think the most mature and balanced ones will choose not to watch the clip. The killer's 's fellow travellers will watch the clip. Their reclamation, or at least containment, are other problems. This affair has raised the problem of the Far Right in Western Society: dealing with it in all its facets will be an ongoing problem.
Edward Fido | 23 March 2019


It would be interesting to see how the EJN advises journalists “how they can identify and manage hate speech”. For many years, the FBI and the media relied on the Southern Poverty Law Centre to identify hate groups. SPLC once did valuable work prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan. But SPLC has become a caricature of itself by labelling anyone who does not follow its left-wing ideology an “extremist” or “hate group”. In 2010, SPLC placed the conservative Christian advocacy group, Family Research Council, on its “hate map”, and a gunman used that to target the group headquarters intending to “kill as many as possible”. In 2014, the SPLC placed black conservative neurosurgeon Ben Carson on its “extremist watch list” alongside neo-Nazis and white supremacists. In 2016, the SPLC designated the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group fighting anti-Christian hate, an “anti-LGBT hate group”. In 2017, SPLC paid out $3 million for falsely including a former Islamic radical, Maajid Nawaz, who now fights extremism, in its “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists.” Many who cannot win an argument with the free and open flow of ideas, will use whatever pretext they can to silence critics, and indeed to criminalize their opponents.
Ross Howard | 23 March 2019


Unlike the past , we now have a 24 hour news cycle which tends to show the world as a far more unsafe place then in the past. Actually nothing has changed, just our perception of the situation. These days the Internet and TV brings disasters straight to our living rooms ad-nauseum In my childhood(and I lived in the bush); we had no Television until 1965. News Bulletins were at most three times daily (at least on the ABC) and even less on commercial radio, until the late 1960's. I suspect the news reporting was far more factual and much less sensational- the notable exceptions being the "Daily Mirror" and the" Sun" in Sydney, but we did not have them in the bush, only the "Tele" and the "SMH". The world then was still a dangerous place, but we were a lot less stressed?
Gavin O'Brien | 25 March 2019


In the interests of more balanced media coverage it would also be good to see more prominent reporting of Christians being persecuted regularly by terrorist groups.
John RD | 26 March 2019


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