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What’s the Role of the Media in Protecting Human Rights? 

When it comes to human rights, people know about entities like the United Nations, governments, and NGOs. The media plays a significant role, as well. How? In any form, the media can raise awareness of human rights issues, expose violations, and empower people to take action. The media can also negatively impact human rights. Whether it’s making a positive or negative impact, the role of media should be understood. In this article, we’ll discuss the media’s connection and responsibility to human rights, its potential as a force for harm, and what a responsible media can look like.

What is “the media?”

“Media” refers to the accumulation of all communication outlets that share information, whether it’s news, entertainment, or advertising. It includes – but is not limited to – books, newspapers, photography, television, websites, and social media platforms. “Legacy” media (sometimes known as traditional media or old media) includes print media, radio broadcasting, and television. It generally refers to media that existed before the late 1990s.

“New” media is the other side of the coin. Techopedia defines it as “various kinds of electronic communications that are conceivable due to innovation in computer technology.” That includes websites, blogs, vlogs, social media, and podcasts. Unlike legacy media, there’s a high level of user interaction and customized features. To stay relevant, many legacy media outlets (newspapers, magazines, TV studios, etc) have expanded into new media, which can make the line between old and new media a bit fuzzy. Our world currently depends on a blend of both.

The media’s connection (and responsibility) to human rights

Article 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media [emphasis added] and regardless of frontiers.” States still have the power to decide what government information should be public or protected, but it is widely understood that freedom of expression and freedom of speech are entwined with a free media/press.

So, access to media is a human right, but what is the media’s responsibility to human rights? Free media is essential to human rights because, without information, people won’t know what’s going on locally, nationally, or internationally. Their ability to respond to laws, policies, and events – including human rights violations – is limited by ignorance. Free media has a responsibility to share information and help explain that information to the public in a clear, accessible way. The media also has a duty to hold people in power accountable. The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston sex abuse scandal is a clear example of the media’s role in protecting human rights.

The Boston Globe Spotlight Team exposes Catholic Church sex abuse

On January 6th, 2002, The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team published the first part of an investigation into sex abuse in the Catholic church. The article revealed that while aware of a priest’s record of sex abuse against children, the archdiocese moved him from parish to parish for over three decades. Since the mid-1990s, more than 130 people had come forward, but no action was taken. The Globe’s coverage exploded into the national news, leading to the criminal prosecutions of five Catholic priests. Empowered, other victims came forward. The story continued to balloon as other investigations and allegations exposed a long history of abuse and cover-ups in large dioceses across the United States. It was clear that the case in Boston was not an aberration.

More survivors came forward around the world. In 2021, a report found that over 70 years, around 330,000 children were victims of sex abuse within France’s Catholic Church. The report also found that these abuses were systemically covered up. What began with the Globe led to a global reckoning. The media shone a light on decades of lies and empowered victims to tell their stories. It forced the Catholic Church to admit to violating the rights of the most vulnerable people in their care: children. As survivors continue to seek justice and healing, the media has a responsibility to support them.

How the media covers a story impacts human rights

The media must report accurate facts, but their role doesn’t end there. Media also plays a huge role in what people believe about the facts. One of the most significant examples can be found in the coverage of climate change. Climate change has huge implications for rights such as the right to food, development, housing, and life itself. According to one study, at least 85% of the world is affected by human-induced climate change, while The World Health Organization estimates that between 2030-2050, climate change will cause around 250,000 additional deaths each year. Historically, the media has not covered climate change with appropriate concern.

The media “both-sides” climate science

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Rachel Wetts analyzed 1,768 press releases from governments, social advocacy organizations, and businesses from 1985-2013. After running them through plagiarism detection software to determine how often they appeared in newspapers like USA Today and The New York Times, releases that called for personal, political, or corporate action on tackling climate change were covered only 7% of the time. The least covered press releases came from groups with the most expertise in technology and science.

Why is this happening when in the scientific community, climate change denial is not the norm? Wetts thinks it could be because the media tends to give “both sides” to every story. When it comes to science, however, this policy puts evidence-based facts on the same plane as fringe beliefs and evidence-free opinions. By both-sidesing the science of climate change for decades, the media created an alternate reality where scientists are still debating climate change.

There is no debate. According to a study of literature published from 2012 to 2020, more than 99.9% of peer-reviewed scientific papers agree that humans are the main driver of climate change. That’s an increase from 97% in 2013. Misrepresenting the science allows denial to flourish or, at the very least, it waters down the urgency of climate change and its impact on human rights. Things are improving: a 2021 study examining thousands of articles from 2005-2019 found that 90% of the media coverage accurately represented the scientific consensus. Coverage overall is still lacking, but hopefully the media takes more responsibility.

What does responsible media look like?

Media plays a significant role in human rights for better or worse. How can it work to protect – and not harm – human rights? There’s no simple solution. When it comes to news media, there are journalistic ethics and standards. The Society of Professional Journalists, an organization that represents journalists in the United States, has four principles: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent. These principles are based on the Society’s belief that “public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and foundation of democracy.” Many news organizations have their own codes of ethics but follow these general principles. If an organization does not state its ethics clearly or follow an ethical standard, this is a sign of an irresponsible media outlet.

What about new media? A big question today concerns social media platforms. Just about anyone can use a platform like Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube. There’s no vetting. When someone writes something, no editor goes over it. You just hit “post.” Social media hasn’t been around that long, but its ability to harm human rights through the spread of violent rhetoric and disinformation is undeniable. Unfortunately, these new media outlets have yet to recognize – and fulfill – their responsibility to human rights. More regulation is needed, including updated laws. In “The recommended responsibilities and duties of social media platform companies,” author Judit Anna Bayer writes: “At this stage of technological and social change, the protection of human rights and democratic public discourse calls for legislative intervention.” Changes can include a new legal category for platform providers, impartial algorithms, clearly-identified ads, the obligatory removal of fake accounts, and so on.

The cost of protecting human rights

Because the media plays such an important role in protecting human rights, it faces opposition. In 2021, 55 journalists were killed. Journalists also face high rates of physical violence, intimidation, harassment, and high rates of imprisonment. Women journalists are at an increased risk because of how much online harassment they receive. The organization Reporters Without Borders analyzes the state of press freedom around the world and in 2021, the situation was dire. Of the 180 countries and territories examined, journalism was “totally blocked or seriously impeded” in 73 countries and constrained in 59 countries. People’s access to information dropped while reporters faced more barriers to their work.

Within recent years, certain governments used the pandemic as justification for media suppression. In Egypt, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation ordered the blocking of several news outlets because of “false information.” One outlet was blocked after questioning health conditions and the state of human rights in Egyptian prisons. In another case, an editor of a local newspaper challenged official COVID-19 data and was detained for a month before facing criminal charges. Crises like COVID only worsen conditions for a free media and human rights as a whole. To protect human rights, the world must protect the media and journalists.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.