Media coverage of the Auckland shooting amplifies the harm against communities most vulnerable to violence, writes criminologist Sara Salman. It cements misconceptions about crime generally and mass shootings specifically, with harmful consequences for the whole country.
The shooting in Auckland three weeks ago shook the country and dominated the news cycle, as mass shootings often do, because they appear sudden and random — and they inspire public fears about safety.
The gravity of the attack and the rarity of this kind of violence in New Zealand made the shooting a “newsworthy” event. It received extensive coverage, with particular focus on the background of the offender, his criminal history, and the fact that he was on home-detention at the time of the shooting.
All of this served to create a certain narrative about this crime: This (brown) man who was on home detention committed this violent crime.
Embedded within that story was the message that the failure to prevent the crime rests with a government that doesn’t hand out enough custodial sentences. It added weight to the call for tougher criminal justice policies.
But not all crimes receive equal coverage. Nor are they framed in the same way, however violent they may be.
What the media and politicians choose to focus on varies greatly, and that has serious consequences for groups who often find themselves negatively targeted in these crime stories.
I want to reflect on the harm of both the coverage of crime, and the nature of the political discussions about crime.
Of course, we can accept that the level of shock and the coverage of the story is understandable and reasonable given the gravity of the violence. But there’s an unsettling unity between the media coverage of the story and the punitive political reaction to it. And it’s this unity that generates and legitimises the tough-on-crime narrative.
At the outset, the shooting has been used by politicians to score political points by linking it to an “out of control” problem of crime. The shooting has been used to tell a story: that there’s a political failure to curb criminals and protect citizens. The shooter’s status of being on home-detention for domestic violence charges was repeated in the news stories, and immediately sparked criticism of the government’s approach to sentencing.
The political rhetoric on crime isn’t surprising. But it’s not an even-handed response, and not all crimes receive this treatment.
Consider the relative political silence on the case of the (white) woman facing charges of murdering her children, where the media’s obsessive focus on the details of the murder hasn’t sparked political commentary on the need to be tough on crime. Here, the horrific nature of the crime has called forth a sensitive response of trying to understand the psychological state of the perpetrator and her husband.
If we put the obsessive coverage aside for the moment, the framing of this crime in the context of mental health contrasts with media and political discourses about similar crimes involving Māori, such as the case of the Kahui Twins, where the discourses lacked sensitivity.
In that case, there was little understanding or sympathy extended to the mother, Macsyna King, although she wasn’t charged for the murders of her babies. Nor was there much of an attempt in the mainstream coverage to provide the context of the circumstances in which she found herself.
The political language and the media coverage don’t simply inform people about crimes such as the shooting in Auckland. Rather, they create a narrative that feeds into and amplifies hostile and racist sentiments and attitudes that harm communities who come to be identified as problem populations that must be controlled.
Such narratives reinforce the idea that crime is a problem of law and order, but only sometimes — and especially when the perpetrator is brown. Using the perpetrator’s photo and name serve to signal to the public that this is specifically a Māori crime. And it reframes and channels the outrage at Māori who are then accused of causing all sorts of social unrest and social problems.
Coincidentally, the persistent use of the shooter’s picture and name is in sharp contrast to the pattern of coverage of the 2019 terrorist shooting in Christchurch. In that case, the (white) perpetrator’s face and name were seldom used in coverage and the stories focused on how the country was coming together to deal with the aftermath. “This is not us,” we were reminded.
The de facto name and image suppression was couched in refusing to give notoriety to the perpetrator or his cause. Yet, given the uneven media coverage, the rationale appears cynical. Consider, for example, that the media repeatedly used the image and the name of the (brown, Muslim) perpetrator of the LynnMall supermarket stabbing attack in 2021, including an image of the perpetrator holding a rifle.
The narrative about that attack harkened to a pre-March 15 media framing that was quick to identify terrorism with brown Muslim people. There was no call for unity or a national distancing from the attack. Instead, the coverage reframed the perpetrator as a public enemy.
The contrast that these cases provide isn’t accidental. It corresponds to international patterns of media bias where coverage tends to elevate the security threat and the ethnic identity of non-white offenders.
But the story of the Auckland shooting also distorts the reality of gun violence. The shooting rattled people’s sense of safety. Mass shooting incidents force people to consider the routines of their everyday life. Most importantly, two men lost their lives, and their families and communities are mourning their loss.
I don’t want to diminish the extent of the harm here. But I want to challenge the framing of the Auckland shooting because of how it presents the incident as part of a larger pattern of gun violence.
Mass shootings are distinct moments of violence. They aren’t conducted to facilitate other crimes. For instance, using guns in an armed robbery doesn’t make the event a mass shooting. Mass shootings are characterised by being an end in themselves.
By contrast, gun violence typically reported in the news is concentrated in gang and criminal-related activities. This is not a simple semantic or technical issue. Conflating mass shootings, which by their nature aren’t connected to other crimes, with gun violence, in the context of criminal activities, has the potential to affect policy and policing.
In fact, gangs have become a salient point, with some politicians seeking even more punitive criminal policies, even though a history of stiff anti-gang policies reveal the repeated failures of that approach.
Criminologists who study crime rates and crime policies in New Zealand warn against the politicisation of crime because tough on crime policies don’t reduce crime. Yet, such policies are made to appear natural and logical, with dire consequences particularly for Māori communities and communities of colour.
I want to point to one consequence of the narrative that racialises crimes and conflates incidents of mass shootings with gang activities to create a fuzzy picture of a violent offender who represents a public enemy: It puts us in harm’s way.
In the case of mass shootings, it misses the fact that mass shooters are typically white men, who tend not to have visible criminal pasts. In fact, mass shooters fly under the radar because they aren’t usually surveilled by law enforcement. As noted by Dr Rawiri Taonui, mass shootings in New Zealand over the last 30 years have been predominantly carried out by white perpetrators. The Auckland shooting represents an exception to this pattern.
Our policy response must be driven by evidence rather than political point-scoring.
Getting the profile of the shooter wrong has put us in trouble before. After 9/11, racialised narratives about national security made terrorism into a thing that Muslim people do — and so politicians and policymakers turned the country’s security apparatus on the Muslim community.
But all that was shattered by the March 15 terrorist attack in 2019. The focus on Islamist-motivated terrorism meant we dropped the ball on the growing threat of white supremacy — and the Muslim community paid a steep price with their lives.
This is not to mention the continued impact of Islamophobia on the Muslim community. Racialising crime, including terrorism, allows racist attitudes against non-Pākehā to flourish, and puts communities of colour, including Indigenous communities, in the face of perpetual social backlash as well as state violence.
Communities of colour have to reckon with heavy surveillance and policing while also fending off racist forms of harassment.
But it also puts the whole country at risk of more violence, as policymakers fail to see the distinction in the risk-profile of the crime in question. There’s a risk of diverting police and policymakers from the typical perpetrator profile, and guns may end up in the wrong hands undetected until it’s too late.
Of course, all incidents of gun violence, including mass shooting gun violence, raise questions about gun regulations. Amendments to the country’s gun laws after the 2019 terrorist attack have controlled civilian access to military-style firearms, which is a proactive legal move to combat mass shootings.
The police commissioner has noted that gun regulations will yield positive effects in the years to come. Recent incidents of gun violence should move the country toward more gun regulation.
Lastly, the linking of the shooting to the status of being on home detention has amplified the political rhetoric that the government is weak on crime. It has also begun to produce a kind of reactionary backlash against the judiciary which appears to be imported from the US, especially since the 2016 election of Donald Trump.
In this case, the outrage over the status of the offender has seen calls on social media to track down and harass the judge who presided over the home detention order. Although the threats haven’t been detailed in the media, they warranted a change in security procedures to protect judges.
The sensationalist coverage of crime and the populist rhetoric of politicians, however unintentionally, legitimise and amplify the reactionary backlash against communities of colour and public institutions, with devastating implications. It amplifies harm against communities most vulnerable to violence, and cements misconceptions about crime generally and mass shootings specifically, with harmful consequences for the whole country.
Sara Salman, tangata Tiriti, migrated to New Zealand in 1999. She descends from Samarra and identifies as Arab. Sara is a senior lecturer in criminology at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington. She studies structural and political violence, and has written on state neglect in time of disasters and the impact of structural inequalities on social cohesion in the US and Aotearoa. Sara engages in public scholarship and participates in New Zealand government and civil society initiatives on social cohesion and counter-extremism strategies. She serves on He Whenua Taurikura Research Committee.
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