A New Zealand TV news channel breached broadcasting standards by airing "highly disturbing" footage during its Christchurch mosque shooting coverage.

The Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) has today released decisions on four complaints about New Zealand broadcast coverage of the March 15 attacks.

It upheld one complaint after finding that the use of extensive excerpts from the alleged attacker's livestream video on Sky News New Zealand "had the potential to cause significant distress to audiences in New Zealand and particularly to the family and friends of victims and the wider Muslim community".

Sky News New Zealand is a foreign pass-through news channel that is broadcast in New Zealand on SKY NZ's pay television platform.

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While the BSA acknowledged SKY NZ's limited editorial control over the programme, it found overall that the clips as broadcast were "highly disturbing" and should not have been aired.

Sky News Australia was pulled from SKY NZ in a mutual decision after consultation between the two broadcasters, in the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings after it broadcast footage and stills taken from the gunman's livestream. The channel was replaced with sports programmes.

Chief Censor David Shanks later classified the Christchurch shooting clip "objectionable", meaning its broadcast or sharing is banned. Those who do so risk a fine of up to $10,000 or up to 14 years' jail.

The remaining complaints related to coverage by TVNZ's 1 News, which featured "a very brief excerpt" from the livestream video and footage of identifiable victims, some with visible injuries, as they were being taken into hospital.

"Taking into account the unprecedented circumstances and the high-level of public interest in the coverage, the Authority did not uphold the complaints about 1 News," a BSA statement said today.

In making the decisions, the BSA said it acknowledged the traumatic events of March 15 and its impact.

But it also acknowledged the "critical role media play in reporting during crisis events" and the "unprecedented circumstances facing New Zealand broadcasters at this time".

"There was high value and public interest in keeping the public informed about these events as they unfolded," Authority Chair, Judge Bill Hastings said.

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"Following the attacks, broadcasters needed to balance their duty to provide sufficient information and detail to the public, while also avoiding harm to viewers. This weighing exercise took place during unprecedented and challenging circumstances, as events unfolded and as new information came to hand."

The watchdog also considered the significant potential for harm that could be caused to audiences at this time.

"Given the harm that could be caused to audiences, it was important for broadcasters to exercise a high level of care and discretion in their broadcast coverage," Hastings added.
In the case of Sky News New Zealand, the BSA found that the level of public interest in the detailed depictions of violence shown in the clips from the livestream video was not proportionate to the high level of harm that could be caused to viewers.

While SKY NZ exercised limited editorial control over the programme, more needed to be done to mitigate this potential for harm.

The authority ordered SKY NZ to pay $4000 in costs to the Crown and noted its intention to engage with broadcasters to determine whether broadcasting standards provide adequate guidance in these situations.

SKY NZ has limited editorial control over its news bulletin, which is produced out of Australia. The BSA says more needed to be done to mitigate harm during March 15 attacks. Photo / Mark Mitchell
SKY NZ has limited editorial control over its news bulletin, which is produced out of Australia. The BSA says more needed to be done to mitigate harm during March 15 attacks. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"The decisions provide guidance to broadcasters on how broadcasting standards apply when reporting on crisis and terrorist events", BSA chief executive Belinda Moffat said.
"However, given the unprecedented nature of these events in New Zealand, we want to work with broadcasters to assess whether the standards are still fit-for-purpose.

"We hope that these decisions will prompt discussion with broadcasters about whether any changes to the Codes are required to provide additional guidance. We will seek broadcasters' views on whether further guidelines are required for foreign pass-through channels, particularly around the action expected from local broadcasters during extreme circumstances. We are also assessing whether the Codes should include principles for reporting on terrorist activity."

The BSA will also work with broadcasters to review the BSA guidance issued in 2017 on use of social media content in broadcasting and assess whether this can be developed to provide guidelines to deal with user-generated extreme violent material in news reporting.
"Responding to and countering violent extremism in content is a critical issue on which all entities involved in content distribution and regulation are focused", said Moffat.