Killing innocents : an analysis of historical news reporting of multiple-child murders in New Zealand and the legislation that changed the crime reporting framework : a thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand

Thumbnail Image
Open Access Location
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Massey University
The Author
The murder of children – innocents who require nurture and love – is one of the most horrific and inexplicable of crimes, and has generated innumerable column inches of newspaper reportage. This research project addresses a gap in academic research by examining naming and framing practices in newspaper accounts of multiple-child murder cases in New Zealand during the 60-year-period from 1870 to 1930. It also examines the discussion around New Zealand’s suppression laws and their introduction and evolution in legislation and in common law; these laws changed the framework for how multiple-child murders could be reported in news reports. The research into the evolution of suppression laws, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, is used to examine whether these legal changes altered the media landscape and the way multiple-child murders were reported. Drawing on a database of digitised historical New Zealand newspapers, and using both qualitative and quantitative research methods, this study examines how historical New Zealand journalists crafted stories of multiple-child murders, and illuminates whether some media practices observed in other Western nations, in both modern and Victorian times, are also evident in historical New Zealand news reporting. Earlier research has found that in cases of murder, one way that journalists seek to explain the actions of the accused persons is by broadly constructing frames for them using categories of ‘mad’, ‘bad’ or ‘sad’. An historical analysis of the evolution of New Zealand’s unique name suppression laws also illuminates a broader media context which affected whether and how media could name and create frames for those involved in the court process. The findings showed that newspapers at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century named the accused killers much more frequently than their victims, effectively raising the killers’ profile while diminishing the status of the dead children. In addition, the findings also suggest that while coverage of early New Zealand child murder cases broadly fits within classic theories of media framing of crime, in particular the use of ‘mad’, ‘bad’ or ‘sad’ categories to create frames for murderers, there are distinct limitations to expecting that modern explanatory models and taxonomies can or should apply. The examination of the evolution of New Zealand’s name suppression laws shows that the increasing judicial, media and public discourse around these laws had little impact on the naming patterns in the multiple-child murder cases examined. The research, however, illuminates a little-examined area of New Zealand’s media history and reveals that the restrictions on the information which may be published in crime and court news have been imposed gradually over more than 100 years and have eroded press freedoms in New Zealand. Analysis of the development of New Zealand’s suppression laws has illuminated some of the reasons that ‘newsroom practice’ in New Zealand developed in unique ways and demonstrates that, while certain journalistic challenges may be universal, individual media/cultural contexts may have highly distinct impacts on journalistic practice. This research project has contributed to a more thorough understanding of historical newspaper practices and suggests that these reporting practices were not monolithic. This research shines a light on reporting practices in New Zealand which, during the period analysed, evolved from a British colony to a nation with its own unique identity and, to a degree, the study addresses the limitations of British and North-American focused scholarship to date, providing a useful and needed extension of the literature on historical journalism.
Murder, Children, Crimes against, Press coverage, New Zealand, History, Crime and the press, Suppression of evidence