Jan. 16, 2007 - Issue #587: Mermaid Tales
Can media help stem human rights abuses?
Journalism, at least in my experience, isn’t quite the glamorous profession it’s cracked up to be. Every day doesn’t include secret government conspiracies or anonymous sources with nicknames like “Deep Throat.”
However, an international organization wants you to know that there is another side to the sensationalism you see splayed out across your local media, and it has more of an impact than you might think.
“There is a growing concern of mainstream media being projected as objective—a lot of people are starting to tune into this differently,” explained Cosanna Preston, co-founder of the University of Alberta’s chapter of Journalists for Human Rights (JHR). “What I choose to be newsworthy stories are much different from another editor.”
This effect may seem subtle when a journalist is considering which Edmonton Oiler to interview post-game, but according to Preston this takes on a different light when the article is about, say, rape victims in an AIDS-stricken African country.
“We hear lots of positive stories about our local communities,” she said. “Why are we always being told about the famine and the war in Africa? Is there nothing good coming out of that continent?”
Preston and the rest of the local JHR chapter is organizing a media forum on campus to discuss this issue to run nightly at the Power Plant Jan 22 - Jan 24, with each evening featuring four media professionals, and ending with a keynote address by CBC national news producer Colleen Ross (Engineering Teaching and Learning Complex 001) on Jan 25.
Ross, who spent 2005 volunteering with JHR in Africa, said that journalists have an obligation to cover stories concerning basic human rights.
“When you talk about human rights, most people [in Africa] don’t know really what that is,” she said. “Journalists need to not just report on stories as an incident, but to raise the understanding that it could be a violation of human rights, to give them an idea of what it means to have human rights.”
Ross explained that JHR, an organization with offices in Canada, the USA and nine African countries, hopes to train African journalists in human rights issues.
“JHR works to increase public, global awareness about human rights in Africa,” she continued. “When people become aware, they become empowered.”
Both Ross and Preston admitted that the efforts of their group might, at
first glance, conflict with the ideal of journalists as staunch supporters of
When asked if journalists should be “for” anything, Preston argued that “There is a recognized dearth of information on human rights violations [in these communities]. The role of news is to give up-to-date information to the community. It’s not how you tell the story, it’s what stories you choose to tell.”
Ross agreed. “You’d be hard pressed to argue against something like human rights,” she insisted. “It’s not to randomly grab at stories that are about human rights. These are stories we gravitate towards already. They are stories about injustice.”
That being said, according to Preston, Edmonton’s local media landscape could use a bit of invigorating.
“We get a lot of 500-word stories and 30-second news clips on issues,” she said. “If you look at any of those issues, most are severely underexposed in the news, through no fault of the papers—you lose the reader’s attention after 500 words.”
Ultimately, even though it may seem a bit dull compared to Woodward and Bernstein, it is evident that both Ross and Preston are passionate about their work.
“We need to get out into the small communities and get their story out,” said Ross. “The job of a journalist, simply, is to disseminate information.”
“It’s a foundation of democracy,” agreed Preston. “If you don’t have a source that’s free to be critical of everything that’s going on, your society can’t operate in a transparent manner. You need to know that you have the ability to hear what’s going on out there.
“Those communities that are being censored deserve to have their stories told.” V
Mon, Jan 22 - Thu, Jan 25 (7 pm)
Journalists for Human Rights forum
University of Alberta, Pay what you can
Mon - Wed @ The Power plant
Thu @ ETLC 001
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