Sadly, The Times has covered a lot of shootings. But the killing of 50 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday by a gunman intent on using the tools of the internet as weapons in his fight raised a number of new issues for our newsroom.
In the aftermath of the attack, we sat down with some of our top editors who make the difficult calls about how to cover the news without inadvertently glorifying a killer or becoming a pawn in his game.
Here’s a look at some of the issues our journalists have been sorting through. Please leave additional questions or feedback for them in the comments.
What made this story unusual?
The shooter strapped a camera to his forehead to stream a live video on Facebook as he gunned down dozens of people who had gathered to pray. He teased his act on Twitter, announced it on the online message board 8chan and appeared to have posted a 74-page manifesto online.
Kevin Roose, a Times columnist who writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture, told Michael Barbaro on The Daily on Monday morning: “It set this shooting up as almost an internet performance. Like it was native to the internet, and it was born out of and aimed into this culture of extremely concentrated internet radicalism.”
In many ways, the attack unfolded online just as the gunman seemed to have planned. The video was widely available on sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, until the platforms managed mostly to block it. On message boards, commenters discussed saving the video so it could later be uploaded on other sites if necessary.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this guy was very aware of how his video and his manifesto would filter through the internet and get refracted and picked up and analyzed,” Kevin said. “This was, in a way, engineered for internet virality.”
The manipulation of technology and use of online social platforms to document the killings, publicize them and try to inspire others to imitate them posed significant ethical challenges for our journalists running the coverage.
Michael Slackman, our international editor, called this an extreme corruption of a form of communication that was once promoted and viewed as a means of uniting people and advancing democratic values.
“Instead, you have someone who designed a horrific terrorist attack using all of the power of social media and the internet to spread his vile views,” he said. “So for us, it was how do you cover it in that context, how do we understand it and explain it, and how do we avoid becoming the tools of a terrorist?”
How did the unusual nature of the attack change The Times’s calculations around how to cover it?
Our editors often have to decide if we should publish disturbing images or videos from shootings, bombings and war. They must weigh an image’s news value and our mission to inform the public about the horrors of an attack against how intrusive the image is and how upsetting it could be for our readers or those affected by the tragedy to see it.
“We have to have a real reason for showing these things,” said Mark Scheffler, our deputy editor of video. The video or images must be used “to tell a broader story, not just to say, ‘Here’s video of this guy’s shooting spree.’”
[Read about a recent debate among our readers and in our newsroom over whether we should have published graphic photographs after a deadly attack in Nairobi.]
This case was different because the person who shot the video was not an eyewitness, journalist or member of law enforcement. It was the attacker himself.
“Here, the fact that the video was made by the killer added a whole other dimension to it,” said Phil Corbett, our associate managing editor for standards. “You have this additional factor of, Are you going to help publicize this terrorist video that the killer has made himself, obviously with the intent of it being seen as widely as possible? That made all of us even more cautious and wary about whether we would use any images.”
Ultimately our editors decided not to run any of the gunman’s video of the attack or even link to it.
Why do a terrorist’s motivations matter?
Even if an assailant has clear goals of wanting video of his attack publicized — and knows how to use the internet to make his massacre go viral — the material itself might have news value. While we don’t want to be part of a gunman’s propaganda effort, our primary goal remains providing newsworthy information to our readers.
However, as Phil explained, our journalists must still take into consideration the source of the video and the motivations of the gunman who produced it so that we do not inadvertently become part of the story.
“Terrorists want publicity and recognition,” he said. “If we decide to publish it, even if for legitimate journalistic reasons, we have to recognize that to some degree our actions are part of the whole event, and that is an uncomfortable position for us to be in.”
He added that news organizations like The Times are particularly sensitive to this because we have been closely following how platforms like Facebook have been misused to spread hateful campaigns and disrupt elections.
“We don’t want to essentially be in the same situation,” he said.
What about that manifesto?
Another unusual aspect of this attack was that the manifesto attributed to the accused killer and published on message boards was not simply a disturbing dissertation on his political ideology and motivations, such as ones released by other mass killers. In this situation, the gunman appears to have intentionally filled it with language to troll and confuse the news media.
“It was full of deception and misdirection,” Michael said. “It was written in a way to trick and make fun of the public and the press.”
The Times initially decided to handle the manifesto by assigning two reporters to annotate sections of it. After closely reading the material, however, the reporters realized they couldn’t annotate it without playing into the hands of the attacker.
Instead, our international correspondent Patrick Kingsley wrote an article that sought to answer the questions we had hoped the manifesto would address: What was the gunman thinking, and why did he open fire at two mosques?
In the end, we neither linked to nor annotated the manifesto.
Why do you keep using the suspect’s name?
After school shootings in the United States and other mass attacks, we increasingly hear from readers who ask that we not publish the name or photo of the suspect because they worry that doing so glorifies assailants and inspires additional attacks.
After we published news on Tuesday that the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, would not use the suspect’s name in order not to give him notoriety, readers questioned why in that very article The Times ran the man’s name.
“The media holds responsibility to tell the truth but also not sensationalize and in this case, as muted as it might seem, you are complicit,” a commenter wrote on our site.
The Times profiles attackers, and names them, after such incidents in order to give our readers a better understanding of what happened and why.
“Our feeling has always been that who these people are is part of the news,” Matt Purdy, a deputy managing editor, said on Friday, as The Times sought to confirm the gunman’s identity. “It’s not more important than the lives that are lost, by any means, but who these people are could explain to people what their interests and experiences are. In a very depressing way, it is important. It’s news.”
As school shootings and other such attacks have become more common, we have also tried to balance our need to provide information with the legitimate concerns of not inspiring new attacks or giving notoriety to a killer who is seeking just that.
In the case of the New Zealand attack, The Times decided to publish the suspect’s name but made sure to use it responsibly. We have not put it in headlines and do not cite it gratuitously.
And the photo?
We have handled a photograph of the gunman in the same way. We ran it as a small image inside the newspaper; we did not put it on our home page or front page.
“We are trying to hit that right balance of informing readers, helping readers understand who this person was, and yet not providing the notoriety that might then inspire the next person,” Phil said.
O.K., now what?
The attack in New Zealand is unlikely to be the last in which a gunman uses the internet to try to control the narrative. Kevin, our technology columnist, says that journalists need to be aware of these tactics and handle material posted online with extreme caution.
“I think we need to understand — and we’re starting to, I think — that media manipulation is often a key part of how violent extremists plan their activities,” he explained.
“They see us as easy marks, and they know that most journalists don’t know what 8chan is, let alone understand the ideological terrain there,” he said. “So we need to be exceedingly careful with these things, and not just repeat their claims at face value.”
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