BSA releases decisions on coverage of mosque attacks
Warning: This release contains content that some readers may find distressing.
20 August 2019
BSA releases decisions on New Zealand broadcast coverage of 15 March 2019 mosque attacks
The Authority has today released decisions on four complaints about New Zealand broadcast coverage of the 15 March 2019 mosque attacks.
The Authority upheld one of these complaints, finding that the use of extensive excerpts from the alleged attacker’s livestream video on Sky News New Zealand had the potential to cause significant distress to audiences in New Zealand, and particularly to the family and friends of victims, and the wider Muslim community. Sky News New Zealand is a foreign pass-through news channel that is broadcast in New Zealand on SKY NZ’s pay television platform. While the Authority acknowledged SKY NZ’s limited editorial control over the programme, it found overall that the clips as broadcast were highly disturbing and should not have been aired.
The remaining complaints related to coverage by 1 News, which featured a very brief excerpt from the livestream video and footage of identifiable victims, some with visible injuries, as they were being taken into hospital. Taking into account the unprecedented circumstances and the high level of public interest in the coverage, the Authority did not uphold the complaints about 1 News.
In making these decisions, the Authority acknowledged the traumatic events of 15 March 2019, and the impact these events have had on New Zealanders, particularly on the family and friends of victims and the wider Muslim community.
The Authority also acknowledged the critical role media play in reporting during crisis events and the unprecedented circumstances facing New Zealand broadcasters at this time.
“There was high value and public interest in keeping the public informed about these events as they unfolded,” Authority Chair, Judge Bill Hastings, said. “Following the attacks, broadcasters needed to balance their duty to provide sufficient information and detail to the public, while also avoiding harm to viewers. This weighing exercise took place during unprecedented and challenging circumstances, as events unfolded and as new information came to hand.”
The Authority also considered the significant potential for harm that could be caused to audiences at this time.
“We recognise the significant impact this event has had on New Zealand,” Judge Hastings said. “Given the harm that could be caused to audiences, it was important for broadcasters to exercise a high level of care and discretion in their broadcast coverage.”
In the case of Sky News New Zealand, the Authority found that the level of public interest in the detailed depictions of violence shown in the clips from the livestream video was not proportionate to the high level of harm that could be caused to viewers. While SKY NZ exercised limited editorial control over the programme, more needed to be done to mitigate this potential for harm.
The Authority ordered the broadcaster, SKY NZ, to pay $4,000 in costs to the Crown and noted its intention to engage with broadcasters to determine whether broadcasting standards provide adequate guidance in these situations.
“The decisions provide guidance to broadcasters on how broadcasting standards apply when reporting on crisis and terrorist events”, BSA Chief Executive, Belinda Moffat, said. “However, given the unprecedented nature of these events in New Zealand, we want to work with broadcasters to assess whether the standards are still fit-for-purpose.”
“We hope that these decisions will prompt discussion with broadcasters about whether any changes to the Codes are required to provide additional guidance. We will seek broadcasters’ views on whether further guidelines are required for foreign pass-through channels, particularly around the action expected from local broadcasters during extreme circumstances. We are also assessing whether the Codes should include principles for reporting on terrorist activity,” Ms Moffat said.
The BSA will also work with broadcasters to review the BSA guidance issued in 2017 on use of social media content in broadcasting and assess whether this can be developed to provide guidelines to deal with user-generated extreme violent material in news reporting.
“Responding to and countering violent extremism in content is a critical issue on which all entities involved in content distribution and regulation are focused”, said Ms Moffat.
The full decisions are available on the BSA’s website here and detailed decision summaries are set out below.
The Authority was assisted in its deliberations by an independent cultural advisor, engaged to provide a Muslim perspective on the issues raised by the complaints.
The full decisions are available at https://bsa.govt.nz/decisions/all-decisions/. The Grant & Phillips and NT decisions were made under the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice and the UJ decision was made under the Pay Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. The Codes are available to view on our website: https://bsa.govt.nz/broadcasting-standards/broadcasting-code-book/.
The Authority received two complaints about 1 News’ live coverage of the attacks. During this time, 1 News broadcast footage of victims being taken to hospital for medical care. Some of the victims were identifiable in the footage and others had visibly sustained gunshot injuries, including one victim with a serious head wound.
The issues raised by the complaints were:
• whether the footage of identifiable victims, as they were being taken into hospital, breached their privacy
• whether the broadcast of images of visible gunshot wounds were in breach of the good taste and decency, children’s interests and violence standards.
The Authority found that this footage breached the privacy of the identifiable victims, as they were injured, in a vulnerable state (some only partially clad), and on their way to get medical care. However, on this occasion there was a high degree of legitimate public interest in the images. The scale of injury and medical attention provided to the victims was of legitimate public concern, and the degree of detail shown was essential to the narrative.
The Authority therefore found that the broadcaster’s use of these images was justified in the public interest and it did not uphold the privacy complaints.
Good Taste and Decency, Children’s Interests and Violence
The Authority recognised that some of the footage broadcast was graphic and may have been upsetting for some viewers. The images of victims suffering from gunshot wounds were likely to disturb or alarm children and the coverage as a whole concerned challenging violent themes. The key issue for the Authority was whether audiences were sufficiently informed about the nature of this content, so that they could regulate their own viewing behaviour or the viewing behaviour of any children in their care.
The Authority found that the level of public interest in this footage was high and it would have been clear to viewers, given the extensive signposting and signaling over the afternoon, that the coverage related to a violent shooting event which may feature disturbing content.
While this coverage was broadcast during children’s normally accepted viewing times, parents and caregivers were provided with sufficient information, through the presenter’s narrative and on-screen banners, to decide whether the coverage was suitable for any children in their care. Audiences could expect that TVNZ would broadcast ongoing coverage of the attacks in lieu of regular programming and that some of this content might be disturbing.
Finally, the Authority found that TVNZ exercised the appropriate level of care and discretion, under extreme circumstances, in its portrayal of violent themes during this coverage.
Not Upheld: Privacy, Good Taste and Decency, Children’s Interests, Violence
This complaint concerned an edited clip from the alleged attacker’s 17-minute livestream video, broadcast during 1 News. The clip was very brief, and showed a man’s hands holding a weapon and reaching for two weapons in the open boot of his car. White writing on the weapons was not legible and the man’s face could not be seen.
The Authority considered the public interest in both the broadcast as a whole and in the clip itself, finding that the content of this clip had high value and a high level of public interest. The clip highlighted for viewers the alleged attacker’s level of pre-meditation and preparedness, and also demonstrated his familiarity with the weapons shown in the clip. The Authority found that the use of images reinforced the seriousness of the attack and would have had a higher impact for audiences than a verbal description.
The Authority acknowledged that the implications of the clip were distressing and disturbing. The Authority also considered whether the broadcast of the clip had the potential to promote or glorify the alleged attacker and his message.
The Authority found, however, that the broadcaster took steps to ensure it complied with its duties under the standards. The clip was brief and did not show the alleged attacker’s face, did not highlight the messages written on the weapons and did not feature any explicit violent or graphic content. The weapons were not shown to be fired, raised against any individuals or used in any way other than shown in the hand of the alleged attacker. The clip did not glorify or promote the alleged attacker or his method or message.
The Authority therefore found that TVNZ provided only the information that was necessary to keep viewers informed about the attacks. Given the unprecedented nature of these attacks, it was important that audiences were provided with information about what had occurred, provided this did not cause undue harm.
The Authority determined that in the circumstances the harm alleged did not outweigh the high level of public interest and value in the broadcast, and therefore did not uphold the complaint.
Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency, Violence
During its coverage of the attacks, Sky News Australia, broadcast on SKY NZ in New Zealand as Sky News New Zealand,broadcast a number of edited clips taken from the alleged attacker’s livestream video. These clips featured disturbing violent content, including the alleged attacker raising and firing his gun at individuals outside the Al Noor Mosque, images of the alleged attacker’s face, and audio (with subtitles added by Sky News New Zealand) of the alleged attacker providing commentary on the attack.
The Authority acknowledged the high value and public interest in the coverage as a whole, and that the coverage denounced the actions of the attacker, but found that, overall, the broadcast of these clips went too far.
While the clips selected by Sky News New Zealand were clearly edited, they contained footage of attempted killing, disturbing and alarming imagery and distressing descriptions of violence, which went beyond what was necessary to keep viewers informed about the attacks. The clips were repeated throughout the broadcast and the message and actions of the alleged attacker were more strongly conveyed through the inclusion of the alleged attacker’s audio from the livestream footage and also by the addition of subtitles.
The Authority noted that there were particular contextual factors in this case which increased the potential for harm. These included the source of the livestream video, which was filmed and distributed by the alleged attacker, the deliberate visual and sound cues intended to be recognised by those with extremist views, the first-person perspective of the clips and the addition of subtitles. Some of the clips also contained instructional elements, which had the potential to encourage susceptible viewers.
In making its decision, the Authority recognised the limited editorial control available to the New Zealand broadcaster, SKY NZ, noting it could not direct the presenters or edit content selected within the broadcast. However, the Authority found that more needed to be done to mitigate the potential for harm. SKY NZ needed to intervene earlier to ensure New Zealand audiences were protected from harm. This could have involved pulling the channel from the line-up earlier, broadcasting its own warnings available on the EPG for disturbing and violent content, or communicating directly with Sky News Australia sooner to note the potential for harm and/or to request more detailed warnings.
The Authority ordered SKY NZ to pay $4,000 in costs to the Crown.
Upheld: Violence, Law and Order; Declined to Determine: Balance, Accuracy, Fairness; Order: Section 16(4) - $4,000 in costs to the Crown