Christchurch attacks: the media's rush to be first causes its own kind of harm

Jane Martinson

Rookie journalists struggling with their copy are often told by news editors: “Just tell the story”. An esteemed colleague once told me his first editor told him to imagine shouting the intro to an aged relative moving away at speed on a bus.

Boiling an event down to who, what, why, where and when is the basis of all news coverage for a reason – it tells the story. But what happens when being fast and crafting a simple narrative becomes misleading or causes its own kind of harm?

This question has become increasingly relevant over the past decade. The internet has brought incredible new ways of telling stories. But it has also made being first and most furious seem like the best way to triumph in a fiercely competitive market.

Two entirely separate events last week made it clear that the media needs urgently to adapt the way it conveys information and carries out its business.

The recent terror attack in Christchurch, which allowed an online audience to watch a massacre through the eyes of the killer as though it were a live action movie, and a mundane meeting between a domestic homicide campaign group and a media regulator might not appear to have much in common. Yet both show us that it is in the treatment of victims that the media is most likely to cause offence and most likely to get it wrong: the first through the overexcited use of new technology and the second because of base assumptions.

Much has been written about the Christchurch gunman’s use of Facebook livestream, a technology which allows us all – including mass murderers – to become video broadcasters. But there are still lessons to be learned about the way the incident was dealt with by media. There were 1.5m attempts to re-upload the video to Facebook after it was first taken down, about a fifth of which were successful.

One version of the video monitored by the Guardian was left live on Facebook for at least six hours, while others were available on YouTube for at least three. More inexplicably, given traditional media’s often justifiable outrage at the behaviour of online platforms, several TV news channels, including Sky Australia and newspaper websites including Mail Online, the Mirror and the Sun in the UK also hosted edited videos of the same footage, only taking it down hours later.

The whole sorry saga suggests the limits of AI, one of the technologies relied on by Facebook to arbitrate between right and wrong. A man Facebook billed as “head of integrity” admitted that “this particular video did not trigger our automatic detection systems”. He explained that the attacker’s live stream had not been taken down as quickly as it could have because it was not flagged by users as a video of suicide.

It was at least an improvement on the usual Facebook stance of suggesting that there is just too much stuff to proactively do anything about.

The failings of social media sites and particularly Facebook are not new, and newspapers crushed by the assault on their revenues have, in the main, led the criticism. So it seems particularly perverse that newspapers themselves acted as platforms for the gunman’s sick footage. If humans are to claim the moral high ground in the way they report stories, they must make better decisions than machines.

This is not just about the actions of certain sections of the press, but about all those who provide news. Journalists writing the first draft of history are hard-wired to want to tell the story in as exciting a way as possible. For many, being asked to stop and think of the consequences smacks of heavy-handed outside control, an affront to the principle that news is what somebody does not want you to print.

And yet. New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern has let her response be guided by research suggesting that murderers act partly out of a desire for publicity, ruling out using the attacker’s name. Dan Hett, the software engineer brother of one of the victims of the 2017 Manchester Arena attack, blames online content for radicalising young men. So too does Neil Basu, Britain’s counter-terrorism chief, who last week said that far-right terrorists are being radicalised by mainstream newspaper coverage.

Newspapers may rail against police interference in their content but linking to the gunman’s 72-page “manifesto”, as Mail Online did, or describing him as an “angelic boy” and sticking a huge picture of the killer as a blond toddler on the front page (making him look like, what, “one of us”?), as the Mirror did, feeds into a narrative in which the killer becomes the star of the show.

This narrative was at the heart of the second event of last week, a meeting between the feminist campaign group Level Up and the press regulator Ipso, which is to host the group’s material on its guidance to journalists and editors page.

Terror attacks, so random and wicked, may seem like an increasingly prominent feature of modern life, but far more consistent over the years is the killing of women by their partners. Two women on average die every week at the hand of a partner or ex-partner in the UK.

Unlike the narratives used to explain terror, the simple story most often relied on with these murders is that they are “crimes of passion” in which “jealous lovers” act in a rage. Research by Jane Monckton-Smith suggests that the use of such “romantic language” in domestic abuse deaths leads to lighter sentencing in court. He just couldn’t help it, you see: he was driven mad by jealousy and love.

The usual victims in these cases are of course dead – but their grieving families have started to call out these misleading narratives. Luke and Ryan Hart wrote a book about their experience after their father killed their mother and sister. The shooting, in a car park in Spalding, was so horrific that at first local news reports feared a terror attack. The brothers were moved to campaign on press coverage of victims when they realised that the “story” was one in which their controlling, abusive father simply became a “DIY nut” and “nice guy” who was “driven” to murder because of the threat of divorce.

These two types of crime – one so public, one so very close to home – are at the forefront of demands on today’s news media. Yet most of those speaking out about them come from the political or policing spheres, which is wrong. Nobody wants freedom of speech to be curtailed, yet media organisations have a duty to speak up.

Ipso tells me that both domestic homicide and major incidents are its top priorities for reporting guidelines this year. Discussions so far have focused on whether guidelines can be integrated into the editors’ code in the same way that those around suicide have been.

Time-pressed and under pressure, many journalists will never read this advice fully, so here’s a summary.

First, never publish inaccurate or misleading information. For example, there were no gunshots or lorries being driven into people on Oxford Street in 2017, as erroneously reported at the time. Next, don’t oversimplify. We want to understand how human beings can carry out evil deeds. But think about the victims and don’t rush to explain.

The last page of the guidelines devised by Level Up says simply: “The murder may initially seem to come from ‘nowhere’, but a closer look may tell another story.” Anyone who has worked in a newsroom – as opposed to politicians, the police and campaigners – will know that breaking news doesn’t allow for a “closer look”.

That makes it vital to tell the story, but without reaching for the easiest method of doing it first.