Human rights in the newsroom

The power of media

Journalists make decisions all the time: what stories to cover or ignore; what angles to take; who may be interviewed. Even in oppressive newsroom environments where journalists make fewer choices independently, they still make decisions – the decision to agree rather than opt out, for example.

Every decision a journalist makes has the power to do good or harm. That is the power of the media. Most of the time, media do no harm. But unfortunately, media have also both abused their power and, through poor practice, caused unintended harm.

Values of good journalism

The values of journalism guide journalists in exercising their power and protect the public. They are intended to guarantee good journalism.

According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), there are about 400 written codes for journalists. They vary from country to country to accommodate different situations and sensitivities, but there are certain elements that are universal and recognized by all journalists:

Values of Journalism

The Big Five

  • Truth
  • Accuracy
  • Independence
  • Fairness
  • Commitment to minimize harm

Other important values say that good journalism should:

  • Expose crime and corruption.
  • Make governments work better
  • Promote open debate
  • Explain the impact of events
  • Be inclusive
  • Respect privacy
  • Promote the values of freedom of expression and information

See an international code of conduct for journalists and an example of a newspaper’s code of ethics.

News values

When making decisions, journalists also consider “news values.” News values are qualities that make information newsworthy. They are what the media have come to believe will attract interest and audiences.

To be newsworthy, the story must have some or all of the following values:

Confusion alert!

The values of journalism apply to the practice of journalism.

“News values” are the qualities of a story that make it newsworthy.

  • Impact – the story must be relevant to people’s lives. For example, stories about price rises, political developments and climate change all have direct impact on people’s lives.
  • Public interest – do people have a right to know the information? Do people need to know? Will telling the story prevent harm or save lives? Will it inform the decisions they make?
  • Timeliness – the story includes information that people need to know in order to organize their lives in the present.
  • Proximity – close to home. A crime in your own city is more important to your community than a crime that is far away.
  • Currency – What's in the public focus at the time; e.g. controversial issues, cultural trends, topics of debate set in motion by current events
  • Novelty – events that are unexpected or surprising. The “man bites dog” story.

What are news values when it comes to human rights stories?

The same news values apply to human rights stories. Linking events to human rights standards can make the story more newsworthy.

For example, there may be several instances of child abuse in your community, but your editors might not regard them newsworthy. Try another angle:

  • Has your country signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)?
  • What positive steps is your government taking to eradicate child abuse?
  • Why does child abuse persist?

The story becomes more newsworthy when you bring in these angles. It is an opportunity to raise awareness about the CRC and about what constitutes child abuse.

You can also link your story to the human rights calendar. For example, stories about domestic abuse might not be considered newsworthy most of the time. But domestic abuse is a rights violation and you might be able get it into the news on March 8, which is International Women’s Day. Or you could try November 25, which is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

Look at the calendar of UN international human rights days, mark them in your news diary and list some ideas for relevant stories.

How do you recognize a good story?

To recognize a good story out of the flow of information that bombards us every day, you need good “news sense.” Having news sense means you can make quick decisions about what stories to follow and what facts to include. Most journalists develop news sense over time.

How to recognize a good story:

  • Would people be interested to know about this?
  • Who are the stakeholders – that is, who are the people who would be most affected by the story? Who else would be affected?
  • What is the news value – is it unexpected, timely, current, “close to home”…? Is it in the public interest?
  • How will it affect people’s lives?
  • What is my own relationship to the issue? To what extent am I driven by my own interests? What values / beliefs / connections do I have that may be influencing me?