Research into trans-Tasman media coverage of the Christchurch mosque attacks has raised questions about how, in the internet age, editors need to take account of the fact that their content can be seen by those most closely affected by a horrifying event, and that distance no longer provides the licence it once did to publish material that is distressing to those directly involved.
Almost 300 stories published by New Zealand and Australian metropolitan newspapers in the days following the attacks, together with web-based content by television broadcasters, were analysed by Dr Gavin Ellis, an Auckland media consultant and former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, and Dr Denis Muller, a Melbourne University researcher and former associate editor of The Age. They also interviewed news executives in both countries.
They found the intense media coverage exhibited significant disparity in editorial decision-making between the two countries. New Zealand media were focused largely on empathetic coverage of victims and resisted the alleged gunman’s attempts to publicise his cause while their Australian counterparts showed no such reluctance and ran extended coverage of the alleged perpetrator, along with material ruled objectionable in New Zealand.
Ellis and Muller found the editorial focus in each case exhibits the effect of proximity: New Zealand media identified the victims as part of their own community, but the events of 15 March were seen as “foreign” by Australian journalists who used perceived distance as justification for extremely graphic content.
However, the availability of Australian content online and its re-distribution on social media exposed New Zealand audiences to material judged unacceptable by journalists and news executives in their country.
“The Proximity Filter: The Effect of Distance on Media Coverage of the Christchurch Mosque Attacks” was published today in Kōtuitui: The New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences, published by the Royal Society Te Aparangi.