Human rights statistician Dr. Patrick Ball has observed that the human rights movement can be thought of as an information processing industry, moving reports of rights violations from grassroots organizations in the field to human rights organizations, who attempt to convince the media to disseminate their reports.
I hadn't understood the sheer quantity of information produced by human rights organizations before NKZone's Rebecca Mackinnon and I visited the New York City headquarters of Human Rights Watch last week. Media Director Minky Worden's office is dominated by a set of bookshelves jammed with the hundreds of reports, covering seventy nations and sixty issues, all issued in the past two years. She filled my briefcase with reports on Nigeria, the Ituri Region of the Congo, Darfur, and northern Uganda before I successfully fended her off. There's no shortage of information to disseminate here: HRW's website lists nine reports totalling 405 pages released so far this month.
When reports from organizations like Human Rights Watch are referenced in newspaper stories, op-ed columns, or weblog posts, they can have a profound effect on public debate. HRW's May 2004 report Darfur Destroyed helped establish that ethnic cleansing was taking place in Western Sudan and armed activists and commentators with facts to support a case for international intervention.
But while Darfur is the most visible human rights crisis in the world today, dozens of other crises rarely make the newspapers, and the reports and analysis generated by human rights researchers never makes it into the hands of policymakers, or the people who influence them.
The folks at HRW are smart enough to realize that bloggers are increasingly key players in the media cycle and that they, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations need to find ways to cooperate with human rights bloggers. They've taken a key first step, setting up RSS feeds for the dozens of countries and issues they regularly track. (There's been some RSS support for almost two years, but the feeds are now 2.0 compliant and centrally located.)
But they're also smart enough to realize that getting information from the grassroots into the blogosphere, wikipedia and other peer produced media requires skillsets they lack. So they're recruiting "blog coaches" - blog and wikipedia authors who have an interest in human rights - to help them figure out how to introduce their supporters to blogging and themselves to the blog and wikipedia communities. If you're interested, and especially if you're in the New York City area - please consider getting in touch with Minky and her team and lending a hand.
I'm especially interested in the idea that news and information from human rights groups could help correct media imbalances in the least covered nations. Many of the countries where Human Rights Watch has researchers have no regular news bureaus and only find themselves in the media spotlight when situations escalate to crisis proportions. As RSS feeds start to change the way information flows within advocacy organizations, groups like Human Rights Watch will likely find themselves serving as alternative wire services for people interested in places and issues rarely covered by mainstream media.