The New Gatekeepers

New Zealand massacre: Journalists divided on how to cover hate

March 15, 2019
Reporters wait as police officers cordon off the area in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15, 2019. (Photo by Diederik van Heyningen/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Mass shootings have a way of making the theoretical talk about Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and their role in spreading hate all too real. Thursday brought yet another horrific example of this depressingly frequent phenomenon, when a white supremacist shot and killed 49 people in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The killer took things to a new and even more disturbing level by live-streaming the entire thing on Facebook Live, part of what appeared to be a co-ordinated media strategy involving multiple posts of his rambling, 74-page screed and video clips to social platforms like 8chan, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. As quickly as the videos were pulled down by the platforms (which wasn’t very quickly in many cases), new copies were posted and shared, in a terrible game of deplatforming Whack-A-Mole.

As the video copies and links to his writing continued to spread, journalists and experts in misinformation and online behavior debated a key question in these incidents: how much should journalists write about the details of the killings, and, in particular, about the killer’s delusional ideology?

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From archives: Reporters shouldn’t profile mass shooters, say experts

Almost everyone agreed that posting the actual video of the killings was beyond the pale (The Mirror in Britain included edited footage from the video and later apologized, but the Daily Mail had a video clip that auto-played on its site). Whether to report on the killer’s writing about his deed was another matter. Sociologists who study the way information spreads onlineincluding Joan Donovan of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and Whitney Phillips, who wrote a report for Data & Society last year titled,The Oxygen of Amplification”—advised journalists not to quote from the killer’s writing.

The argument made by these and other experts is that the shooter’s essay appears to have been deliberately written to generate as much publicity as possible for his racist beliefs, including by mentioning of internet celebrities (such as YouTube creator Felix Kjellberg, known as PewDiePie) and alt-right figures such as Candace Owens of Turning Point USA. The risk in publishing these kinds of things, Donovan and others argue, is similar to the risk in publicizing suicides: the details of the killer’s motivation may steer others toward acting on extreme beliefs, especially if they think they will receive the same kind of public attention. Just as the Parkland, Fla. shooter mentioned the Sandy Hook killer, the Christchurch shooter also referenced other killings driven by white supremacist views, including a 2011 massacre in Norway by Anders Breivik.

As Charlie Warzel noted in a New York Times piece, this latest shooting seems like an entirely too predictable outgrowth of a social-media powered world in which seemingly harmless threads on 4chan and 8chan and Reddit can spread instantaneously and metastasize, via YouTube and Facebook, to the point where they affect gullible and disturbed people. The platforms all say that they want to do something about this kind of content, but in almost every case they are left scrambling after the fact, sometimes for hours, to clean up the videos and links. Despite renewed pressure from governmentsincluding laws against hate speech in countries like Germany and Francethey seem almost completely unprepared and ineffective.

The spread of hate obviously needs to be reported on: the ways in which misinformation leading to hate can be shared and become viral, the pathways that take these kinds of views from the dark corners of the internet and redistribute them, the actors and news outlets that profit from doing so. But how do we do this without giving them more oxygen and publicity? There are some easy steps, including not writing celebrity-style profiles of the shooters involved in these kinds of killings. But how much should we go into the details about specific incidents? That’s not an easy question to answer. Some journalists argue, as media outlets did in Norway after the Breivik shootings, that we have a duty to show the public that such views exist.

Chris Anderson, a professor at the University of Leeds, took issue on Twitter with the advice not to report any of the man’s writings or ideology. “To advance a blanket point of view about reporting and contextualizing these currents is misguided,” he said. It’s a fair point: how can we defuse or even identify and be aware of this kind of radicalization and the links to different communities if we don’t report on them? It’s not as simple as just declining to mention the specific method someone chose to use when they died by suicide. If we don’t look at the details of things like the Christchurch killer’s essay, how can we help peopleincluding the mediaunderstand where these kinds of killers come from and how they move from harmless Reddit threads to shooting Muslims in a mosque?

It’s a problem that’s particular to the 21st centuryinformation is everywhere instantaneously, and the media no longer has the kind of gatekeeper role it used to have. At the same time, the press has a clear responsibility not to pour gasoline on a roaring internet blaze of racism that seems to be sweeping the globe. Finding a route between those two things is no simple task, but it is something that becomes more and more important every day.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.