Christchurch attacks: Honour the victims… and look after your staff
Following the terror attacks in Christchurch, GEN talked to Sinead Boucher, chief executive of Stuff, one of the largest news media companies operating in New Zealand, about their approach on how to best inform their audiences without glorifying the accused, how to balance the speed of informing with the accuracy of facts, and the importance of teamwork.
On 15 March 2019, a shooter carried out mass shootings at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch while live streaming parts of it on social media; before the attacks, he posted a ‘manifesto’ online and sent it to multiple newsrooms, one of which was Stuff, one of the largest news companies in New Zealand. For this interview with GEN, Sinead Boucher worked together with Kamala Hayman, who is Stuff’s Christchurch editor and led their newsroom efforts, as she did during the Christchurch earthquake in 2011.
GEN: When was the local newsroom of Stuff aware of the shootings and of the live video? Were you also aware of the terrorist’s manifesto which was sent to different media outlets and politicians?
Sinead Boucher: Within 2–3 minutes we were alerted via multiple eyewitness reports via Facebook and a call from a staff member’s wife who was driving past. The live video spread quickly. Within about 10 minutes, our newsroom had received it from multiple sources.
We were among a large group of media and politicians who received the manifesto by email, minutes before the attacks began, but it was not immediately clear what it related to and that it was real.
It is not the first time that videos of shootings are being circulated — although the first time of it being live-streamed — so what was the choice of the newsroom: Did you showcase the video, or some elements of the live stream published by the terrorist?
How best to inform our audience about this tragedy without glorifying the accused or granting him notoriety has been a topic of vigorous and ongoing debate in our newsroom.
In the first hours after the attack, we deliberately refrained from naming him. We later chose to identify him, largely in relation to the court proceedings, but have since adopted a stance of severely limiting when we use his name.
From the outset, we have avoided quoting from his hateful manifesto, so as not to be complicit in spreading his abhorrent ideas. Similarly, we will not use any footage from the live stream depicting the violence of the attacks.
What approach did Stuff take to cover the shooting and what was published on social media? Did you have to work through misinformation shortly after the attack, and if so, what was your strategy? Do you have a team dedicated to verification and fact-checking, or is that being outsourced?
We were extremely cautious about saying how many had died. We quickly realised the death toll was higher than the confirmed numbers officially released. Counting from the video suggested it was close to 40 at the Al Noor mosque alone. Pending official verification from the police, we initially reported 9 dead, and only said more than 30 once it was clear the video was not a hoax.
Our reporters and editors conduct their own fact-checking. While the scale of this event — as both a mass shooting and a terrorist attack — was unprecedented in New Zealand, our newsroom is unfortunately well experienced in covering massive breaking news events, having been through the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. We have learnt to balance speed of informing our audience with being extremely cautious with estimates of deaths, and in determining the accuracy of contentious facts before publishing.
The amount of UGC in the following hours of the killings must have been a challenge to work through, how did you organise the flow of information provided by users? How important or useful were UGC for your reporting?
Initially we were wary of using supplied images (we did not want to show dead bodies), and videos such as one apparently showing two gunmen running into a school (turned out they were non-uniformed police wearing hoodies and bandanas), an arrest at a school (turned out it was a parent or uncle) etc.
However, some UGC was incredibly valuable, such as this video capturing the moment police officers apprehended the accused.
In the week since the attacks, we have valued the input from the public and especially submissions through Stuff Nation — our UGC system — from members of Islamic communities, such as this remembrance of one of the victims.
Video captures act of bravery as police arrest Christchurch shooting suspect
Video footage has captured what appears to be the moment that the gunman was arrested in relation to the Christchurch…
Did you have to modify your policy regarding comments and social media because of hate speeches?
On Friday, we paused comments sitewide, both to prevent inappropriate material being published and so that our staff could focus fully on reporting the unfolding story. All comments on Stuff are pre-moderated before publication, but since Friday we have maintained a policy of not enabling comments on stories relating to the shootings. We have rejected inappropriate comments on unrelated stories, and have permanently banned some commenters who expressed offensive or objectionable sentiments. However, the vast majority of Stuff readers responded with sympathy and support for the victims and survivors, such as on this tribute page.
The end of our innocence
These are the names of all of those who are believed to have died. If you would like to share more about a victim…
Speaking of staff, how many journalists and stringers do you have in Christchurch? How could the main newsroom support the Christchurch team in the following hours after the attack? Were all departments mobilised together for better coverage, and — as tragic the events are — do you consider them to break the routine of newsrooms and reinforce the cohesion of a team?
The Christchurch news team totals 38, including the editor, news directors, reporters (including branch reporters) and visual journalists. But this number was augmented with staff from around Stuff. Both our Christchurch newsroom and Stuff’s nationwide team were singularly focused on this. Staff came in from days off and annual leave. Every reporter and visual journalist available pitched in, including members of our features, business, sport, and lifestyle teams. We flew in extra staff from Wellington, Auckland and Hamilton, where we also have sizeable offices.
This crisis has brought out the best in our staff, especially within the Christchurch news team, who have been heroic.
After the November 2015 Bataclan shootings in France, many media outlets dedicated articles to portraying the victims in memoriam, will you do the same for the Christchurch victims?
By 7.50pm on Saturday night, we had published The end of our innocence, a special feature commemorating the victims. It has been continuously updated since, as we’ve obtained new information about the victims. We have consciously focused on the stories of survivors and victims. They deserve to be the focus.
Covering major tragic events like terror attacks is difficult for everyone, what will be the follow-up in the upcoming weeks for Stuff members in regards to emotional support? And how will your newsroom manage the balance between continuing coverage of the shooting and other news?
Staff welfare will be a major concern for us. It’s crucial to make sure journalists who have worked through this traumatic event get sufficient days off and breaks, and are well supported. Since Monday, we have had a trauma counsellor on site in our Christchurch office.
For our audience, we won’t be able to maintain the intensity of the coverage we’ve offered since Friday. But this will remain the single most important story on our agenda. We will be conscious of audience sensitivities — that some people will feel fatigued or want to forget this ever happened — but this is an unprecedented rupture in New Zealand society, and we have a duty to ensure it’s reported honestly, comprehensively and unstintingly.
Will Stuff campaign for changing the existing gun laws, or will you only reflect the debate among citizens? Do you think you will encounter some backlash after the attack and more conflictual debates related to immigration, or do you expect there will be a broader consensus within the society?
At this stage — with the Government having signaled swift changes to gun laws — we are reporting the debate and providing useful context to help New Zealanders understand the state of firearms law and usage.
The attack has already been causing for significant reflection and self-examination about New Zealand’s national identity and the society we want to be. There has been an immense outpouring of public support for the Muslim community, and the victims and survivors in Christchurch.
In the main, it will be a unifying experience. There are some vocal minorities who may use this to try to spread hate and discord, and part of the role of journalism will be to expose that malevolence without giving it oxygen.
In terms of coverage and newsroom implication, what were the differences and the similarities with the Christchurch earthquake in February 2011?
The 2011 earthquake caused huge structural damage to the Christchurch newsroom. Staff were forced to flee the office and endure countless aftershocks. Their homes were broken, and many were without electricity or water. This created obvious challenges for the Christchurch-based staff.
While much of Christchurch was in lockdown for hours on Friday, restricting our mobility, the practical challenges have been fewer. But the emotional impact has been just as great or even greater for some of us. While the earthquakes were a natural disaster — which strikes without premeditation — these were the calculated actions of a human.
Many of the staff who covered the 2011 quakes remain in the Christchurch newsroom and have again taken part in traumatic and upsetting interviews. We can’t lose sight of this and need to remember the impact a tragedy of this nature has on our team.
What role do data journalism or AI technologies play in covering such tragedies in the future?
We are already employing data journalism techniques in our coverage of firearms and white supremacy. AI technologies can be a double-edged sword, as the rapid spread of the accused’s hateful material on the algorithmically-driven Facebook and YouTube has shown.
Not that it needed proving, but this event has also reinforced the value of journalists on the ground, interviewing sources in person.
Lastly, as editor-in-chief, what is your advice to fellow editors confronted with similar dramatic situations?
Don’t wait to see how big the story might get. Mobilise immediately and get all available staff out the door. Then look after those staff — many will be so dedicated they’ll need to be forced to take time out to recover. Remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Interview edited by Alexandra Peng.
Sinead Boucher is the appointed CEO of Stuff, the renamed New Zealand division of Fairfax Media. She has had a long and distinguished career in media, holding several positions at Fairfax Media over the years, starting in 1993 as a reporter for The Press and continuing as assistant editor, then as executive editor. Sinead has worked as both a digital journalist at the Financial Times and as a correspondent for Thomson-Reuters.