Final Thoughts on Human Rights & Journalism

When I entered this class, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I had no idea how far I would come not only in my writing but also in my sensitivity towards human rights. As a journalist, you have to juggle a lot: asking the right questions, being sensitive to the interviewees’ needs, and writing as clearly and unbiased as possible. It’s a lot to handle sometimes, and often times, as we’ve seen through the Intervention Dilemma, we as the media are not always successful.

For me, the capstone project was the most eye opening experience. To become myself integrated in the neighborhood, to speak to persons on all sides of the issue, reminded me once again how important, and rewarding, it is to have a well-sourced piece. It not only allows you as the journalist to write a more well-rounded story, but you are able to explain the full story, with the write word choice and imagery, to prevent more abuses to these individuals who have undergone enough tragedy already.

Image via morgueFile.
Image via morgueFile.

We spoke about parachute journalists at the beginning of the semester and that concept really stuck with me. Not only in regards to coverage abroad but even in your own town, spending time, understanding the culture (especially in such a stratified area as Dallas), and representing them as best as possible in your story comes with time. It may be more work, but it is our duty as journalists to report stories, especially those concerning human rights, to the best of our ability. That comes with time and effort, necessary to creating the best, most complete story possible.

The other concept that really impacted my view on journalism is to see the human rights violations and those affected as stories on their own, separate and equally as important as when tragedy strikes. When girls are kidnapped, stories are reported in the West. But ongoing coverage of the persecution, religious and cultural, is as influential to creating a knowledgeable population with the ability to enact change.

I myself have suffered from compassion fatigue. But learning the tools to counteract it, like turning international stories local and finding new ways to report stories to capture people’s eyes (without being sensational), really pushed me to think outside the box.

This class changed the way I think about reporting, not only on human right stories. But more than anything, it gave me the information to represent others in an empowering way, that keeps victim-blaming and pity out of the vocabulary.

Final Thoughts on Human Rights & Journalism

Refugee Journalists redefine Citizen Journalist

Za'atri Refugee Camp from above. Via Creative Commons.
Za’atri Refugee Camp from above. Via Creative Commons.

In searching for some citizen journalists who specifically cover refugee rights, I stumbled on an exciting trend. The citizen journalists in many of these cases are actually refugees themselves.

One of the best example of this is The Voice, a blog run by Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD)-Legal Aid, allows groups of Syrian refugees in the Za’atri refugee camp in Jordan to share their neighbors and their own stories. With the perfect understanding of what it’s like to be a refugee, these men and women are able to voice their problems and grievances, while explaining how they are coping in their situation.

One of the most interesting differences in how these individuals report stories about refugee rights is how they frame the story. In “A Life of Hell,” the author, Hanadi (recognized only by her first name to protect her as a working woman), writes in the context of her Muslim beliefs, citing Allah as a key in her source’s success. Though the New York Times would never focus on this in a story about refugees, highlighting the conditions or backstory of the refugee, Hanadi speaks from the perspective of a refugee, who understands the importance of faith in surviving.

She explains all of the important facts, but adds humanity to the piece.

The refugees themselves feel catharsis in reporting and making sure their voices are heard online. “I felt that this project gave me back my humanity that I’d lost for a while. It let me scream out loud,” Hamida, another member of the Voice project, told Oxfam America.

Refugee Journalists redefine Citizen Journalist

Activism vs. Journalism: Is it a battle or a compromise?

The question of whether journalism and activism should be separated completely is a difficult and complicated problem to answer. First, certain distinctions must be made between the two “isms.”

Some journalists define them as completely separate entities. “If one cannot or will not write an article that goes against one’s cause, then one is not a journalist and does not deserve to be treated like one,” Richard Engel explained.

David Carr. via NYTimes
David Carr. via NYTimes

But, in my opinion, that is not true. Journalism fits into the new system of information distribution but it isn’t the sole source as it once was. People who provide news, in whatever way, be in social media, blogs, or the daily newspaper, must be covered by some sort of protection. As Joel Simon wrote in “What’s the Difference Between Activism and Journalism?”, “inviting governments to differentiate journalists from non-journalists would

set a dangerous precedent.

A perfect example of the blurred lines between activist and journalist falls with the New York Times and Alexa O’Brien.

David Carr wrote in an article:

I found out as much last week when an article I wrote with a colleague about WikiLeaks called Alexa O’Brien an “activist.”
Ms. O’Brien is certainly that. She played a crucial role in the digital outreach of Occupy Wall Street, was involved with the U.S. Day of Rage rally and began covering the Bradley Manning trial partly to protest the lack of information and transparency in the case.
But she also describes herself as an independent journalist, and for that matter, so have I in a previous column. She asked for (and received) a correction in The New York Times, pointing out that I had cited her work in my column.
“You are reading my journalistic work, using my journalistic work, capitalizing off my journalistic work, and linking to my journalistic work about the largest criminal investigation ever into a publisher and its source,” she wrote from Fort Meade, Md., where she has been comprehensively transcribing the Manning trial.
In other words, if I believed she was executing a political agenda rather than a journalistic one, why was I referencing her work?

I truly believe activist can be contributors to the news. Do I think that that necessarily makes them journalists, with a clear guidelines of ethics and style rules? No. But that does not make them less important in the news cycle.

Born into Brothels provides an obvious asset to the news. It educates and informs an audience about a human rights violation, something that a “traditional” journalist does every day, but inserts a tone of activism, once again blurring the lines. But, it’s value as a piece of journalism is not diminished but rather augmented by the personal connection between the journalist and her subjects.

Rami Abdul Rahman at home. Via NYTimes.
Rami Abdul Rahman at home. Via NYTimes.

Additionally, activist Rami Abdul Rahman, runs an information service called the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights from his two-bedroom house in Coventry, England. His content provides some of the most integral information about the goings on in Syria. He is an activist and a vital part of news distribution, and should be given rights as such.

There is a distinction in what each “ist” does for disseminating news but the protection and value of what they do is fairly equal.



Activism vs. Journalism: Is it a battle or a compromise?

“The paradox is that the Western media often cover human rights issues close to home thoroughly—the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, for instance, or questions of child abuse and racism—yet these media often do not make the link that place these stories within the context of an international regime of human rights standards and national responsibility.” (115)

The biggest takeaway from “Journalism, Media and the Challenge of Reporting on Human Rights” is an understanding of context. Throughout the paper’s conclusion, journalists’ need for a better understanding of what constitutes human rights, and how it applies both home and abroad, plays a major role in bettering effective reporting.

Finding the context of human rights violations does, in fact, require some sort of expertise in my opinion, contrary to what some like Matt Charney say in the conclusion (113). Some sort of specific knowledge is necessary to report on issues like refugees, in my case, so that ignorance and drama are not the center points of the story. A concerted effort to explain the scope and fundamental problems with the human rights violation must require some familiarity with the topic.

I think the distinction made between covering and reporting human rights stories made in the conclusion is vital to a better understanding of the problem facing journalists writing about human rights violations. The reduction of time, personnel, and interest in human rights issues has led to pure facts being presented without an in depth look into the context or scope of the story.

“In general, in addressing human rights issues, the media should pay particular attention to context and terminology” (120)

The recommendation that strikes me as the most useful encourages professional groups and schools to exchange information and views with human rights organizations (118). I think that this sort of discussion would allow professional journalists to develop an expertise on the subject, as well as a network of involved activists to contact to create a greater depth for the context they need for their story. Reporters must better understand local conditions, in order to develop more varied and diverse sources for these stories.

For my own topic, I think that context is fairly limited currently, since most refugee coverage is focused in Syria, an area where on-the-ground reporting is limited to refugee camps and a deep analysis of the situation inside Syria is difficult to ascertain. March 15th marked the 4 year anniversary of the conflict that has forced nearly 3.5 million people into refugee status. Organizations around the world focused on covering these individuals over the last week and many had a similar approach, focusing on the numbers and sheer size of the refugee population, rather than the causes for the flood of fleeing Syrians.

The Guardian, though, posted a small listicle of sorts called “12 ways to ensure a more secure future for Syria’s refugees” that offered information from experts in government and human rights organizations. Their coverage bridges the gap between the human rights community and journalists, providing both expertise and context to the situation.

The New York Times also offers more in-depth coverage and provides context to both the past and present situations of individual refugees, using examples to provide context and localization to the story. By mixing first person accounts, studies, and reporting in the area, the Times offers the fullest picture of the situation, in a limited space. The story allows minimal sensationalism while still showing the emotion and heartbreak of the human rights violations.

Both stories show that with context and interaction with human rights organizations, a more developed story can replace generalization and sensationalism.

The Committed Observer: Intervening as a Journalist

“Do you ever feel that journalism is an inadequate response to the tragedies you report on?,” wrote listener Mort Cohen to NPR after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.

Ouch. My heart twinges in response to that questions and tells me that the answer is much more complicated than yes or no. Earlier, I commented on “The Dream Boat,” a story of two reporters who joined refugees on a boat across the Indian Ocean. A pregnant refugee on the boat was in critical condition and though the engineer explained as much in broken English to the Australian border patrol, the Australians refused to help. The reporters continued their silent, undercover reporting, not making any moves to clear up the situation help.

I see both sides. I see the side that urges reporters to intervene, to take the step to prevent refugees from dying at the hands of a coyote “aiding” them across the US-Mexico border or pass out food to the starving to ensure that everyone is able to eat.

At the same time, I see where that help can be misplaced, where by getting involved can put objectivity in jeopardy and when good intentions, like Anthony Bourdain buying food for Haitians, can turn sour in an instant.

I find solace in the commentary of war photojournalist Lynsey Addario, who recently released a memoir, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. Addario said, in an interview with NPR,I also felt this massive weight as a photographer – how do I cover this? How do I convey in one frame the misery that I’m seeing? Because then I felt, wow, I really have a responsibility to cover the scene for these people, you know, to make sure that the reader, back at home, of The New York Times will get it.”

For me, intervening can sometimes become a part of the problem. There is no guarantee that your intentions will become action. At the same time, I hardly have an abolitionist stance. There are times when, as Rachel Smolkin wrote in Off the Sidelines, “the suffering [is] so vast that their small contributions hardly [alter] the outcome of the story.”

I think that it is important to consider intervention on a case by case basis and if the public is expected to trust reporters who do not intervene, the reporters must be upfront in their reasoning and justifications. Change can be imposed by intervention and sometimes actions do speak louder than words. But more often than not, in everyday lower risk situations, the objectivity and outsider perspective must be maintained.

As Gil Thelen told the American Press Institute, “the journalist is not removed from community, though at times may stand apart from others so as to view things from a different perspective.”

The Committed Observer: Intervening as a Journalist

Refugees And Compassion Fatigue

In Susan Moeller’s “Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death,” I could find only sad truth. Compassion fatigue, the gradual lessening of compassion and empathy over time, can be directly linked to the media, and how we selectively and inconsistently cover disasters. The most horrifying quote that rang true for me, especially in cases of refugee populations, said, “Sometimes the sickest case is the most hopeless case, and receives little more than a Band-Aid of care—just enough so the hemorrhaging is not embarrassing.”

In my mind, refugees are often placed in the under reported category, as a result of two of the causes of compassion fatigue. Too many refugees, camps, asylum seekers, and horrible refugee conditions exist today. The situation is too overwhelming for many to comprehend even where to start the coverage or the aid, and therefore, as Moeller mentions, sometimes the short-term, quick fixes get more attention because of their allegedly simpler solutions.

How [American media sources] typically cover crises helps us to feel overstimulated and bored all at once. Source

The other reason Moeller accredits to compassion fatigue is the disaster’s lack of a relationship with the general population. The majority of Americans don’t have family or a personal connection to Syria, so the ability to emphathize with the refugees is much more difficult. Even immigrants from Africa, fleeing across the Mediterranean, an often fatal journey, are not being heavily covered by European countries, who are facing compassion fatigue along their own border.

Refugees And Compassion Fatigue