Media, journalism and human rights

For a variety of reasons, there is more and more coverage of human rights in the media. The climate for doing quality human rights reporting is good, but there are also many threats. Take a look at the list below – do these statements apply to your situation?

Working for and against good human rights journalism

For:

  • Human rights issues are more newsworthy than in the past.
  • On a global scale, state control over media has decreased over the past two decades.
  • There are more organizations that promote human rights and feed the media with information.
  • There are more human rights “watchdogs” that investigate human rights abuses and publish their findings.
  • The UN’s monitoring system is more visible.
  • More issues are framed as human rights issues: children’s issues, HIV/AIDS, sexual and reproductive health, aging, poverty, housing.
  • More governments have integrated human rights into policies and laws.
  • Political parties take more account of human rights; human rights are discussed during elections.
  • Increasing use of the Internet, mobile phones, and social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook means there are more ways to receive information, more sources and more alerts.
  • Technology and social networks are also creating new ways to report human rights violations.
  • Some international media networks, like the BBC and CNN, now employ people living in developing countries as journalists and stringers. This helps bring local stories to international audiences.

Against:

  • Human rights advocates often work against powerful political and economic interests, and the threat of repercussions can be great.
  • Many journalists have cultural beliefs and practices that do not fit well with human rights ideals.
  • In times of crisis, governments may introduce laws that violate human rights.
  • In developing countries, there is limited technological infrastructure, e.g. mobile phone and Internet connections. This works against journalists in a high-speed news environment.
  • It is not always easy to fit human rights issues into a breaking news format.
  • In most developing countries, journalists are under-resourced, lacking basic tools – computers, cameras, transmission equipment – and finances, like money for transport and accommodation.
  • Many journalists are freelancers or stringers. They struggle to “sell” human rights stories that are not headline news but concern  ongoing problems – like poor health services, lack of water, inadequate education – to editors concerned with budgets.
  • In some places, media are still controlled by the state.
  • States still have the power to shut down the Internet or to censor online content.

Media’s relationship to human rights issues

  • Media are producers of information for the general public. Reporters collect and present most of the information we receive about human rights.
  • Media also carry stories that include information generated by human rights organizations.
  • Media decide what to cover and what issues or aspects of a story to highlight. By making these decisions, media have power over what we know and do not know about human rights.
  • Media also comment on issues in opinion pieces, talk shows, panel discussions, editorials and columns. Media therefore have the power to shape public morals and public opinions about human rights.

What role should journalists play in relation to human rights?

What are journalists’ responsibilities in relation to human rights? Do journalists have a special responsibility to report on human rights?

It is worth thinking about these questions, because how you answer them will shape your approach to human rights reporting. There are several valid answers, reflecting different viewpoints about journalism.

How do you feel about your role?

  • Media are a mirror. The role of journalists is to reflect back to society what they see. That will include human rights issues.
  • Journalists have a moral obligation to promote human rights all the time and in every story. Media are “watchdogs” whose role is to bark loudly to warn people about threats to their freedom, to their security, to their livelihoods and to their culture.
  • Human rights are a moral compass for good journalism. Knowing and understanding human rights will make you a better and more professional journalist.
  • Journalists have a special, personal interest in human rights. Good journalism dies where human rights are weak. Therefore they have a responsibility to expose abuses and to raise awareness about human rights.
  • Human rights are the basis of all good journalism. You cannot be a good journalist unless you incorporate human rights.
  • Human rights may be newsworthy from time to time, but the real value in knowing about human rights is that they help you see new stories in old issues. Human rights provide another “hook” or angle for your story.
  • The role of a journalist is to report news and issues and therefore do not have a duty to pay special attention to human rights. Human rights are not more special than any other topic.

How do you see yourself?

Some journalists see themselves as campaigners – actively, consciously and deliberately exposing injustices, righting wrongs, raising awareness, influencing events. They are journalists because they want to change the world.

Other journalists are closer to the “media as a mirror” position. They may also strongly believe in changing the world, but see this as an inevitable outcome of good journalism. They avoid campaigning journalism, or deliberately trying to influence events.

Your selection may also be decided by where you work:

  • A community radio or TV station with a community development mission, for example, may want you to do campaigning journalism about people’s rights to housing or about poverty. A bridge over a local road could be framed as a “right to life” or “right to safety” issue.
  • A public radio or TV station is more likely to want you to be more detached in your approach and report what others say, being sure to be fair to all sides of the story.
  • If you are blogging, what you write will depend on your own personal values and beliefs, and on the aims of your blog.
  • A commercial television or radio station might want to avoid controversy and will thus avoid campaigns that might anger advertisers.

Criticisms of human rights coverage in the media

Many observers note that although there is more human rights coverage in the media now than in the past, it is not all good. Some common criticisms are:

  • Media confuse issues because journalists have an inadequate understanding of human rights: what they are, how they are created, governments’ responsibilities and how they are promoted and enforced.
  • By not taking account of human rights, journalists miss stories or ways of reporting issues. This affects the quality of journalism and the public’s right to information.
  • When journalists cover human rights issues, they present them as crime or politics stories rather than rights issues. They ignore the existence of international human rights standards for domestic violence, racial discrimination, treatment of migrants, child abuse, education, health, cultural freedoms and many other issues. This weakens media’s “watchdog” role, because journalists do not hold their governments and other powerful institutions to account on these issues.
  • Journalists present information without context or analysis. As a result, human rights violations seem to be isolated instances or new events even when they are only the latest in a history of similar violations.
  • Media themselves sometimes perpetrate human rights abuses by invading privacy, perpetuating bias and stereotypes, not calling governments to account, or deepening conflict.

Worksheet