The not-guilty plea of the man accused of the Christchurch mosque shootings, while harrowing for the victims' families, came as no big surprise to most in the media and legal fraternity.
News organisations have been expecting the denial, and prepared a set of guidelines for how they plan to cover the trial, should it eventuate. Together, editors developed a set of mutually agreed protocols with the aim of reducing the accused’s ability to use media coverage to spread a message of white supremacy.
Newsroom.co.nz Christchurch reporter David Williams said covering next year’s court process presents a huge challenge for editors and their publications.
“It’ll be, in some ways, its greatest test, won’t it? Because this is not something we’ve seen before. There have been plenty of other – unfortunately - mass killings, but not often does it result in trial.”
As to what can be done to prevent harmful propaganda being spread from the dock, Williams said the power ultimately lay with the judge.
“Not only can they remove the accused if they’re being disruptive, but they can tell the media what [not] to report.”
Williams said the details of what the judge would do remained foggy.
“It’s hard to know whether we’ll be able to file as we go, for example – could it be a closed courtroom for the entire day, and we’re only allowed to file after the hearing is finished?”
The media’s joint approach to the trial is being applauded by commentators, both domestically and overseas, as a responsible move.
But Williams said despite the protocol, there would be variation between outlets’ coverage.
“The protocol makes it clear there will be editorial freedom.
“There has been a difference between what appears in a newspaper and what appears online, including the name of the alleged shooter in headlines.
“You’ve got to think that’s for traffic, but whether that’s ultimately “responsible” - well, that’s up to the editorial judgment of each media organisation.”
Williams said there was likely to be a noticeable difference between local and overseas media.
“There will be, most likely, very much more open reporting outside of New Zealand by overseas media and a much more restrained version of events within New Zealand.
“We have a responsibility to report what goes on. I guess it’s that thing isn’t it, you want to report what goes on because that may deter people from doing this kind of thing, but you don’t want to inspire people, and that is the most abhorrent effect you could have from something you report.”