ACMA finds broadcasters acted responsibly in Christchurch coverage

The findings have been released from the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s investigation into Australian broadcasters’ coverage of the terrorist attack in Christchurch.

ACMA found that the broadcasters involved acted responsibly in their coverage of the event which occurred on March 15, 2019 and upheld the rules of the various Codes of Practice.

The Christchurch terrorist attack saw an individual film the lead-up and most of a brutal attack which took place in a mosque in Christchurch. The footage from the incident, which was filmed on a bodycam, was then live-streamed to Facebook. This was shared further by approximately 4,000 users, creating 300,000 clips within 24 hours. Facebook responded to the event by promising to improve its standards when it comes to offensive or traumatic content, and new streaming legislation was pushed through by the government in response to the event.

On March 18, ACMA announced it would be investigating how broadcasters handled the content from the event, given a range of concerns from across more than 200 hours of broadcast footage which showed different parts of the live-streamed video.

The final report issued by the body said that ACMA recognised that the broadcasters were put in difficult editorial situations by the event and the footage available from it, but that in the circumstances, while they may have shown some content that was questionable, overall they erred on the side of caution and therefore acted responsibly.

“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.

“Unlike online streaming services, well-established broadcasting industry codes of practice require the editing of certain types of content before it goes to air.

“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,” said O’Loughlin.

In the report, ACMA listed the ways content was used by the broadcasters which could have been considered to cross a line. ABC showed still images from the footage, Sky News Live used stills and video/audio excerpts, including that which showed gunfire directed as a person, Seven used video excerpts, including that which showed gunfire directed at people and showed a victim on screen.

Nine used video excerpts, including gunfire and images from inside the Al Noor mosque, Ten used video including several excerpts showing extensive gunfire and SBS screened overseas-sourced material including largely unedited excerpts in which victims were only obscured by smoke.

Overall, despite the use of bodycam excerpts and survivor mobile phone footage that showed dead and injured people in the Linwood Islamic Centre, ACMA was satisfied that broadcasters heavily edited the footage in a manner which suggests they were conscious of the restrictions and the impact the footage would have.

Bridget Fair

Free TV CEO Bridget Fair said she was proud of the way Free TV members covered the 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,” said Fair.

“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,” she said.


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