By Liz Warren
Human rights issues were never easily portrayed or understood in conventional news paradigms. Few news agencies can allocate sufficient resources to effectively depict these ongoing complex issues. Even with substantial budgets and protection, journalists often face life-threatening risks while reporting these stories. And try getting consumers to conceptualize the magnitude of violence in a country like Syria over a cup of coffee and a morning paper. Human rights content does not play well in a news model and consequentially remains under reported and misunderstood.
But the confluence of new media technologies could fundamentally transform that reality, augmenting news content, the way news is reported and thus, our worldwide understanding.
Three Examples Covering the Crisis in Syria
Plagued with escalating widespread violence and an official ban on international journalists, but armed with a country of digital savvy activists, technology enthusiasts have found the Syrian conflict an ideal guinea pig for this new type of reporting.
Purporting to document the “widening of the war like no other,” The New York Times’ Watching Syria’s War section is embracing this new form of journalism with a crowd-sourced version of war reporting. Instead of only featuring staff reports, the paper now publishes daily tweets and curated raw video shot by Syrian citizens on the ground. The editors recount how they found the curated footage, what they could substantiate and what they couldn’t, and speak with each video’s uploader whenever possible. Many of their articles have a “Talk to us” section, like the following, that calls on individuals to help verify each video.
The implications are far-reaching. Those thought to be the victims, and possibly perpetrators, of human rights violations are now content producers: inventing, constructing, and contesting the traditional media model.
And it isn’t just individuals on the ground who are being sourced for news content. Technology wizards’ and artists’ visualization tools are now embedded in mainstream media, helping audiences comprehend and engage with ongoing reporting.
In collaboration with movements.org, an organization empowering citizens to become digital activists, Al Jazeera released an interactive mapping tool to track Syrian defections, highlighting when and where defections occurred.
Users may interact with the material by clicking on circles. Each click illuminates the name of a diplomat, senior military and security official, cabinet member or parliament member and his or her current status in the regime.
Similarly, the Guardian recently published CartoDB team’s new tool titled A Year of Deaths Mapped. The map has the potential to improve bystanders’ understanding and engagement with this unfathomable violence. Users press play and watch circular representations of deaths digitally unravel.
Will New Media Replace Mainstream Media?
What do these new sources mean for the future of news? Will the rise of new media technology obviate the need for mainstream media?
That’s unlikely. Instead, expansion of unconventional news content will amplify the importance of professional entities. Improved technology will enable an influx of innovative content producers, but similar to finding a friend at the end of a crowded concert the sheer amount of content being produced will also hinder our capacity to find these innovators. Both mainstream parties and their nontraditional counterparts will need each other. Both will have to work together. The best human rights reporting will form co-dependent relationships that mitigate the paradoxical technology content relationship.
Curating and contextualizing human rights videos from around the world, the WITNESS Human Rights Channel is inspired by this reality. On YouTube, 72 hours of footage are uploaded each minute. Individuals who were once merely the object of a human rights report are now inspiring and guiding conversations. But without professional platforms, most of these citizen videos will remain lost in a sea of content.
Hence collaboration. At WITNESS we’ve partnered with the fact-checking new media organization, Storyful, to sift through hours of footage relevant to human rights. Our Citizen Watch and Watching Syria series organize and contextualize daily updates of raw citizen journalism, and our featured playlists analyze under reported issues like the persecution of Chile’s indigenous Mapuche population and an analysis of the convergence of climate change and human rights.
The Human Rights Channel, The Times’ Watching Syria’s War, and the interactive tools found on Al Jazeera and the Guardian are a response to the power of new media technology. Mainstream news will remain relevant if it incorporates this nontraditional content; meanwhile, this content will only be relevant if marketed to its mainstream counterpart.
The field of human rights is riddled with seemingly dark hopeless scenarios, but without awareness and public discourse surrounding these subjects there is little chance in ameliorating such issues.
Join the Conversation
Will these new media paradigms inspire more research and discussion of human rights abuses? Or will improved technology encourage more of us to sit quietly scanning our iPhone at dinner, engaging but abruptly moving on to something even flashier?
Liz spent the past few years working in Bhutan, Indonesia, and Guatemala. She is now pursuing a masters of International Affairs with a concentration on Media and Culture at the New School for Public Engagement. At WITNESS she interns with the Human Rights Channel, curating citizen video and cultivating the channel’s community through social media.