Such atrocities invariably raise questions about how news organizations should cover acts of violence. When, for example, is it appropriate to label an event an act of terrorism or someone a terrorist? How should journalists frame their stories? When should the media publish the names of the perpetrators involved in attacks, if at all? The attacks in Christchurch have raised another such question: Should media outlets share details of an attack, including related images and propaganda, with their audience? And what are the implications for the public discourse if they do?
We asked Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, the nonprofit journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida, about what news organizations should do in such cases. “My suggestion is not to have an outright prohibition against using graphic images, but I would raise my bar pretty high to say this: Is there any reason why the public needs to see these images in order to understand what occurred?” he said.
Tompkins suggested that in the case of an incident such as a police shooting in which the facts are in dispute, the release of graphic video might be justified. But in a case such as the attacks in Christchurch, he said, “the video [is] not illuminating beyond the description of what occurred.”
Tompkins said the same rules should govern a shooter’s manifesto. It is usually acceptable to provide a generic summary of the manifesto, he said, but citing the example of the Unabomber’s manifesto—published by American media in 1995, following an appeal from federal law-enforcement agencies that wanted to avoid more casualties—he added: “Rarely, under the most extreme circumstances, would such a thing be re-publishable.”
J. M. Berger: The dangerous spread of extremist manifestos
Publishing terrorists’ manifestos “tend[s] to do two things,” he said. “First, it gives more power to the shooter; second, it does nothing to illuminate anything that we don’t already know.”
In the long term, exposure to such events inures the public to its impact. Indeed, in the United States, which has seen hundreds of mass shootings over the past few decades, gun sales typically rise in the immediate aftermath, perhaps in fear that lawmakers might enact gun-control legislation. In fact, social scientists have long postulated that the media’s coverage of mass shootings might contribute to more mass shootings. A recent discussion paper by the economists Michael Jetter, a senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia, and Jay K. Walker, an assistant professor at Old Dominion University, in Virginia, found a link between media coverage of mass shootings and subsequent mass shootings over the next 10 to 14 days.
Yet these latest shootings also illustrate a difficulty in policing such coverage. Though the attacks occurred in Christchurch, the offending stories were published by British outlets, and were free to read the world over. The New Zealand police might have called for caution when circulating the details, but their jurisdiction does not extend across the internet.