Free to Air networks will not face breaches of the Code of Practice for their broadcasts of distressing Live images of the Christchurch massacre.
Networks were criticised for screening “live streaming” footage showing gunfire, in some instances inside a Christchurch mosque.
An investigation by media watchdog the Australian Communications & Media Authority found the situation was unique. But it may yet include revisions to codes of practice to address user-generated content being broadcast Live by news bulletins.
Broadcasters made different editorial choices in using the alleged perpetrator’s footage in their coverage of the terrorist attack:
- the ABC’s coverage focused on the use of still images from the footage filmed by the alleged perpetrator
- Sky News Live used a combination of some still images and video/audio excerpts from the alleged perpetrator’s bodycam (including gunfire directed at a person)
- the Seven Network used a range of excerpts from the alleged perpetrator’s bodycam video, including several where gunfire was directed toward people and in which a victim could be seen on screen
- the Nine Network used a range of excerpts from the alleged perpetrator’s bodycam video including several where gunfire was directed toward people and images from inside the Al Noor mosque
- Network Ten used a range of excerpts from the alleged perpetrator’s bodycam video including several depicting extensive gunfire
- SBS screened overseas-sourced material that included a largely unedited excerpt in which the smoke from the gunfire was the only thing obscuring injury detail.
Where alleged perpetrator video footage was broadcast, all Australian broadcasters heavily edited the footage.
“Events unfolded quickly and during the early news broadcasts little information was available about the details of the attack,” ACMA reported.
“There was initial confusion as to the number of alleged perpetrators, location of the attack and numbers of people affected. Critically, the only detailed, first-hand footage immediately available of the attack was that which was live-streamed online by the alleged perpetrator who deliberately used that live-streaming as part of the terrorist action.
“In this context, television news producers were required to make immediate and difficult editorial decisions about what to broadcast and what not to broadcast. The question facing news producers, particularly on that Friday afternoon, was how to strike a balance between informing the public about the unfolding incident, the visual and communications demands of television news programming and the imperatives of minimising the exposure of audiences to distressing portrayals of violence.”
ACMA reviewed more than 200 hours of broadcast footage as well as analysis of the detailed information provided by broadcasters about the editorial decisions they made.
“The Christchurch terror attack presented a unique circumstance for Australian television news producers. Immediate and difficult editorial decisions needed to be made to strike a balance between informing the public about the unfolding incident and broadcasting seriously distressing content,” said ACMA Chair Nerida O’Loughlin.
“The ACMA considers that there was some material and treatment of that material that raises questions about whether there was compliance with the broadcasting codes of practice. However, given the level of responsibility shown by the broadcasters and the unique circumstances of this incident, we do not intend to make compliance findings about individual broadcasts.”
ACMA has made a number of observations arising from its investigation for industry consideration:
- the need for extreme care when broadcasting material with high impact, in particular explicit footage of a person being killed
- the inconsistent, inadequate and ad hoc provision of viewer warnings
- the frequent repetition within short time frames of high-impact vision
- the need for particular care when broadcasting excerpts from perpetrator and victim generated content
- that overseas produced news content may result in the broadcast of footage that exceeds the impact of material edited for broadcast by Australian broadcasters.
ACMA will next conduct discussions with the broadcasters on its findings and potential industry responses. This could include revisions to codes of practice to embed the important lessons learned from the coverage of the Christchurch terrorist attack. In particular, whether codes are adequately framed to deal with perpetrator-generated, live streamed extreme violent material.
ACMA also noted that the content shared online of the attack has resulted in changes to the Criminal Code to target the expedited removal of such material.
Free TV Australia CEO, Bridget Fair, said: “I am proud of the way that Free TV members covered a very difficult and challenging event. The role of broadcasters in keeping the public fully informed about significant events is a critical one. The news teams of all commercial free-to-air television broadcasters deserve recognition for the considered and responsible way they dealt with extremely difficult editorial decisions as new information came to light.
“Free TV is pleased that the ACMA determined that all broadcasters acted responsibly and with regard to our Code of Practice. These are not easy calls to make as news unfolds.
“We note the ACMA’s invitation to engage in a discussion around the content of our Code. Free TV believes that the principles-based approach in our Code ensures that it is adaptable to multiple fact situations but we will certainly engage constructively with the Authority to determine if the Code needs updating in light of these circumstances.”
In a footnote to this finding, The Age reported ACMA was unhappy over investigation leaks to media and has sent a letter to broadcasters warning them against giving confidential reports to the media.