Analysing skills for a career in Human Rights Journalism

Kate Lavrencic

Specialised skills are required to master particular strands of journalism, media and communications careers. Human rights journalism is a controversial yet equally relevant career from not only a global issue point of view, but also from the perspective of today’s media environment where various skills are needed to meet the demands of this career. All journalists must accumulate a range of skills in order to maximise the success of their career. These skills include writing and reporting abilities, competence in team-working, networking and digital media comprehension. Whilst these skills are integral to a human rights journalist, they should act as founding skills from which specific expertise can grow.

This essay will analyse three pivotal skills in human rights journalism including sound understanding and the ability to apply skills in media ethics, globalisation and media convergence. Media ethics is arguably the most important part of human rights journalism since it is through ethical decision-making that journalists in this career deliver information. Globalisation is inherent due to the fact that the rights of humans always are relevant and topical across the globe. Modern technology has allowed the distribution of journalism through social networks and new technology. Distribution is a crucial factor of human rights journalism, which perfectly demonstrates the importance of media convergence in this career. In order to understand how to gain knowledge in and apply these skills, we must first understand what human rights journalism entails.

In his contribution to Expanding Peace Journalism: Comparative and Critical Approaches, Ibrahim Seaga Shaw (2011, 107) defines human rights journalism as a ‘diagnostic style of reporting’ in which the field offers ‘critical reflection of the experiences and needs of the victims and perpetrators of physical, cultural and structural human rights violations’. Through his understanding, the duty of human rights journalism is to challenge political, social, economic and cultural imbalances of society (Shaw 2011, 107). Today, journalism and human rights cross over in an era of globalisation and digital media (White 2011, 7). Above all, ethical reasoning and decision making is an integral skill in human rights journalism.

Making ethical decisions

Ethics is one of the pillars of all good journalism, however, this issue is amplified in human rights journalism by the need to deliver information in the most effective way whilst minimising harm. Ethical journalism has been defined by Aiden White (2011, 4) as the way journalism professionals provide commentary on the events that shape other people’s lives. Media ethics are grounded in moral values. This parallel with human rights protection demonstrates why this sector of journalism is so important in serving the public’s right to know. In media, journalists must attain the ability to deliver ethical reporting, as this serves as the foundation for an individual’s professional practice regarding public interest (Sternberg 2016a). According to Plaisance (2009, 21), ethics is about becoming fluent in asking the right questions, which clarify the problem and help us explore possible solutions or compromises. Ethical decision making in human rights coverage often pertains to the possible consequences of material for stakeholders. For example, if we look at the controversy surrounding the Independent publishing a photo of Syrian children killed in the Houla region (Patching & Hirst 2014, 197), the editor needed to have used ethical reasoning to justify his decision for publication.

It is the duty of journalists to make ethical decisions in order to minimise harm, not avoid it (Plaisance 2009, 27). There are various versions of ethics codes in Australia to aid journalists in making ethical decisions. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA 2013) Code of Ethics is commonly used by independent journalists. The code outlines recommendations which assist in guiding ethical decisions. For example, the code recommends journalists respect privacy of others, remain true to information in telling the true story and not to emphasise any point based on race, gender or religion (MEAA 2013). The code’s guidance clause states that basic values need interpretation and have the risk of coming into conflict where,  ‘only substantial advancement of the public interest or risk of substantial harm to people allows any standard to be overridden.’ Ethics is a subjective issue as this clause clearly demonstrates. Universally ‘correct’ decisions are impossible, I can only gain the skills of being able to justify my decisions to the best of my ability.

By adopting John Stuart Mill’s Principle of Utility in ensuring the greatest happiness for the greatest number, I can then build ethical decision-making skills in striving for accuracy, balance and objectivity (Sternberg 2016a). I would likely use the MEAA code as a guideline for my work, so, by familiarising myself with the code and practicing ethical journalism in my current work, I will be able to work towards my goal of understanding the application of the code. I’m actively building my skills in ethics through my current enrolment in KJB239 (Journalism Ethics and Issues) where learning about the decision making process within ethical dilemmas is the root of the syllabus. After honing skills in ethics and creating a foundation for my career, I will be able to apply these skills across a range of platforms. Media convergence has impacted the way ethics interacts with journalistic issues so it is important to understand convergence in order to apply ethical thinking.

Utilising media convergence for distribution

Media convergence has transformed the way in which we interpret and receive human rights coverage due to new media. Jenkins (2004, 34) describes convergence as a process, which alters the relationship between existing technologies, industries, markets, genres and audiences. Society has entered an era where all types of media are used in harmony (Jenkins 2004, 34). With this, there are both positive and negative impacts of convergence on human rights coverage. On one side, convergence and new media have lowered production costs, expanded the range of available delivery channels and enabled consumers to recirculate content (Jenkins 2004, 33). This means journalists in the sector have the opportunity to spread material via a range of platforms rather than waiting for a story in the next day’s paper.

In his lecture on social media, Sternberg (2016c) describes society as a ‘mediapolis’, defined by Deuze (2011, 137) as a “comprehensively mediated public space where media underpin and overarch the experience and expression of everyday life.” For a journalist in the human rights sector, this means speed of production is faster than ever, while opportunities to share work over various platforms has enabled journalists to target their material to specific audiences. According to Guberek and Silva (2014, 24), data collection and communications with strategic use of evidence are among the most prevalent stages in human rights work today. Journalists can now access detailed information pertaining to human rights through media convergence features. Mobile applications, crowdsourcing, social media, blogs and visual media gather data and create effective communication schemes which enable journalists to observe, capture and make meaning of evidence of human rights events (Guberek and Silva 2014, 24).

Similarly, Madianou (2012) argues that social media and networking sites have become increasingly popular in current humanitarian campaigns, which are easily accessible through the variety of new technology at our disposal. Contrarily, media convergence plays a role in allowing excessive public contribution. Thomas Bray (International Council on Human Rights 2002, 43) argues that the internet and new technologies that facilitate the transmission of information make it inevitable that journalists get more information than they are used to. Contrarily, relying on uncertain sources whose information is not always verifiable is a dangerous decision (International Council on Human Rights 2002, 43).

Despite the ease of distribution amongst various forms of technology and platforms, care needs to be taken when considering motivations of prospective sources, which potentially has a bigger impact of tainting the story. This online-driven industry has its pros and cons but the ultimate benefit of media convergence is ease of communication. The breadth of platforms make it easier to target audiences based on what kind of content (in whatever format) the journalist wants to release.

The importance of media convergence in human rights journalism will continue to be a vital skill for journalists in this field. Technology is constantly changing, making it challenging to predict where the future of new media lies. However, as a student, I am able to publish, share, ‘like’ and create content in whatever form I choose. By maintaining my existing skills with blogs as well as delving into other forms of communication such as Youtube videos, I can test the waters in what I enjoy creating. Through marrying various platforms, such as video distribution through social media, I will be able to create a portfolio of work while practicing my skills. According to the Australian Law Reform Commission (2012, 67) media convergence has increased the tendency towards media globalisation.

Gaining insight to human rights through globalisation

Human rights is relevant to every corner of the world, making globalisation inherent to this sector of journalism. Flew (2007, 67) describes globalisation as “the expanding scale, growing magnitude, speeding up and deepening impact of transcontinental flows and patterns of social interaction.” Most sectors of journalism are impacted by globalisation since recognising and communicating social interaction are relevant across the globe, no matter the issue. However, mastering globalisation is vital to human rights journalism due to the connection this issue has with public’s right to know. This is effectively summarised by Flew (2007, 67) who adds that the impact of globalisation refers to a “shift or transformation in the scale of human organisation that links distant communities and expands the reach of power relations across the world’s regions and contents.”

A human rights journalist’s career is reliant on globalisation where they must be able to effectively communicate on a global level in order to create connection through their work. In this sense, globalisation is highly beneficial for its increased mobility in distributing information on a global scale (Sternberg 2016b). Not only is human rights journalism impacted by globalisation in a practical sense, media convergence is a significant aiding factor in globalisation (Australian Law Reform Commission 2012, 67). By using media convergence, journalists are able to effectively communicate with all audiences through their stories, in turn raising awareness and encouraging human connection. Globalisation attracts larger audiences, giving access to information in driving profit optimisation (Sternberg 2016b).

Contrarily, there are risks involved with globalisation. Increased accessibility to published information has the potential to create homogenous content and increase legal regulation difficulties which can have detrimental effects on organisations (Sternberg, 2016b). The emotional stories within the sector can be shared to the online world in a matter of seconds, creating excellent profit and public response in interest. However, the International Council on Human Rights (2002, 13) says the fast-paced nature and wide-spread availability of material as a result of globalisation may result in an important story lacking the full coverage it deserves.

Although important for someone who is aspiring to a career in this field, as a student, it may be trickier to gain a professional grip on the concept. However, there are steps that can be taken to benefit from a general understanding of the world, which may come in handy later on. The university offers a wide range of opportunities including overseas exchanges which I can begin as early as next year. Exchanging to places vastly different to Australia, like Asia, would challenge me to understand human rights standards in a far different culture to what I’m used to. Additionally, an  internship within a human rights organisation is a highly desirable opportunity for me. In relation to this, a highly beneficial career goal as a human rights journalist would be becoming an international volunteer within UNHCR. Although this is unachievable until I reach the age of 25 (UNHCR 2016), it is a goal to work towards. Whilst travelling, I would be able to write and use my learned skills to practice human rights publication.

Conclusion

Through analysis of media ethics, media convergence and globalisation, this essay has explored three skills integral to the success a human rights journalist. The importance of media ethics has been demonstrated through the controversial nature of human rights reporting and the need for material discretion to maintain credibility of the journalist. Evidence has suggested media convergence is a modern, dominating area of human rights journalism. The ability to distribute messages through a variety of formats means the ability to effectively use different platforms is and will continue to be of highest priority regarding the need for human rights to be brought forward into the public sphere. Similarly, globalisation has been identified as the foundation of human rights journalism as an issue that is of universal concern. Globalisation’s importance has been demonstrated through the need for journalists to understand human rights in order to gain the ability to effectively portray a story to a variety of outlets through media convergence in a way that can be ethically justified. By taking advantage of university and international opportunities, I have the chance to start practicing these skills now. It’s important to build these skills as early as possible so I am able to balance journalism skills with the ever-changing nature of the human rights sector.

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Reference List

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