Broadcasters targeted for 'inadequate' warnings during Christchurch attack coverage

Worshippers pray at a makeshift memorial at the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch on March 19. Source: AAP

The media watchdog has looked into how Australian broadcasters covered the Christchurch terror attack.

A report investigating free-to-air television coverage of the Christchurch terror attack by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has cleared all broadcasters of breaching the code of practice but expressed concerns over "inadequate" viewer warnings.

Released on Monday afternoon, the official report looked at how television broadcasters - including Nine Entertainment Co, Seven West Media, Network Ten, Sky News, the ABC and SBS - used the live stream footage of the 15 March attack, which was filmed through a body cam worn by the alleged shooter. 

The media watchdog said there was a "clear public interest" in covering the attack, which left 51 people dead, and found that it was "appropriate to broadcast very carefully and appropriately selected excerpts of the footage" despite their distressing nature.

A police officer stands guard in front of the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, where one of the two mass shootings occurred.
A police officer stands guard in front of the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, where one of the two mass shootings occurred.

No network chose to show victims being explicitly shot but some excerpts were found to have shown actions that killed a person or strongly implied that a person would be killed, the report said.

ACMA additionally expressed concern over the high level of repetition of these excerpts and said viewer warnings before distressing footage had at times been "insufficient and ad hoc".

"While most broadcasters provided spoken warnings before their various news reports, it was not uncommon for broadcasters to use the sort of impactful material contained in those reports in the opening sequences to news programs," the report read.

"These sequences were not preceded by a warning as required by the relevant code provisions."

The investigation included more than 200 hours of material, broadcast immediately after the attack and in the days following. Earlier this month, the results of the report were leaked and showed that broadcasters would not be penalised for their coverage. 

"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," ACMA Chair Nerida O’Loughlin said in a statement.

"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."

CEO of Free TV Australia - an industry body representing all of Australia's free-to-air, commercial television broadcasters - Bridget Fair said she was "proud" of the way her members covered a "very difficult and challenging event".

She added that all commercial free-to-air networks deserved recognition for the "considered and responsible way" they made editorial decisions in the wake of the attack.

“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," she said.

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