Human Rights and Objectivism

When Guardian journalist Glen Greenwald reported on the United States National Security Agency's massive spying program, as leaked by now famous Edward Snowden, it left the journalism world in quite a frenzy. Yet, what was most prolific wasn't the spying (or even Edward Snowden himself), it was the journalist behind the story.

What was released was an onslaught of conversation surrounding the role of a journalist, and whether that role includes being an advocate. Greenwald and New York Times editor Bill Keller, recently exchanged open e-mails with one another on this very topic. Keller argues that journalism must, "as an occupational discipline, suspending their opinions and letting the evidence speak for itself." However, Greenwald pointed to journalism within itself is a form of activism, "every journalistic choice necessarily embraces highly subjective assumptions -- cultural, political, or nationalistic -- serves the interests of one faction or another."

Two journalists, from two different perspectives answering one topic: what role do journalists play in activism?

In journalism classes and in newsrooms across the country, journalists are constantly told "don't be biased," "remain objective," and "no opinions." These golden rules of journalism are not to be crossed. In fact, it can hurt your reputation. An informed populous relies on journalists to not be blinded by their own personal bias. This is particularly true when covering elections. You don't want a reporter or a news organization in the pocket of a politician.

Amongst all of this discussion, my question has been: what about reporting on human rights issues? Do the same standards of objectivism apply here?

Oftentimes journalists are those witnessing mass atrocities taking place. In the case of human rights issues, it's often evident that one side is suffering while the other is committing the suffering. Unlike political campaigns, issues of human rights are often clearly defined.

As such, a tradition of "human rights journalism" emerges. In her book, Ibrham Sega Shaw defines human rights journalism as a "diagnostic style of reporting" where the journalist's job is to help understand and report on the reasons behind a human rights violation and become an advocate for preventing the ongoing conflict. This type of journalism is "based on human rights and global justice, a journalism that challenges political, economic, social and cultural imbalances of society at both local and global levels."

One of the problems with trying to cover human rights issues or conflicts worldwide is that doing so is expensive. Some media companies don't seem to think it's profitable for them to shine a light on atrocities in order to inform the public. In situations like the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, only a few journalists were on the ground full-time. Media organizations simply didn't want to spend the money to cover what they then saw as an "ethnic conflict" as noted in the book The Media and the Rwanda Genocide.

Our current media landscape is inundated with distractions that range from Miley Cyrus to political sex scandals. During the time of the Rwandan Genocide, plastered on television screens and in newspapers was the OJ Simpson Trial and Tanya Harding. At the time, the public was already focused on other issues; a conflict in Africa, in a country the size of Vermont, didn't interest them. The public wasn't engaged enough to take action.

If news organizations and journalists are invested in covering these stories and invested in creating an informed public, one can hope mass atrocities such as Rwanda and Darfur won't happen again. Yet, we've seen recently with the events in Syria that attention was only drawn to the crisis at its tipping point and many other issues haven't been actively covered.

In fact, non-profit organizations like Human Rights Watch have even started hiring journalists to help highlight human rights violations worldwide. So can you be an "activist" and a "journalist"? Are these two groups so mutually exclusive?

New York Times' media writer David Carr recently had to correct an article where he called writer Alex O'Brian an "activist" rather than a journalist. She took offense to being labeled an activist, yet controversial journalists like Greenwald seem to not hide from the label of an activist. Which begs another question, if you are a journalist and an activist does this diminish your body of work and credibility?

In June, Carr quoted Greenwald with "All activists are not journalists, but all real journalists are activists. Journalism has a value, a purpose -- to serve as a check on power." However, Carr notes that if journalists have this agenda, "cracks may go unexplored."

If this is the case, then journalists have no part in playing an activist role, even when it comes to human rights issues. I would argue that there may be an exception for covering human rights issues. There are moral and ethical documents that human rights issues can be measured up against like the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the International Criminal Court's doctrine. With this in mind, I think it becomes a duty to take steps towards being an advocate for the people that they see suffering through ones work. Without their voice, their reporting, and their dedication what is to happen to these communities?

Perhaps media companies need to invest more in the international news coverage, reporters, and stories that can bring awareness to the public. And as such, not only become an advocate for calling upon international communities to take action, but likewise encouraging others to step up.

As a recent college graduate pursuing a career path in journalism, I am constantly struggling with this battle myself. While my passion lies in journalism, my second and almost equal passion is human rights. Since I was a freshmen in college I became involved with human rights groups on my college campus from Amnesty International and more actively with the non-profit Invisible Children. I know that at some point I have to pick which bucket I will fall into. Yet, as of now I can be comfortable with being labeled as an activist for human rights and as a journalist.

New York Times East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman said it best that journalists need to "learn both sides of the story and tell the truth." And that is what I intend to do in pursuing human rights stories.