Editorial: Explaining RNZ’s mosque shootings coverage - and why we’re naming the accused

3:39 pm on 29 March 2019

Editorial - The attacks on the two mosques in Christchurch is one of the biggest and most challenging news events RNZ has covered.

A police officer patrols at a cordon near a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019.

A police officer patrolling a cordon in Christchurch on the day the attacks took place, Friday 15 March. Photo: AP

While the country has had its share of big news of late, including the devastating Christchurch earthquakes of 2010-11, we have no recent experience of covering mass violence targeted at a specific ethnic or religious community.

The last time was in very different circumstances in 1943 when 48 Japanese prisoners of war and one guard were killed near the town of Featherston. Details of the riot were sanitised and suppressed by war-time censorship.

In contrast, the attacks on 15 March were streamed and shared on social media and covered live on-air and online by media outlets around the world.

For this country it was an unprecedented, almost unthinkable, act of terrorism by a white supremacist aimed at immigrants and Muslims. Fifty people were killed and dozens wounded. The scale of loss and horror is still sinking in.

It is a big, complex story that is placing new demands on our reporters, producers and editors, and at times our audiences.

We have a clear plan to navigate RNZ through these challenges.

RNZ's role as a multimedia public broadcaster is to connect and to inform Aotearoa.

That is why our priority is both to report the unfolding story robustly and comprehensively and ensure we do not create further harm by providing extremists with a platform, or by polarising the community or causing victims further distress.

Striking the right balance between the two will be difficult at times, particularly with a story as sensitive as this. While there will be no questions that we cannot ask or topics we cannot explore, we will carefully assess the information before publication and broadcast.

RNZ's focus so far has been on the victims and their unique personal stories and on the grief of their community, family and friends. We are also digging into the serious issues raised by the attacks, including probing the performance of the security agencies and testing the received wisdom about New Zealand's supposed high levels of tolerance for ethnic diversity.

Along with other New Zealand news media RNZ has decided not to publish or broadcast footage or audio of the atrocity or to publicise details of the gunman's so-called manifesto.

That does not, however, mean that the offender's background, motivations and activities are off-limits. It will be vitally important that over time the news media delves into these matters, including by examining and demystifying the claims and conspiracies used to justify the atrocity.

Some members of our audience are asking why RNZ is continuing to publish and broadcast the name of the alleged perpetrator, Brenton Tarrant. While we understand the desire to keep the name from public view, his name is a known fact and should not be airbrushed away.

We will use the name judiciously and where it is relevant to a story as part of our commitment to provide a full and factual account of the outrage, its causes and aftermath.

A second, more challenging, phase of the coverage is now beginning. This will be a long slog with coverage ongoing for years.

For some New Zealand journalists this will be hard, particularly those who witnessed the aftermath of the attacks and whose work brought them face-to-face with grieving families.

As an industry we need to take great care of these staff, not just now or next month but for the foreseeable future.

A royal commission of inquiry and a criminal trial lie ahead and will create new challenges for our coverage.

We will be determined to fully report these proceedings without becoming a mouthpiece for any hateful, extremist cause.

I am confident that RNZ and other New Zealand news media will do a thoroughly professional job of responsibly reporting on the commission of inquiry and the criminal trial. Senior editors from across the industry are already talking among ourselves and with the courts about how we will go about that.

The bigger risk is that some of the proceedings will be suppressed under the guise of protecting national security. Officialdom in New Zealand has a propensity to try to keep embarrassing lapses from plain sight, as the frequent abuse of the Official Information Act shows.

That should be resisted. If mistakes have been made they need to be exposed. RNZ will continue to play the distinct role of the journalist, looking into the darkness and the light and reporting what we see there without fear or favour.

- This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on [www.publicmediaalliance.org Public Media Alliance].