Distance influenced Australian coverage of Christchurch terror attack

Al Noor mosque
Media are being asked to reflect on their coverage of the attack on the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch. Image: RNZ

New Zealand and Australian media coverage of the Christchurch mosque attack was poles apart, according to new research.

Dr Denis Muller, senior research fellow at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne and former associate editor of The Age, and Dr Gavin Ellis, an Auckland media consultant and former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald examined almost 300 stories published by metropolitan newspapers in the days following the attacks.

They also analysed web-based content by television broadcasters and interviewed news executives in both countries, finding significant differences 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. Their Australian counterparts focused more on the horror and ran extensive coverage of the alleged perpetrator, along with short excerpts from his so-called manifesto, a document that was ruled objectionable by New Zealand’s censor, making publication there unlawful.

Dr Muller and Dr Ellis found the editorial focus in each case reveals the effect of proximity: New Zealand media identified the victims as part of their own community, but the geographic distance licensed some Australian media to publish extremely graphic content – including shot-by-shot descriptions of the attack on the Al Noor mosque.

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 that country.

The researchers say it raises 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.

Dr Muller is encouraging journalists and media outlets to reflect on how they cover a news event that’s far away from them.

“In the old days there was a bit of a rule that you could print something if you were at a distance but today we know that if you’re printing in Australia, it can be seen and read in New Zealand, so it will have an impact,” Dr Muller said.

The Proximity Filter: The Effect of Distance on Media Coverage of the Christchurch Mosque Attacks was published this week in the Kōtuitui: The New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences and can be found here.

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