New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (Image: AAP/SNPA, David Alexander)

David Williams is a Christchurch-based journalist who was also in his home city when the earthquakes struck in 2011. He wasn’t in his newsroom at The Press, where a workmate died, because he was at home with wife and five-day-old baby son that day.

Williams has now watched the world’s media descend on his home city for the second time this decade after Friday’s terror attack.

“It wasn’t until I was sitting in court waiting for the accused to make his appearance and I overheard a journo behind me say ‘this is the biggest story in the world’ and I realised it was. It’s a little overwhelming to be honest, when it’s your home town.”

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Williams says watching New Zealand’s most experienced TV broadcast journalists being comforted by the families of victims has struck him the most. “The people telling their stories have felt moved to hug the journalists and I think local journalists have shown more heart and less detachment than during the earthquake”

“I really believe this is a reflection of the warmth and love coming from the amazing Muslim community and it’s affecting us obviously. We have been touched by the generosity of this community sharing their stories at this terrible time when they don’t have to.”

A TV staffer from one of New Zealand’s national current affairs shows reinforces Wiliam’s impressions. But the media’s presence hasn’t been all positive. The staffer has been editing interviews four days running now and hopes the arrivals of so much international media doesn’t impact the openness and warmth of victims families. Very quietly she wonders about the media arriving from overseas having to “get” stories to make the journey pay off as an investment. The concern is this could encourage journalists from these outlets to behave more and more aggressively in pursuit of a story.

But perhaps, by Tuesday, it’s too late for that. Another NZ journo tells us that an Australian TV journalist from a commercial network walked through another journo’s shot and, when asked not to, offered a shrug and a roll of the eyes — no apology.

With Christchurch reaching media saturation point, there is already a tangible sense of panic among news organisations worried about missing out on a big story, and being scooped by competitors from across the world.

On Monday, Crikey followed local news crews as they scrambled to secure interviews with families of the victims. Arriving at one home where an interview had been pre-arranged, there was a low groan of despair when a competing news team was seen to have arrived outside the house. 

A very brief and intense negotiation was entered into in an attempt to get the interview back. The man at the centre insisted he would only go with a media organisation that didn’t edit him — he wanted to talk about his brother who had died. One reporter said yes straight away, and the crew Crikey were travelling with demurred knowing they couldn’t guarantee it in good faith. 

As the tragedy enters its sixth day, there’s also an increasing concern too many journalists might start asking the same invasive or insensitive questions of families unprotected by handlers or liaison people. Since arriving, Crikey reporters have seen first-hand the sometimes bizarre and uncomfortable tension between the swarms of foreign reporters and a small, grief-stricken town. 

On Sunday, a Maori man with traditional facial tattoos riding one of the hired motor scooters popular in Christchurch was stopped by a photographer from Mexico. The man on the scooter seemed confused as to why he wanted to take his photo. The photographer indicated that the man’s full face moko was what he wanted to capture.

At a press conference Monday, Mark Wilson, principal of Cashmere High School which lost two students on Friday, told Crikey he was concerned about the media focus on his school

“You can get quite overwhelmed at cameras being put in your faces, and people wanting feedback and comment,” Wilson said, gesturing at the tangle of cameras spilling out of his office.

“We’ve got to manage that [the media conversation], because that can contribute to the overwhelming negative of this situation as well.”

Later on in the press conference, Wilson chastised a English broadcast reporter who had arrived late and wanted the key details repeated.

“I’ve actually already covered that, so I won’t add anything further to that at this stage.”

“Thank you for your time, I’ve got a school to run,” Wilson said.

Crikey has two reporters on the ground in Christchurch this week. Read more of their coverage here

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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