Reporting Human Rights

by Susana Sampaio-Dias (Author)
©2016 Textbook XIV, 220 Pages
Series: Global Crises and the Media, Volume 20


Reporting Human Rights provides a systematic examination of human rights news and reporting practices from inside the world of television news production.
From an interdisciplinary perspective, the book discusses the potential of journalism in contributing to human rights protection, awareness and debate, in ignoring, silencing or misrepresenting human rights issues around the world or, in extreme situations, in inciting hatred, genocide and crimes against humanity. It provides insight into how journalists translate human rights issues, revealing different reporting patterns and levels of detail in reporting, and suggesting different levels of engagement with human rights problems.
The book explains the most important factors that encourage or limit the coverage of human rights news. Grounded in a close examination of the news production processes and key moments where possible human rights stories are contemplated, decided or eventually ignored, the book opens up new insights into the complexities and constraints of human rights reporting today.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. A Brief History and Definition of Human Rights
  • Chapter 2. Human Rights and Journalism: The High Road or the Road to Nowhere?
  • Chapter 3. Human Rights and News Production Processes
  • Chapter 4. Representation of Human Rights in the News
  • Chapter 5. Covering Human Rights: Newsroom Routines and Decision Making
  • Chapter 6. Journalists’ Understandings of Human Rights in the News
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →


First I would like to thank the following correspondents and journalists at RTP who kindly and generously agreed to be interviewed for this book: Adília Godinho, António Mateus, Cecília Carmo, João Pacheco de Miranda, José Rodrigues dos Santos, Luís Castro, Manuel Menezes, Miguel Barroso, Paulo Dentinho, Rita Marrafa de Carvalho, Rita Ramos, Rosário Salgueiro, and Rui Alves Veloso. I would also like to thank Patrícia Lucas and Sérgio Ramos for their help.

I am grateful to my colleagues at Cardiff University and at the University of Portsmouth, as well as those elsewhere, particularly Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, Lina Dencik, Jenny Kitzinger, Sofia Gameiro, Alida Payson, Verica Rupar, Mary Williams, Maria João Silveirinha, Andy Williams, Mike Berry, Iñaki Garcia-Blanco and Jonathan Cable. I sincerely appreciate their support and suggestions, but even more their kindness and friendship.

I would like to thank Mary Savigar, Sophie Appel, Bernadette Shade, Phyllis Korper and Tom Bechtle at Peter Lang for their patience and support as this project progressed.

My deepest appreciation goes to Professor Simon Cottle for the invaluable advice, insights, encouragement, and inspiration along the way, and to my family and friends for their unrelenting love and care. ← vii | viii →

← viii | ix →


Human rights crises take place at any given moment and anywhere in the world. Some receive in-depth exposure in the media, while others are briefly mentioned, if covered at all. There are many reasons why certain human rights issues receive vastly more media attention than others. Consider, for example, two tragic events that occurred in the same week in January 2015: the shooting of 11 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by a self-proclaimed cell of Al-Qaeda terrorists, and the killing of 2,000 people—mostly women and children—in the village of Baga, in Northern Nigeria, by an army of Islamic extremists of Boko Haram. The first event sparked international outcry and solidarity, a trending hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, and a march, attended by world leaders, in the streets of Paris to express support for the victims and to demonstrate resilience against the attackers. The second event had no globally trending hashtag, no organised march, and almost no exposure in the news. Even in Nigeria, the Paris attacks received more media attention than the massacre in Baga.1 The events took place in disparate scenarios: the first in Paris, a global and central metropolis, and the second in Baga, an isolated, difficult-to-reach village. For Western audiences, the attacks in Nigeria felt incomprehensibly remote, whereas those in Paris felt shockingly ‘close to home’, visible and rare. Further, the deaths at the hands of Boko Haram have ← ix | x → become ‘distressingly common’ (Zuckerman, 2015) in an insurgency that has claimed over 10,000 lives since 2009.

This is just one example of how different human rights violations garner such divergent attention in the media. The purpose of this book is to examine the reasons behind such assorted coverage and, ultimately, to analyse the connection between human rights and journalism and the importance that the latter has for providing the basis for an informed citizenry with human rights information and understanding. More precisely, this book focuses on news production processes, journalists’ motivations and decisions, and the particular moment in which human rights can be brought to light in the news.

Although human rights are a recent addition to ethical discourse (it was not until World War II that the term entered the lexicon), the concept of human rights is itself multifaceted and contested. This concept, however, is also under constant (re)definition in everyday practices. Media discourses and practices play a crucial role in this process, either by contributing to human rights protection, awareness, and debate; ignoring, silencing, or misrepresenting human rights issues around the world; or even, in extreme situations, inciting hatred, genocide, and crimes against humanity. The media, often referred to as the Fourth Estate, should provide an early warning system for problems to be anticipated and addressed before they grow to crisis proportions (McChesney, 2012). This double-sided potential for media and news journalism to either promote or hinder the course of conflicts and human rights violations demands thoughtful research and analysis of media outcomes, effects, and production in this context.

This book seeks to interrogate the concept of human rights, exploring its historical affirmation and legislative construction and highlighting some of the crucial moments or lines of thought developed across the centuries before narrowing its focus to a media-based approach to the topic, followed by the analysis of a specific case study. The complex discussion surrounding the concept of human rights is not only placed within the limits of its legal and institutional framework. Contemporary debates in sociology and political science have added notions of cosmopolitanism and the global public sphere within which the media might operate today. From here, further epistemological studies of the media have been delving more deeply into this complex relationship between journalism and human rights, questioning the moral and ethical responsibility of the media, as well as their potential to promote solutions-oriented dialogue on the one hand, or to feed hatred-oriented discourses on the other. However, with such concepts it becomes crucial to fully ← x | xi → understand the most relevant factors that influence the news production processes, professional choices, ethical motivations, and organisational practices that determine the making of the news, and this means scrutinising the news production processes as key moments in which possible human rights approaches to the news are contemplated, decided, or even ignored.

As a means of illustrating and dissecting this connection between human rights and journalism, this book places these debates in the context of original research of both content and production of news. As such it closely examines the Portuguese public service broadcaster RTP as an example of news production practices within a mainstream network newsroom functioning in a democratic country with a free press. The empirical research conducted for this book includes a holistic analysis of one year of daily television news, in-depth interviews with journalists, and close newsroom ethnographic observation. Despite the particularities inherent in the national context surrounding this case study, a systematic examination of human rights news and reporting practices from inside the world of television news production has provided a rare insight into the complex constraints and dynamic pressures on contemporary journalism that may be replicated in other newsrooms under similar operational conditions.

This intimate look at the peculiarities of the newsroom culture and news production processes has allowed this book to address two pertinent and overarching questions: How are human rights presented in the news? and Why are journalists covering human rights issues the way they are? In other words, the book seeks to examine the nature of human rights reporting and the characteristics of such news reports. Further, it observes the main influential factors that can determine the presence or absence of—and the inspiration or disregard for—human rights. The study of such questions allows inquiry into the possible contribution of journalism to a global moral order (Silverstone, 2007), or a human rights culture.

Structure of the book

This book is composed of six chapters, divided into two sections. The first section (Chapters 1–3) seeks to explain the theories and key concepts supporting the framework of this research. Chapter 1 delineates a possible definition of human rights based on its philosophical, historical, and legislative formulation and explores its multidisciplinary contemporary approaches—namely, current critiques about the social role of the media within an alleged global public sphere. Chapter 2 delves deeper into the discussion about the responsibility of ← xi | xii → the media, questioning its potential within a global moral space and exploring the suggestion of a ‘responsibility to report’; further, this chapter presents the two-faced potential of the media regarding human rights, either seen as a promoter of human rights or used as a tool to ignite violence and hatred. Chapter 3 provides a bridge from the previous theoretical chapters to the second half of the study; it surveys the elements that interfere with the process of news production and, consequently, determine the coverage of human rights issues that also variously encourage or limit it. This chapter also explains the theoretical background of three suggested principal news frames that exhibit three different levels in human rights coverage.

The second section of the book (Chapters 4–6) moves on to an empirical investigation of the Portuguese public service broadcaster RTP. Chapter 4 presents this case study and explains the results of the content and framing analysis, showing how human rights are covered in the daily news. It considers the various elements of news content that represent the nature of reporting human rights, examining its presence in the news, and the topics under which human rights are covered. This chapter also lays out the predominant news sources, production resources utilised, duration and placement within the news rundowns, types of rights covered, and, finally, the geographical distribution of the news. Derived from the analysis of these categories, the chapter moves on to survey communicative framings for human rights reporting that suggest different levels of depth of coverage and professional engagement.

Chapters 5 and 6 then draw upon the observation of news production practices based on empirical evidence from ethnography and in-depth interviews. These two chapters focus on the reasons behind the organisational dynamics and professional practices that determine coverage of human rights-related issues. Chapter 5 describes the filtering processes and use of resources, discussing as well recent editorial changes and the influence of these changes in news production. Further, this chapter focuses on the determinant news values that define human rights reporting and the impact of the newsrooms’ financial difficulties on news outputs. It concludes with a critical analysis of the growing inclination to use proximity as the main determinant of news coverage. Chapter 6 elaborates on the professionals’ own perspectives and suggests a dichotomous understanding of news production choices regarding human rights issues from both a managerial and a non-managerial perspective. The chapter presents different professional views and perceived roles regarding human rights coverage. Finally, it explores journalists’ ideals for reporting, teasing out ← xii | xiii → by this means their most desired aspirations and motivations. A concluding chapter recapitulates the findings that underscore the book’s contribution to the understanding of human rights reporting.


1. See the comparative analysis of the coverage of these events in Zuckerman (2015). ← xiii | xiv →


XIV, 220
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
News production Responsibility to report Financial crisis Foreign correspondents News values Global journalism Global public sphere Cosmopolitanism Human Rights
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XIV, 220 pp., 25 b/w tables

Biographical notes

Susana Sampaio-Dias (Author)

Susana Sampaio-Dias (Ph.D., Cardiff University) is Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Portsmouth. She has also worked as a broadcast journalist and news producer for RTP, the Portuguese public service broadcaster.


Title: Reporting Human Rights
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236 pages