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The problems with human rights journalism

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Human rights journalism is a field that has encountered and continues to confront numerous obstacles and setbacks. Firstly, journalists do not know how or where to properly cover internationally-occurring human rights abuses. As I have learned in professor Patnaik’s “Human Rights and Literature” course –– part of the Sanctuary Series program at Swat studying forced migration –– this problem is not unique to journalists. World leaders attempting to construct U.N. protocol documents and authors of novels frequently attempt and fail to adequately portray these abuses. How do we, as college journalists and college students, cover and write about human rights atrocities occurring internationally? Where in a journalistic organization is the best place to cover such topics? What platforms are most effective at disseminating information about human rights abuses, and how can journalists force them to become the central narrative rather than a sub-point that can be easily, frequently, and often conveniently shunted off to the side?

This struggle with adequately covering human rights abuses is not at all new. American journalists have historically failed to adequately cover human rights abuses. According to Peter Novick’s “The Holocaust in American Life,” “In the course of 1940, 1941, and 1942, reports of atrocities against Jews began to accumulate. But these, like the numbers cited, were often contradictory. In the nature of the situation, there were no firsthand reports from Western journalists.”  In his article titled “The Awful Truth About Holocaust Reporting — And Its Legacy,” Mark Kersten postulates five reasons for the silence to which Novick refers. These reasons, he claims, are that reporting on the Holocaust would have provided a distraction from the Allies’ war effort, that there was widespread anti-Semitism still lingering within the journalism community in the United States, that people did not want to believe such a genocide was possible, that newspapers received accounts of the mass killings from Europe but refused to publish them, and that since the New York Times did not cover the Holocaust, other publications simply followed suit. This lack of coverage and failure on the part of American journalists resulted in a largely uninformed U.S. population with respect to the events of the Holocaust.

Concern for the physical safety of the journalist is another factor that obstructs the ability of the media to disseminate information concerning human rights abuses. During the Rohingya crisis, journalists were not permitted in the vicinity. In Myanmar, two journalists were arrested for investigating a mass execution of Rohingyas by soldiers. Yaser Murtaja, a Palestinian video journalist and photographer from the Gaza Strip, was killed by Israeli security forces during the 2018 Gaza border protests. The Israeli army claimed it does not “intentionally target” journalists, yet this man was wearing a large vest clearly labeled “press.”

In order to protect themselves, some writers stationed abroad are forced to incorporate qualifiers such as “allegedly” and “may have,” diluting the severity of human rights abuses. Although the introduction of these qualifiers were originally intended for safety concerns, they seep into the works of major news organizations such as CNN where the writers are not in direct danger. In cases of safety I support the inclusion of careful language, but American journalists stationed in the United States should address the issue directly for what it is.

Due in part to their internal structures and relatively narrow scope for defining their audience, journalistic organizations sometimes struggle to adequately portray international atrocities. U.S. news sources often paint these abuses of human rights through a U.S.-focused lense, rendering the actual human rights abuse on the outskirts of the conversation instead of the central talking point. Placing human rights articles in the context of a larger journalistic organization has proven to be difficult. The internal structure of journalistic organizations makes it inherently difficult for human rights abuses to get coverage. News sides struggle with covering human rights abuses because they are supposed to be engaged in the project of objectivity. Because news has no obligation towards the feelings of its readers, journalists often internally struggle to reconcile the reporter and the human while presenting human rights abuses. It is for this reason that many shy away from such topics.  

Editorial sides struggle to cover human rights abuses as well for two reasons. The first is that editorial journalists look through news articles from the day before in order to come up with topics — if the topic is not appearing in the news side it will then not come up in these searches. The second is that crafting an argument surrounding condemning human rights abuses is often regarded as not an interesting enough editorial perspective. Instead, journalists often cover conflicts and refer to human rights abuses solely as byproducts of conflicts and therefore corollary, rather than central, to the subject of an article.

How can American journalists better cover and represent human rights abuses that occur internationally?  To which audiences are these journalists accountable? These are questions we writers must constantly ask ourselves, and questions the Sanctuary Series program has illuminated for many Swat students. The media is continuously grappling with the question of figuring out how to cover human rights.  The American newspaper articles often center the piece around not the conflict itself, but Trump or the U.S.’s reaction to it. While Americans may be more interested in this subject, this method of US-centric coverage can be at the expense of information disseminated about what was actually going on and the ability to best capture the entire conflict. Headlines centering around Trump’s reaction to what is happening are more prevalent than those delineating the atrocity itself.

Widespread discussion of human rights did not occur until after the Holocaust, so placing this concept on the international stage is a relatively modern project. Nevertheless, considering all of these questions of accountability and audience, it is a fact that far too much information is lost when atrocities are framed through a strictly American lens. Potentially sacrificing leadership, on the part of the organization, by incorporating more human-rights based editorials and replacing America-centric headlines with those more specific to the conflict is a project worth undertaking.

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