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Journalism's True Calling
Published on Wednesday, May 11, 2005 by the Boston Globe
Journalism's True Calling
by Eileen McNamara
 
It is not certain that Elizabeth Neuffer would have attended the forum on human rights held in her name at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. If she had lived through her last posting to Iraq, she would more likely have been in Darfur yesterday than in Dorchester.

The irrepressible foreign correspondent for the Globe would have liked what was said and who was delivering the urgent call that attention be paid to crimes against humanity being perpetrated around the world.

The dais was packed with journalists she had mentored and those who had mentored her across a far-too-brief career documenting genocide from Bosnia to Rwanda. Neuffer died in a car crash in 2003 while on assignment in Iraq.

''She'd be in Darfur today, recording the stories of women raped by Sudanese militiamen," Anthony Lewis, the retired Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, told the audience at the first annual Elizabeth Neuffer Forum on Human Rights and Journalism, sponsored by the International Women's Media Foundation.

The conference, focusing as it did on the duty of journalists to speak for victims of political injustice, stood in stark contrast to news that the Nieman Foundation at Harvard has signed on to advise Chinese officials how to manage the foreign news media during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

The foundation, which provides mid-career fellowships for US and international journalists, might better use its resources to train more Chinese journalists in the principles of a free press than to help an oppressive regime manage its image while it is in the world's spotlight.

It was just that gulf between the democratized West and the developing world that so often frustrated Neuffer in her work and that continues to frustrate journalists still trying to report the universality of the struggle for human rights. How can American journalists convey to a complacent audience that it has a stake in the stoning of a woman accused of adultery in Afghanistan or the plight of indigenous people in Colombia or the need for a free and independent press in China to thrive beyond the Olympics' closing ceremonies?

How does serious journalism break through a cultural preoccupation with such ephemera as a runaway bride, Michael Jackson's child molestation trial, or Paula Abdul's love life?

Corinne Dufka, senior researcher on Africa for Human Rights Watch, described unfettered journalism as a potential ''antidote to indifference." The challenge, she noted, is persuading media outlets burdened by budgetary cutbacks to invest in reporting that shines a light on corruption, economic injustice, and political exploitation of ethnic rivalries before they explode into atrocities.

Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Cambridge-based group Physicians for Human Rights, complained that, too often, the media focus lands only briefly on a disturbing human rights abuse before moving on to the next hot spot. How a situation was resolved, whether that resolution was lasting or fleeting usually goes unreported, she said.

Pam Constable, the deputy foreign editor of The Washington Post, acknowledged that limited resources leave too much of the globe uncovered and too many conflicts not revisited. But often, she said, ''it is only because of press attention that these cases have come to light." The coverage of so-called ''honor killings" of women in Afghanistan and Pakistan alerted Americans to the gap between giving women the right to vote in male-dominated tribal societies and granting them genuine equality. An understanding of the magnitude of that challenge ''starts with the press," she said.

Three months before she died, Elizabeth Neuffer was on a similar panel at the Kennedy Library talking about genocide in Rwanda. ''Can the media do a better job? Can Americans care more?" she asked then. ''The answer, of course, is yes."

It still is.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist.

© 2005 Boston Globe

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