Master’s Thesis

Is Anyone Listening? Expert Opinions on the Mass Appeal of International Human Rights Reporting in the United States

Stanford University Master of Arts in Communications: Journalism Thesis, 2014


At any given moment, human rights crises are occurring all over the world. Some receive in depth coverage in traditional American media, such as the current civil war in Syria, while others are not widely reported on, such as the shortage of potable water in mountainous regions of Uganda. Markos Kounalakis, president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, says, “only a small percentage of [Americans] express interest in issues around the world,” with an even smaller percentage actually reading those stories. This phenomenon suggests that the traditional American journalistic strategy towards international reporting needs to be rethought. One option is to present human rights news in a more palatable manner to mass audiences. This solution, for reasons explored below, is enticing but ill advised as a comprehensive strategy. A better approach is to focus journalistic efforts on a policy-making audience and accept that laymen will not be fully informed about international issues. This tactic allows for non-governmental organizations (hereafter NGOs) to provide in depth coverage and news organizations to remain marketable by packaging information for mass consumption.

How Did We Get Here?

Economic factors have substantially altered the American media landscape, especially for international reporting. James Hamilton of Stanford University wrote in 2010, “Stories about public affairs have often been at a disadvantage in the media marketplace… particularly those about international news.” In 2010, Carroll Bogert wrote in Nieman Reports, “The commercial model for international fact-gathering and distribution is broken,” with the number of foreign correspondents having “fallen precipitously” in recent years. Priya Kumar in 2011 wrote that there has been a “drastic decline” in foreign news, with the eight newspapers she examined showing a 53 percent drop. Hamilton writes, “While cutbacks in foreign bureaus began before the current recession, the combination of declining media stock prices, ebbing profit rates, and shrinking newsroom staffs mean that the operation of foreign news bureaus is continued only at the handful of newspapers with national reputations.” He goes on to say that changes in media ownership have led managers to be less willing to subsidize hard news, particularly of the international variety.

The expansion of the internet as a news conduit has had a varied and significant impact on the market for international human rights reporting. Kounalakis describes traditional print journalism as having relied on serendipity – the fact that human rights stories were bundled in newspapers, with readers engaging in a linear fashion. If nothing else, the consumers flipped past these articles and might have noticed the headlines. At present, a significant proportion of the American public views their news online and through social media. A Pew study in 2010 reported that only 17 percent of Americans get their news from the print version of a daily newspaper, while 61 percent use the internet to do so.

Richard Sambrook wrote in 2010 that news organizations are now challenged to rethink “the international agenda as news values change and ‘bottom-up’ priorities emerge.” Audiences on the internet play an active role in choosing stories that intrigue them. In 2010, Richard Hanna wrote a paper about the social media ecosystem. He described the phenomenon that “consumers now expect to be active participants in the media process.” He suggested that the American media needs to expand upon traditional choices “so as to capture reach, intimacy, and engagement.” Hamilton explains that the public value some information simply because it’s enjoyable. Human rights journalism, by its very nature, tends not to be as enjoyable as entertainment, sports and other types of news.

Manfred Nowak, professor of international law and human rights at Vienna University and former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, thinks that the rise of internet journalism and social media have had an overall positive effect. He believes that there is now more reporting and thus transparency about global issues. “The more we know, the better,” says Nowak. Unfortunately, the fact that the volume of news has increased cannot be assumed to signify that more Americans are reading about international issues. In a TED talk delivered in 2010, Ethan Zuckerman states that 95 percent of online news readership is on domestic news sites. He suggests that Americans have an “imaginary cosmopolitanism,” which leads them to believe that they have a global perspective, when in fact only a minority of internet users seek out international news. Matthew Hindman, in his 2008 book, wrote that some scholars “have argued that citizen disinterest in politics will short-circuit much of the Internet’s potential political impact.” Further, Sambrook explains that readership of international news is skewed heavily towards affluent people.

What is the Aim of Journalism?

Underlying Nowak’s assertion of “the more we know, the better,” is the belief that journalism is a foundational element of democratic knowledge gathering. Kounalakis points to the democratic self-perception of newsmakers as purveyors of “important” information. Ben Arnoldy, editor and former foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, says, “The duty of a journalist is to bring things to light that are otherwise hidden so that the sum total of human knowledge is increased.”

Beyond informational aspects, Susana Sampaio Dias writes in her 2013 doctoral dissertation for Cardiff University that media discourse contributes to human rights awareness, protection and debate. She goes on to say that the media provides “tools for an informed citizenry.” James Ettema and Theodore Glasser, in their 1998 book, call investigative journalists “the custodians of public conscience.” They assert, “Journalists hold the means to report and disseminate stories that can engage the public’s sense of right and wrong.”

As quoted in a 2012 Guardian article, foreign correspondent Katherine Boo operates from a philosophy of optimism that her work will make small differences in the minds of her readers. Kounalakis calls journalists the “connective tissue” among institutions and individuals, including the United Nations, NGOs and governmental officials.

What Does the Layman Audience Want?

The above democratic notions may be more idealistic than feasible for international reporting via the internet. With consumers now carefully selecting the news that they are exposed to, appealing to mass audiences has become more of a game of clickbait than an exercise in democracy. American internet media feeds on emotional responses. The currency of a click is often a smile or a tear. Natalie Kitroeff of the New York Times wrote in 2014 that it’s “best to traffic in emotion” on the internet. A study conducted by Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman in 2011 found that “online content that evokes high-arousal emotions was more viral.” A 2012 study by Saleem Alhabash confirmed that emotional appeal has significant main effects on attitudes.

Emotional responses are easy to manipulate with multimedia. In 2004, Birgitta Höljer wrote, “Pictures, or more precisely our interpretations of pictures, can make indelible impressions on our minds, and as a distant audience we become bearers of inner pictures of human suffering.” Kounalakis says that the role of broadcasters is to make a story so compelling and “dire in it’s visual representation that it moves people emotionally so that they can’t turn away.” Nowak and Arnoldy explain that visuals are always more stirring than written work. Nowak goes on to say that the worst way to present information is in a scientific format. Arnoldy says that his work as a foreign correspondent in Pakistan was dwarfed by the work of his photographer colleagues.

Essential to attracting and maintaining audience emotional engagement is the careful selection of an appropriate victim. Höljer writes that audiences are expected to “respond as good citizens with compassion and rational commitment,” putting up “no social boundaries for qualifying a victim as worthy of help.” In reality, she says, “Many victims never qualify as worthy,” because audiences respond best to victims who are painted as clearly helpless and innocent. Arnoldy elaborates, explaining that American audiences prefer to have clear sides so that “they know who they can root for.” He says journalists can appeal to affinity groups who may feel personal connections to people globally different from themselves because they share certain characteristics such as race or religion. Further, Arnoldy points out that audiences prefer situations in which there is a “fairly discernible solution.” Nowak points to the perception of certain human rights crises as more interesting than others. In example, he says, “Torture is more appealing to the media than the right to water.” He also contrasts the outrage over abuses at Abu Ghraib with the lukewarm response to human rights violations at Guantanamo Bay.

Why Not Adapt to the New Landscape?

If traditional American media can alter their international human rights reporting to the above strategies for emotional manipulation, they may be able to sustain their mass appeal. But at what cost? Arnoldy maintains that the media’s primary dedication is to the truth, yet the public prefers to consume simplified narratives. He says, “Presenting the truth often means complicating the picture with nuance and context,  [but] that kind of nuance is snoozeville; it’s the kind of copy where people throw up their hands with fatigue and say, ‘Well, I’ll let someone smarter figure that one out.” Shima Houshyar and Behzad Sarmadi wrote in 2014 that western audiences enjoy stories about Iranian women removing their veils because they “produce simplistic generalizations for the sake of provocative and yet easily digestible reading.” Picking up on the previously mentioned article, PolicyMic writer Sana Saeed says, “These stories aren’t told with the intention of understanding – they’re told for the sake of consumption.”

There are two principal barriers to layman interest in international human rights reporting: rational ignorance and compassion fatigue. As described by Hamilton, rational ignorance is the concept that citizens choose to ignore problems they feel they cannot have an impact upon. Kounalakis says that there’s a natural avoidance of issues that are far away and not immediately relevant to the audience’s lives. Rational ignorance cannot be abated in all situations.

Compassion fatigue encounters the same problem of perenniality. Höljer outlines four types of compassion: tenderhearted, shame, blame and powerlessness filled. The final category, powerlessness filled compassion, entails “a subjective awareness of the limits of the media spectator’s possibilities to alleviate the suffering of the victims.” Audiences become inured to tragedy and lose a sense of moral commitment. Keith Tester wrote in 2001 that audiences become “so used to the spectacle of dreadful events, misery or suffering that [they] stop noticing them… Compassion fatigue means being left exhausted and tired by those reports and ceasing to think that anything at all can be done to help.” Kounalakis and Arnoldy note that humanitarian crises are ever forthcoming, creating a sense of hopelessness in the audience. Höljer writes that compassion fatigue leads to audiences creating distance from the subjects of international reporting by rejecting the facts, becoming numb and creating us-them paradigms of otherness.

Both rational ignorance and compassion fatigue stand as formidable barriers to the mass appeal of human rights journalism. Neither ill can be combatted fully, even when bartering emotions for clicks. In order to eliminate either problem, the audience would have to feel empowered to help. That empowerment is not often considered the work of journalists – who are bound by objectivity – but falls into the hands of governmental and charitable organizations.

“Kony 2012”

The most prominent recent example of the American public mobilizing to change an international problem is a video entitled “Kony 2012.” This short film was made to call attention to fugitive African cult and militia leader Joseph Kony. “Kony 2012” embodies the tips and tricks of audience engagement in the digital age. It is a heart wrenching video. There are clear victims, emotional music and even adorable American children. At the end of the film, three options for getting involved are presented: (1) signing a petition, (2) buying a bracelet and “action kit,” and (3) donating money.

According to the Guardian, more than 100 million people watched the film, with 3.5 million of those pledging support. The virality and outrage over “Kony 2012” resulted in a resolution by the United States Senate and the deployment of troops to the African Union. Critics have accused the video of promoting “slacktivism,” the feeling that someone is contributing to the solution by simply sharing or commenting on a video. Journalists, NGOs and policy-makers have also condemned the video as an oversimplification of a complicated problem. “Kony 2012” demonstrates the loss of legitimacy resultant from making human rights crises palatable to a wide American audience.

Who Needs This Information?

The situation facing the American news media in re human rights journalism seems dire. To cater to journalism’s traditional audience seems to necessitate comprising on journalism’s democratic self-perception. The solution may lie in a reframing of the democratic duties of the American media. Human rights reporting must target a policy-making audience, rather than a layman audience.           

Policy-makers are able to have a direct impact on international affairs and thus do not suffer from rational ignorance and compassion fatigue. A policy-maker is never rationally ignorant (though that does not rule out the irrational). She also does not become fatigued as easily because she does not feel helpless to affect change. Policy-makers have vested interest in gaining knowledge about international affairs. For this reason, Nowak, Arnoldy and Kounalakis all believe that a large emphasis should be placed on reaching policy-makers.

Kounalakis and Nowak note,  however, that policy-makers are more likely to respond to topics they believe are of public interest. If policy-makers perceive that the public at large is discussing a certain issue, they may mobilize quicker and more effectively. Although this may be correct, there is a high cost to be paid for engendering mass outpourings of sympathy for international crises.

Journalism’s Future and the Role of NGOs

Arnoldy suggests that the future of American human rights journalism is bifurcated, with simplified stories being tailored to a mass audience and more thorough and complex reporting being directed at policy-makers. With limited funding and a rapidly evolving media landscape working against human rights reporting, the path forward for international news may, of necessity, be to cater to a limited audience.

Arnoldy’s pronged solution opens the door for a division of labor between journalists and NGOs. One option is for the American media to maintain profitability by creating easy-to-digest, watered down versions of international human rights crises. NGOs can play a part by providing background and nuance for policy-makers. NGOs have greater infrastructure for maintaining reporters in crises zones. Bogert writes,“ 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.” NGOs are able to maintain boots on the ground, whether or not there is an immediate “newsworthy” crisis. Bogert writes, “We don’t care if people don’t care about Burundi. We cover it anyway.”

NGOs are also not bound by a dedication to impartiality. Bogert explains that Human Rights Watch researchers are sometimes “more thorough and objective than journalists.” They are also able to “do more than cover the story,” by providing humanitarian aid, issuing press releases and speaking to governmental officials. Bogert suggests that many former journalists turn to NGO work because they are “tired of treating all stories with the same pretense of aloofness.”

One criticism to using NGOs as fact-gatherers is that NGOs have stated interest in changing situations. Sambrook writes, “the lack of independent scrutiny… risks a corruption of public debate.” Bogert asserts that this does not hinder credibility, particularly because there is transparency in NGO reporting. The Edelman Trust Barometer has found NGOs to be “the most trusted institution in the world,” with 16 out of 25 countries surveyed in 2012 placing more faith in NGOs than businesses. Bogert concludes her 2010 article in saying, “[NGOs are] different from the journalistic institutions of yesteryear, but we’re no less legitimate.”

Another criticism suggests that NGOs still must rely on traditional media outlets to disseminate reporting. This may not be the case. Matthew Powers wrote in 2014, “As legacy news outlets cut foreign news budgets… NGOs find themselves taking an increasing number of publicity functions.” With this infrastructure in place, journalists can now focus their efforts on the greater public, while NGOs provide targeted information to policy-makers.     


Walter Lippmann, in his seminal work Public Opinion, published in 1922, already addressed the need to rethink the journalistic paradigm. In his discussion of “stereotypes,” he suggested that even a competent journalist cannot present exactly what the truth is. In his first chapter, he claims that he seeks to “allow us to escape from the intolerable and unworkable fiction that each of us must acquire a competent opinion about all public affairs.” Lippmann is stating the same problem explored herein: It is pleasant, but a fallacy to believe that journalists can fully inform the public.

Lippmann did not operate in the digital age, but his observations serve as foreshadowing. American journalists struggle to balance conveying the complexities of any given story with the appetites of a mass audience. Traditional media may have to follow the market since American journalism is a for-profit industry, but the torch of complex storytelling can be passed to NGOs. In doing so, neither democratic aim of journalism (knowledge and mass appeal) needs to be forfeit.


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Ben Arnoldy, editor and former foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.

Manfred Nowak, professor of international law and human rights at Vienna University and former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

Markous Kounalakis, president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.