Similar Paths, Different Missions: International Journalists and Human Rights Observers: As Some Journalists Migrate to Human Rights Watch, One Reason Might Be That They Are 'Tired of Treating All Stories with the Same Pretense of Aloofness-Especially the Ones Who Have Covered Mass Atrocities.'

Article excerpt

In June when violence broke out in the Fergana Valley of Kyrgyzstan, Human Rights Watch happened to have a researcher already in Osh, the epicenter of the mayhem. Within days, we sent in reinforcements from our emergencies team--the "firemen" who cover armed conflicts for us. They interviewed dozens of victims, separately whenever possible, asking detailed questions about who investigated the violence, who was killed or injured, what the perpetrators did, what weapons they had, what time they showed up, how long they stayed, who said what to whom, what everyone was wearing, and now let's go over all this one more time. It took days.

Human Rights Watch also assigned a photographer who works frequently for the international media, paying him a standard day rate, and a local cameraman to take video. Both of these shooters had worked with us before and had substantial experience covering armed conflicts.

This was not exactly journalism because Human Rights Watch is an advocacy group and not a media organization. But the fact remains that the commercial model for international fact-gathering and distribution is broken, and the number of foreign correspondents working for U.S. newspapers and TV networks has fallen precipitously. Meanwhile, the number of researchers at Human Rights Watch is larger than the corps of foreign correspondents at either The New York Times or The Washington Post, and the organization has quadrupled in size since I joined in 1998 after a dozen years as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek.


Our researchers do more than cover the story, of course. In Kyrgyzstan, in addition to interviewing all those victims and eyewitnesses, they were also consulting with United Nations agencies about getting humanitarian aid to people, issuing press releases calling for an independent inquiry into the violence and for international police to be deployed, urging Kyrgyz government officials to rein in security forces, and meeting diplomats to get them to issue demarche. In other words, once the facts are collected, we don't consider the job over--our researchers become energetic advocates on the question of what should be done about them.

Nevertheless, our researchers may have been more thorough and objective than some journalists. Many reporters focused almost exclusively on violence against Uzbeks. We sought out Kyrgyz victims, although they were fewer in number, to ensure their stories got told. And we didn't, for example, fall for that legend about pregnant women getting their bellies ripped open by the enemy, a claim that did get published on the Web. (We've heard the same claim in many ethnic conflicts we've covered over the years.) We are more experienced than many journalists in taking testimony from people whose passions are inflamed, who are acutely distressed, or who have suffered great trauma. We've logged more hours on these types of stories, and our researchers are specifically and extensively trained to do this kind of work.

Establishing Credibility

The fact that we do advocacy in addition to collecting facts does not necessarily reduce our credibility, however. Human Rights Watch is far from a household name, but we're pretty well-known among people, including foreign correspondents, who follow news from places like Kyrgyzstan. In 2008, The New York Times cited Human Rights Watch 200 times. I don't think that means they're not objective. It simply reflects a changing information economy in which Human Rights Watch is a useful and reliable producer of good, fresh stuff. We bring juicy tidbits to the information marketplace. And the price is right--they're free.

The nonprofit sector generally has a good deal of credibility, at least according to a study done by the Edelman Trust Barometer. In this annual review, conducted by a big New York public relations firm, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were found to enjoy greater public confidence than business, government or the media. …