The ethics of tweeting Breivik

There is a dilemma for journalists covering the trial of Anders Behring Breivik — the man who has admitted killing 77 people on 22 July in Norway last summer.

On the one hand, Breivik is gaining another bout of publicity for his crimes. On the other, the journalist’s role is to document a trial which inevitably has attracted significant public attention.

Although Twitter’s use in court is not new, this is a particularly high profile case which also presents a wealth of potential ethical issues for journalists using the microblogging tool to cover the trial.

Reporting Breivik’s trial: Banning “old'”broadcasting while allowing “new” broadcasting 

Some parts of the trial are being broadcast by Norway’s NRK television, although a number of key elements will not be shown.

Some of the haunting recordings of those who lost their lives are not being aired. Breivik’s own testimony yesterday was not televised. And the evidence given by witnesses will not be broadcast in the future either.

In yesterday’s press conference, the prosecution was asked how the media should report Breivik’s evidence.

“Q: Is it right for him to testify in court about his political agenda? How should the media report it?

A: It is important that he explain his views and many other people share those views. It also impacts on whether he is sane or insane. We don’t want his testimony to be directly broadcast because it needs to be digested after being put in context by media organisations.”

If the point of not allowing the evidence to be broadcast is to allow an opportunity to put everything in context, it leaves question marks over whether journalists should still be allowed to use Twitter from court.

In short, does it make sense to ban the cameras but not the tweeters?

Twitter updates: Stripping context?

A number of journalists have been using Twitter to provide updates from the trial.

Tweeting Breivik’s evidence inevitably strips away even more context from it. We lose the audio-visual context of a live broadcast and I would suggest that even the best live tweeters won’t be able to relay a verbatim account.

It could be argued that this can be allayed if a number of journalists are tweeting from court as they will provide different tweets on the trial.

In theory, they could also offer additional contextual tweets which might help audiences make sense of Breivik’s rants against Islam, multiculturalists, Marxists, and feminists; the evils of the Labour party; and his justification of mass murder as necessary for the salvation of Norway.

But I would hypothesise that because journalists are likely to tweet news lines they will probably tweet similar things. There also won’t be much time for fact-checking or the broader context while they are live-tweeting.

Paul Brannan, tweeting for Al Jazeera English, offered this caveat to his followers during the afternoon, for example:

Of course, tweets stripped of context can be reclothed by their incorporation into more detailed live blogs by media organisations and then articles and longer pieces.

Arguably, when taken as a whole, a stream of Twitter updates from a journalist at a trial may contain more context than a short broadcast report for radio or TV.

It is also not unreasonable to expect people to be aware of the limits of Twitter as a medium. (Is it?)

And if people want more context, they will obviously look elsewhere; but the same could be said of live television coverage.

The case for live tweeting over live TV

Twitter has an advantage, of course, over television in that discerning journalists can exercise their judgement to decide which aspects to cover in an attempt to avoid unnecessary harm.

It was notable earlier today that the Guardian’s reporter covering the trial, Helen Pidd, decided she did not want to provide updates during some parts of Breivik’s evidence:

Pidd explained that she would “put it in context in a story at lunchtime”, adding that it “seems irresponsible to just put it out on Twitter unadulterated.”

Twitter users who replied to Pidd’s comments were divided over whether she was making the right call.

When I asked her about this decision, Pidd said she does not think she has a duty to report everything Breivik says:

“In any news broadcast or story there is always an element of selection – whether for reasons of brevity, ethical reasons, concerns about those you are writing about [or other considerations].”

Pidd had also discussed tweeting the proceedings prior to the trial with colleagues at the Guardian.

They had agreed that it was “not morally wrong to live tweet the trial” but that they “needed to be careful”.

There are plenty of things to consider here, but perhaps that is the bottom line at the moment. At least until we have a better understanding of how audiences consume this sort of coverage.


Daniel Bennett recently completed his PhD at the War Studies Dept, KCL. His thesis considered the impact of blogging on the BBC’s coverage of war and terrorism. He writes the Reporting War blog for the Frontline Club.

DOOM, Deutschland and the violent video game fallacy

As a twelve-year-old, my life consisted of watching re-runs of What’s Happening, planning my wedding to Justin Timberlake, and playing unhealthy amounts of Grand Theft Auto and DOOM.  Then came the tragic 1999 shootings at Columbine High; sparking a heated debate about the role of violent video games in the actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, both players of my favourite game, DOOM. My parents used it as an excuse to pull the plug on my pixelated carnage. The link between video games and violent shootings was raised again after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, and more recently, the Anders Breivik killing spree in Norway.

Germany, known for having a stringent videogame market, restricted the sale of DOOM and DOOM II to select adult video stores back in 1994. Both games were named on the official “List of Media Harmful to Young People.” Games on the list  cannot be “sold, advertised, or displayed to minors in the country”, putting them in the same category as pornography.

After seventeen years of restrictions, the Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons (Bundesprufstelle) has decided to lift restrictions on the videogame after an appeal from Bethesda Softworks, which owns DOOM. The change was made because of advances in the quality of graphics in videogames, rather than a concern about preserving free speech.

While it might seem silly to think that games like DOOM, with its hilariously bad graphics and hideous Martians on bad stereoids could actually stir a player’s dormant killer, some nations have taken measures based on the assumption that playing such games could lead to violent behaviour. The shootings in Norway led a major retailer to pull violent video games from their stores, viewing the murders as a negative effect of playing such games.  Gore might be more realistic in today’s games, but much like graphic images in film or books, restricting the sale of such items would not change the outcome of such tragedies. What leads someone like Breivik to kill cannot be reduced to his hateful blogging or his love for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

If you are under sixteen and in Germany, purchasing either video game is still restricted. While the US Supreme Court ruled that a California law on the sale of violent video games to children violated the First Amendment, it does not appear that Germany will be taking the same measures any time soon. Luckily, the game can be easily found online, probably because we all passed it around on floppy disks in the 90s. Happy playing!

Letter from America: Equating right-wing politics with violence could undermine political speech for all

In the days since Anders Behring Breivik — the accused perpetrator of Friday’s deadly attacks in Norway — has been identified as a Christian right-wing extremist, some liberals in the US have descended on the episode as another opportunity to draw a straight line between hard-right political causes and actual violence. The meme has been gaining steam since the early rise of the Tea Party, a group that occasionally celebrates its Second Amendment gun rights by toting weapons to public rallies.

“Norway, US, Worldwide — is Right-Wing Violence endemic?” asks a blog post on the popular liberal Internet enclave Fire Dog Lake. Explains the writer:

“Right-wing supporters, here in the US and around the world, have a long history of resorting to, or actually embracing, violence. People from politicians, to preachers to doctors have all been shot because of their perceived (and perhaps real) left leaning political views.”

The author then proceeds to compile a list of recent incidents involving right-wing violence, including mention of the January shooting of Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

ThinkProgress, a liberal blog affiliated with the progressive Center for American Progress, has published an oddly beside-the-point revelation that the “Norway Terrorist is a Global Warming Denier“, as if this contributes further damning evidence of the ideological similarity between mass murderers and run-of-the-mill conservatives. In another post, the blog cites “evidence that [Breivik] was a fan of far-right bloggers and political parties.”

It then uses the occasion to chastise Rep. Peter King, who has refused to include homegrown terrorism threats – read: threats from neo-Nazis and other domestic right-wing extremists — in his congressional hearings investigating the radicalisation of American Muslims. King, since the Norway attacks, has held to that position.

Of course, it would be preferable for King to abandon the hearings all together rather than to add domestic political partisans to his already dubious investigation of the Muslim community. But the hint of “endemic” right-wing violence poses a different challenge – and that’s that we head down a tricky path in trying to draw systemic conclusions about political ideology and specific incidents of bloodshed.

It’s possible — as has turned out to be the case with Giffords’ shooter — that the defining characteristic of Breivik and other such violent rogues isn’t their politics, but their mental instability. And conflating the two could be problematic for political speech in the long run.

Sarah Palin was widely indicted after the Giffords shooting, which left six dead in an Arizona strip-mall parking lot, for having produced a map of political opponents targeted in the 2010 election with gun-sight symbols over their districts. Pundits speculated that such a map could have motivated Jared Lee Loughner to take Palin’s suggestion literally. (Subsequently, there was no evidence Loughner ever even saw Palin’s campaign graphic.)

Since then, Americans have been struggling mightily with the consequences of political discourse, with what it means to be “civil” at a time of rising political acrimony, and with the murky causal connection between words, ideas and violent action. It’s an important discussion. But chalking up the Norway shooting as another example that “right-wing ideas = violence” doesn’t add much to it.

Joshua Foust, writing in The Atlantic, is equally firm on this point:

“In order to tar all of Europe’s right, even just the upsetting xenophobes clothing themselves in worry about jihad, you must demonstrate a causal mechanism by which concern over cultural outsiders becomes murderous rage against the very people you claim to protect (in this case, ethnic Norwegians). Without being too trite, it requires an especially deranged mind already far outside the mainstream to decide to slaughter children at summer camp just because it is run by a left-wing political party. Associating that sort of mentality with the mainstream is not just wrong and lazy, it is hypocritical.

Indeed, much of the Western’s left’s quasi-triumphalism over the Norwegian tragedy revolves around it’s complete non-relationship to Islamic terror. Here, so many seem to celebrate, is the proof they had finally sought that right-wing politics are not just annoying and wrong, but actively dangerous.”

That argument may be politically profitable in the short term. But in the long run, suggesting political beliefs — whether liberal or conservative — are synonymous with incitement to violence could wind up undermining the rights of even those making such an argument today.