Look Who's Talking: Non-Profit Newsmakers in the New Media Age | MIT Center for Civic Media

Look Who's Talking: Non-Profit Newsmakers in the New Media Age

Liveblog of the first Media Lab Conversations event of the semester, with help from Nathan Matias and Molly Sauter. You can view tweets from this event here.

“We’re a nonprofit, and we’re moving into the media business.”

Carroll Bogert (@carrollbogert) is the Deputy Executive Director for External Relations at Human Rights Watch. She also spent more than a decade as a reporter, bureau chief and editor of international news at Newsweek. Since 1978, Human Rights Watch (HRW) is one of the leading human rights organizations.

There are two threads of international advocacy. You have researchers in the field, traveling and gathering information much like a journalist, pen and notepad in hand. And then there are the people who meet at tables in suits. HRW’s work stretches all the way from the personal testimonies collected in villages to strategic meetings at the upper echelons of international institutions.

How big is Human Rights Watch? Their annual budget is $64 million, none of it from governments. They have 358 staff spread across 48 locations worlwdide

To illustrate research, she shows us a photo of a Human Rights Watch researcher interviewing people who are experiencing the Naxalite conflict. To illustrate advocacy, she shows a meeting between HRW and the Mexican president Calderón about people who have been affected by the drug war in Mexico.

How can research be applied to create social change? Carroll boils the process down to three steps:

  • Investigate (gathering)
  • Expose (communicate)
  • Making Change based on facts

Their researchers arrive in places like Sierra Leone and conduct research, gather interviews, and fact-check to determine whether or not an event like a massacre has taken place. The facts they uncover are heavy, and can have impact in the world if they are then reported and communicated more broadly.

Specific facts and information can be used tactically, at the right place and right time, to create change. Carroll tells us a story from her journalism days. In a room with the leader of a country that had violently repressed protests, the conversation with journalists was going nowhere. Then, someone from HRW stood up and offered a pointed question based on well-documented research. The leader squirmed, the reporters focused, and the dialogue was shifted.

Information and communications is central to the methodology of HRW’s work. Other NGOs come to media as an afterthought, when it comes time to fundraise. HRW takes pride in sharing some DNA with journalists as fellow information-providers. The group is happy to adopt the newswire style to help their reporting blend into the broader media environment. They structure their press releases like news pieces, complete with ledes and compelling quotes, and have seen steadily rising media mentions as a result.

The web has made their work more visual and opened new audiences to human rights content. But at the same time, it’s blown a hole in the budgets of traditional news organizations and hampered their ability to conduct international news-gathering.

HRW has used photos from photographers like Brent Stirton, Tim Hetherington, Marcus Bleasdale, and Platon. Carroll attributes the involvement of such talented photographers’ to the basic human need to share the awful things you’ve seen with others. Photographers want to be involved in the solution to the atrocities they’ve witnessed.

The organization now produces multimedia releases, with edited and disaggregated formats of video available. News editors can grab finished, produced pieces, or take and use raw footage for their own pieces. We watch a BBC story that makes use of HRW-provided video as well as a live interview with a HRW correspondent.

Other news organizations have lifted their video without attribution. This doesn’t bother Carroll in her role as an HRW employee who wants to disseminate the videos far and wide. But it raises questions for journalism, she says, when news organizations gather footage from third parties without identifying their sources.

The group has released a report on torture taking place in Syria. It includes extensive maps, gps coordinates, witness statements, and photographs.
Again, a press release of an embeddable interactive map of toture centers in Syria provides a hook for news organizations to further amplify the report’s findings.

Carroll has drawn on her experience as Russian editor for Newsweek to work to spread the Syria report in that country’s media. Russia provides a complicated media environment for HRW’s work. The country has free newspapers, but there are also clear pressures from the government.

Carroll considers HRW an original news producer in today’s complicated media environment. Google News now treats the organization as a news provider like any other, and they’ve won two Peabody Awards for their work.

Distribution remains a major challenge. They still reach the largest audience if the mainstream media picks up a story. Mainstream media coverage also reinforces social media discussion.

HRW.org reaches 600,000 unique visitors a month, and they maintain a YouTube Channel and Arabic, French, Japanese, Spanish, and German Twitter accounts. They have a lot of Facebook fans, but aren’t sure yet what this means.

What is the right balance between the short form content that the Internet requires and the long form content that HRW is known for, which gives them their credibility? They don't want to follow the mainstream media into a "hail of Twitter bursts." They want to be a bulwark against culture. They want to do heavily-researched, time-invested work that others aren't doing.

HRW is accustomed to producing around 100 reports a year. That's now falling as they diversify the formats that they're producing. What's the right number? They also want an audience, but their purpose is not to inform the public: they're not targeting a mainstream audience. At the end of the day, they want their information to change the minds of people whose choices make a difference. That's why they try to occupy the information sources that people in power pay attention to. This "acupunctural advocacy" is different from having the widest possible audience.

Given their limited resources (and a digital team of 3), what is the right strategy for engagement? Should they focus on supplying the mainstream media with content, or should they reach out directly to new audiences online?

Ethan begins the conversational portion of the talk by contrasting HRW’s targeted audience strategy (targeting decision-makers) with KONY 2012’s pursuit of huge numbers of easily-influenced teenagers. Advocacy organizations are working very, very hard to get attention and sway the minds of policymakers, and there is some diversity in how careful these groups are with the facts. Who wins between HRW’s dense reports and Kony 2012’s slick documentaries? (See Ethan's post on Kony2012 and his followup post. Listen to Michael Poffenberger of TheResolve.org talk about the Kony2012 campaign at the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference earlier this year).

Carroll says that HRW is certainly aware of the KONY effect, and have produced their own video postcards, using video to allow victims in the Congo to appeal directly to US President Obama for military intervention. The group doesn’t know if it affected any policy, but do know the video was watched by people in the White House. Kony 2012, likewise, has generated millions of views and set records, but it’s not clear if it has changed US policy.

Ethan hones in on the tension between the production of compelling video and staying true to the facts. He mentions a recent rap video by FARC which claims that they're undefeated and keen for peace. How does HRW navigate this landscape? And doesn’t it get complicated when countless other organizations are producing videos to gain a finite amount of attention?

Carroll responds that because HRW’s strategy is to influence decision-makers, they would never make a video as sensationalist as KONY2012. They rely on the media as intermediaries between themselves and the public, and focus on reaching reporters with verified content. The organization is quoted in the New York Times on a near-daily basis.

Ethan mentions his last interaction with Human Rights Watch, over the mismatch between HRW's research cycle and the speed of bloggers over the story of an Israeli attack on Lebanese Red Cross ambulances. Misinformation moves quickly online, and groups like HRW do the long, difficult research work. Carroll quotes a HRW researcher who summarized this balance to her: “Carroll, it’s your job to make my work shorter, punchier, and faster, and it’s my job to resist you.”

There are atrocities happening around the world, Ethan says, but we’re more likely to pay attention to some than others. How does HRW think about agenda-setting and balance their spotlight across all of the global crises?

Carroll admits that there are more human rights abuses than they have time to cover. They use four criteria to determine their agenda:

  1. How serious is the abuse, how badly are people being hurt?
  2. Does HRW have the resources and staff and knowledge to address the situation?
  3. Do they have the right partners on the ground who will stay on the issue and run with the report?
  4. Is the time right? Is there something in the zeitgeist that suggests HRW’s involvement could make a difference?

HRW is OK covering subjects that most people aren’t going to read. They want their work to be covered, but refuse to determine their agenda based on perceptions of what will interest a wide audience. Their researchers need to be ready to pounce at the split second the global media is suddenly focused on their specific area of expertise.

Audience Q&A
Alex wonders how the group’s reporting of the Nigerian story (A Heavy Price: Lead Poisoning and Gold Mining in Nigeria’s Zamfara State) was designed to effect change.
HRW’s Health and Human Rights division produced the video and showed it at a conference of health professionals, where it resonated deeply. Attendees were thankful that the video was able to transport these peoples’ voices from their homes to the conference.

George wonders about the different forms of influence that HRW aims to achieve, and how they go about it.

When Carroll thinks about expanding the audience of HRW, she is thinking about expanding the people in power who pay attention to them.

She tells us a story from Samantha Power's book A Problem from Hell: the Human Rights Watch researcher in Rwanda is put off by the "politician's dodge: my phone isn't ringing about it." Carroll doesn't think it's possible to make that phone ring.

The group conducted a survey at the State Department and on Capitol Hill to find out what these policymakers read (report PDF). The New York Times’ international reporting remains hugely influential, but there has also been a dramatic shift to mobile. If The West Wing were shot today, the walk & talk scenes would see the characters staring at their iPhones. If you can’t communicate your message to that attention span, you’ll fail to communicate.

Ethan responds: isn't this the case for the limits of Human Rights Watch? Aren't there times where there needs to be a major policy shift quickly? If you have a major shift in public will, do you think you might have a different outcome? What if we got people on social media talking about it, might that start to matter alongside the New York Times?

Carroll doesn't think so. Public pressure on complex situations, by the public, is not something she thinks she'll see in her timeline. She asks us: why, as an act of foreign policy, did Clinton go to war in Yugoslavia? He didn't do it because it was popular in the United States. He did it because of a steady drumbeat in the New York Times and Washington Post that made him feel like that was the best thing to do. Carroll points out that there are a lot of problems with so called humanitarian military intervention. But she does think that articles in the mainstream media are of primary importance in influencing power.

Charlie De Tar says there’s a dichotomy between gathering facts and actual research. If the organization knew which of the two was more effective, would they drop one or the other, and what would those metrics look like?

Carroll’s focused the definition of impact. They consider impact to mean a long-term change in law or policy or international treaty or enforcement. Freeing an individual person from jail is less interesting to them than changing a long-term policy that will affect many.

Carroll notes that our children can have a powerful influence on our behavior as powerful adults. Teenage sons and daughters judge our actions, and Carroll hasn’t ruled out giving a talk at certain schools in Washington, DC, where certain policymakers’ children are students.

Nick Patterson of the Broad Institute points out that human rights violations are sometimes justifications for going to war. He wonders if they noticed that policymakers are also using them.

Carroll says that they have in fact noticed this and that they sometimes call for investigations of US policymakers for acts of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees. They don't have any way to protect themselves of being used, but they are in fact able to

Sasha Costanza Chock: The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, higher than Rwanda and Russia. Human rights abuses are rampant inside this system.

Research has a key role to play in challenging the ballooning for profit prisons. For example, today the National Justice for Families Coalition and datacenter.org released this report about youth incarceration. Does HRW face special difficulties getting attention in the US press for human rights abuses here in the US?

Carroll responds: No. It's always hard to get media attention, but it's easier to get attention if their stories are in the United States. They actually release more reports about the United States than any part of the world (not because the US is the worst violator of human rights). All the same, it's hard to get policy impact, particularly for their work on immigration. In general, the media everywhere are more interested in their own countries.

Marco asks if the group’s focus is too broad, or if they would do better to foster community with a more narrow focus. Carroll remains skeptical of working to accrue large numbers of followers on online platforms like Twitter when compared to reaching the few people who will truly change policy.

Ethan wonders if the common man and woman reading the New York Times are just collateral damage on the path to reaching policymakers. Is it a missed opportunity to reach and educate them, but leave it at that?

Carroll asks us to contribute our time and knowledge and energy to take the information Human Rights Watch has made available and make it travel. If you have the online skills or an audience, you would do HRW a favor to help disseminate their research. HRW is not a membership organization; they are a highly professionalized NGO with a very small staff doing very specific things. But outsiders can help, and making HRW’s information move is one clear way to do so.

An audience member asks about the Russian media: how does Human Rights Watch overcome the standard narratives that dominate media coverage?

Carroll responds that Russian media are often very surprised to hear from Human Rights Watch. They have been more successful than they expected. More generally, individual journalists have their own tendencies and ways of seeing the world. Human Rights Watch tries to reach individual journalists with stories that are packaged in a way that appeals to them.

Larry, a former AP reporter, mentions how many nonprofits and universities are now funding journalism. He thinks that there's a lot of distortion in that process; those funders are able to shape what gets covered. Has Human Rights Watch considered directly funding papers; is it financially tenable?

Carroll thinks it's important to distinguish between journalists funded by Foundations and nonprofits like Human Rights Watch that are moving into the media business. She doesn't think Human Rights Watch would want to fund outside journalists to do their work. They use journalistic talent to produce good pieces of journalism (though she wonders if you can call it journalism if comes from Human Rights Watch). Susan Meiselas has expressed that she wants HRW to support the profession of photojournalism. Carroll says that beyond hiring photojournalists, there's not much they can do.

An audience member asks: Why have a research-led projects when you could collect just what your targeted powerful people need to create change? Carroll says that Human Rights Watch is moving increasingly in that direction. In addition to researchers, HRW now has a growing number of advocacy staff who work with governments and other powerful actors in national capitols. The needs of those advocates is increasingly shaping the research agenda.