Terrorists Don’t Define Terrorism, Journalists Do

When 50 people who were otherwise peacefully going about their day, are brutally murdered by a hate filled man, how do you think it would be reported?

It’s an important question to consider, because when documenting and reporting on tragedy and disastrous events, the way journalists cover these awful events, will affect how the community reacts to the traumatic aftermath of what occurred.

Most would describe the horrific events that occurred in Christchurch as a terrorist attack – especially since section 5 of New Zealand’s Terrorism Suppression Act (2002) defines a terrorist act as having the following traits:

  • be carried out for the purpose of advancing an ideological, political, or religious cause
  • be intended to induce terror in a civilian population, or to unduly compel or force a government or international organisation to do or abstain from doing any act
  • cause one in a list of specified harms, including death, serious bodily injury, a serious risk to health or safety, serious property damage, or serious interference with an infrastructure facility.

It almost seemed like the Western world was shocked off it’s axis on the 15th of March when a lone white man live streamed the brutal murder of 50 people at the Christchurch mosque in Deans Avenue and another mosque Linwood.

It was a terrorist attack, by the way. Because it seems the media didn’t quite understand that.

It’s difficult to reconcile that the perpetrator was humanised and made front and centre the story, instead of, you know, the 50 people he killed. The 2016 Orlando nightclub shooter was given no such privileges, despite the fact that both tragedies shared a lot in common, with a similar casualty count.

Yet when the terrorist is white, the media is quick to use phrases that humanise the perpetrator. In this case, it masks his Islamophobic motivations, and his association to white supremacism and right-wing extremism.

His very name changed how the tragedy was reported.

Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern chose to not name the attacker, to let his name be forgotten to history, and implored everyone to do the same. It was both a political decision to show how she stood by the victems and the Muslim community, as well as a censorship she imposed on herself to reduce the spread of his name, lest it get to a trial.

However, news outlets have continued to ignored this plea, and publish his name often. Just take a google search, it will come up.

The MEAA’s first ethical guideline is to “Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis.”

So the question is, is his name an essential fact, and would suppressing it do anything to the story?

In any murder tragedy, the perpetrator is nearly always mentioned once it is safe to do so. It is important to do so because the public deserves to put a face to a person who could commit a horrific act.

By not naming the perpetrator, he is given special treatment. It creates a separation between him compared to every other criminal, and thus still gives him notoriety. At the end of the day, he is no different from countless other terrorists.

However, he shouldn’t have had his name mentioned, and it still shouldn’t be mentioned now. Newsworthiness isn’t the issue here, there’s a breach of protocol here that journalists have broken.

Tell me, if you were to sit as his jury right now, would you have na unbiased opinion of what happened?

No. You wouldn’t.

You know how he is, you know what happened, and with the media circus that has surrounded him, you most definitely have an opinion on him

We all do.

Naming him invited an examination of him as a person, of his history, his family, who he was, rather than an examination of him as a murderer.

So by naming him, instead of giving the public facts, the media is given an outlet to explore him, his upbringing, his family, and friends. By doing so we get headlines like this;

Video games weren’t to blame. The man wrote a 73 page manifesto, we know why he did it.

By naming him, we want to know why he did it, what drove him to such a hateful, spiteful act. His name is something we recognise, it’s not a “strange foreign name” from a “strange foreign country”, so his name becomes personalised.

“terrorism seems like a word exclusively reserved for Muslims and immigrants.”


He wants to be remembered, he wants to be known, otherwise he wouldn’t have written a 73 page manifesto, and he wouldn’t have broadcast the attack live.

His name doesn’t change what happened, the public doesn’t need his name to know his motivations, and the public can still reasonably assume his identity because the nature of his crime is understood by the community, and unique in the sense that there simply couldn’t be anyone else being discussed.

We saw something similar in the 2011 Norway attacks, where the perpetrator wrote a 1,518 manifesto to excuse himself for killing 92 people.

Capitalising on the perpetrator and not the victims directly plays into exactly what he wants. The terroist wants his own extremist, hateful views to not only be recognised, but be validated by that recognition – and that is what was given to him.

He knew what he was doing, he knew who his audience were he wasn’t doing it for the mainstream media, he was doing it for his online audience, which celebrated the attack. It was only a bonus that the Australian mainstream media humanised him, too.

The media is quick to label terrorists as ‘other’, to seperate them from the rest of society. When the attacker is muslim, or not white, it is even easier.

It’s becomes a segregating game of us verses them. It is easy dehumanise and demoralise a terrorist who isn’t white, it is easy to rationalise that because they are from a different culture, a different society, that isn’t like ours, they are capable of doing awful things.

But the Christchurch terrorist came from Australia, he was raised in a small town just like 10% of the rest of the country. We want to be connected to this story because Australia and New Zealand are so close, we share a similar history, we share similar values, and so we share each others pain.

After all, New Zealand was with us after the Lindt Siege.

And so when it came out the attacker was Australian, well that became the Australian media’s newsworthy story that was capitalised on.

(Because seriously, think of every time something awful has happened in the world, Australia will undoubtedly report it as “An awful event happened in [this place]. [This amount] of Australians were involved.” It’s a thing)

With a seemingly good, normal upbringing in a culture we understand (because we’re part of it), it highlights that Australia may really hold xenophobic values. This scares the media, it scares us, it scares me, because we’re a country that thrives off of the fair go, we’re a country of immigrants and convicts since colonisation, and the idea that we hold such deep seeded xenophobia directly contradicts the values we celebrate.

But this direct analysis has been discredited by the media’s very reaction to the attack. Whilst islamphobic and xenophobic sentiment in the media certainly aren’t to blame for the attack – terrorist attacks are committed by individuals, and they are the ones who should be held responsible, the right wing media has created a culture where these awful, hateful beliefs, are given oxygen and legitimacy.

By humanising him, it’s incredibly revealing that these news outlets value of human life is dependant on how it can be warped into something that helps support their ideology.

Instead of what it was, a terrorist attack that was enacted by a hate-filled white supremist.

The media gave the white terrorist the privilege of humanity that we inherently allow to whiteness, and in doing so, striped the human dignity from his victims, because they’re not afforded the same humanity as the terrorist who killed them.

And by doing so, it’s seen as just an awful shooting, not the horrific terrorist attack that it was.

So no, I won’t be naming him, because there is no glory in being a terrorist. How journalists report on terrorist attacks, their victims, and their perpetrators, affects the community, because it fuels the opinions and beliefs that the community creates.

And we shouldn’t be aiding the humaisation of a mass killer.

One thought on “Terrorists Don’t Define Terrorism, Journalists Do”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s