Engaging the Media in Human Rights

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 to Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary available below

The media, at least in our highly mediated/industrialized societies, is one of the pillars of power. That's why we need to become skilled at engaging journalists and news editors in giant media corporations, and alternative grassroots information outfits alike.

We need to be interested in "engaging" the media not just as another constituency with some influence, but because it is one of the ESSENTIAL levers of power. The media is integral to civil society. The media -- and this may be a worldwide phenomenon -- bolsters or undermines progress. It makes or breaks regimes. It fosters, or undoes, a culture of respect for human rights.

Failure to impact the media, or at least bring some measure of control over hateful radio propaganda for instance, has been shown to imperil human rights from poor inner city ghettos in America, to the farthest reaches of bloodied African hills. Likewise, triumphant press campaigns through media-savvy efforts that have come to the righteous defense of victims of injustice and abuse around the world, improving and saving thousands upon thousands of lives over the last decades. So while the media has made us realize we live in a global village, the views it carries can build, or destroy, each of our own individual huts.

In the age of the all-pervading "Branding", billionaire public relations firms and mass manufactured opinion, the media holds a measure of social power that just can't be ignored. That is why indeed, now more than ever, we simply cannot escape engaging the media deliberately, compellingly, in the struggle for human rights.

We are very consciously using "Engage" – an important word to remember – for this discussion. We'll be exploring together the many ways we do and can engage the media. We’ll also utilize one of the tried and true tools of the journalists' trade - the 5 W's and H - "why, who, what, where, when, and how" of engaging media in human rights.

“Why” do you engage the media in your human rights efforts?”

Thank you to our participants:

Tactics and Strategies for Engaging the Media

How do you view the media? What is its role in human rights advocacy?

Participants view the media as a powerful medium that disseminates information and consequently influences public opinion. The media is an "agenda setter” and influences public opinion and mobilization, which in turn influences the perception and stability of policies and larger governmental structures. While some participants see the media as a “societal watchdog” that can advocate for and realize human rights, others are more cautious of the biases and potential misrepresentations of social and political issues.

Before engaging with the media, advocates should be conscious that news industries are usually rates-driven businesses that cater to the interests of specific audiences. Media outlets convey and perpetuate power relations, says one participant, and  do not always consider counterarguments or interests of the minority or marginalized populations.  In an effort to remain neutral on party politics, news media is often hesitant to report or directly advocate for specific human rights issues. One participant suggested that human rights workers  can encourage  news media to maintain a “de-political” but “pro-human rights” discourse, implying that a stand for human rights does not necessarily assume an anti-government position.

How do you engage the media? What are some obstacles/complications to working with the media, and how do you overcome them?

While interactions between human rights workers and the media would ideally be an egalitarian process with honest motivations, this is not always the case. That being said, human rights advocates who want to collaborate and receive the support of news media should understand the larger media structures and engage with them accordingly and strategically. Being cognizant of institutional restrictions, motives, and structures of the media can aid NGOs to engage with the media more effectively.  Because journalists often face threats and have limited time, salaries, or even interest in covering human rights work, some advocates acknowledge a practice of "paying the media” and considering the "sale-a-bility” of news stories. Some NGOs arrange and pay for transportation, meals, and accommodation for attending press events, and others stress the need to be innovative in designing campaigns that both engage the media and assure positive public reception without compromising the  representation of the reported issue.

Several participants were hesitant to condone this practice of “paying the media,” however, and assert that the relationship between journalists and human rights activists should be mutual and held to higher ethical standards. Participants suggest that activists prove their credibility as valuable resources to journalists by developing clear and truthful objectives. NGOs can facilitate better understanding by “teaching” the media via press kits, prepared research and statements with reliable sources, training workshops for journalists covering human rights, and seeking out experienced journalists with human rights backgrounds. In doing so, NGOs and activists foster greater awareness and understanding and minimize the likelihood of being misrepresented. Press briefings and other events should be scheduled at agreeable times and accessible locations, with invitations issued in a timely manner to encourage higher attendance and participation. One participant added that the nature of press events should respect and relate to the issue at hand -- meaning that organizers should not hold events about homelessness and poverty in fancy venues with expensive foods, for example.  Activists should ultimately attempt to form a “sustainable, long-term, and profitable” relationship with media industries otherwise NGOs run the risk of being perceived as “"commercial advertisers” of causes that journalists may or may not fairly portray.

One participant discussed the power of workshops for journalists that address the importance and explore the processes of reporting human rights violations. Activists should encourage feedback from journalists who attend press briefings or other events to increase the effectiveness of  engagement. Many participants stressed the need to connect with and understand the demographics and concerns of the specific audience of the media outlets.

Some participants also discussed more structural “upstream” ways to encourage media coverage of human rights issues such as encouraging human rights educations in both basic and higher education systems. Encouraging student activism, journalist unions, and support from organizations such as Reporters without Borders and powerful state actors can all increase communication and collaboration between human rights workers and news media. Because journalism can be a dangerous occupation in many parts of the world, advocates for human rights and NGOs should try to prevent and address occupational trauma and harassment as results of their work.

Resources shared

Conversation Leaders

Alan_Davis's picture
Alan Davis
MFijabi's picture
Mufuliat Fijabi
EDI for Gender Justice (EDIGJ)
davinder's picture
Davinder Kumar
Human Rights Journalist
Philippe Duhamel's picture
Philippe Duhamel
Via Strategia
SLamwaka's picture
Sharon Lamwaka
Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Domestic and Sexual Violence
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