OVER THE last 20 years, public respect for human rights has grown by leaps and bounds. Media coverage has raised public awareness, spreading the good word through nightly broadcasts and articles.
From 1981 to 2000, references to "human rights" in two leading news magazines jumped by more than 130 percent, and recently, American opinion polls have found widespread public support for human rights-friendly policies abroad.
But some argue that Western coverage of abuses may be biased since some countries attract more criticism than others.
These concerns made headlines when Amnesty International, the world's best-known rights group, published a hard-hitting report on U.S. torture and abuse.
To investigate, we conducted a multiyear study of human rights coverage in two major news sources, The Economist and Newsweek, from 1986 to 2000.
We found that the countries most reported on for abuses within their borders were, in order of importance, China, Russia (and the Soviet Union), Indonesia (and East Timor), the United States, Chile, Turkey, Serbia, Colombia, Britain (and Northern Ireland), Cuba and Nigeria.
While some of these experienced serious violations, there were glaring omissions. The list includes none of the world's most deadly civil wars, including those in Sudan, Rwanda and Afghanistan, and does not mention the world's poorest countries. And many of the world's most autocratic regimes, including Saudi Arabia, Swaziland and North Korea, did not earn "most reported on" status.
What, then, drives the media's human rights coverage?
Statistically, we found that levels of abuse have an impact. Yet so does the size of a country's economy and its civil society, measured by number of registered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
These findings are counterintuitive, since rich countries typically experience fewer violations. Still, their citizens produce more information about government misdeeds and their economies pack a bigger international punch. As a result, their abuses tend to attract more notice.
Our analysis also revealed that the more Amnesty wrote about abuses in a given country, the more likely those violations were to be covered in the media.
This is good news, since Amnesty's good works depend on the group's ability to publicly name and shame abusers worldwide. Newspaper coverage is vital, prodding governments into action and advancing human rights-friendly policies.
Amnesty always has been keen to influence the news, but as the human rights movement picked up steam in the 1990s, the organization's media outreach efforts multiplied. It hired more press officers, wrote shorter reports and deployed fact-finding missions more quickly to the field.
But media influence came at a price, and it seems that its growing fascination with human rights has been a mixed blessing for global activists. We found in an analysis of Amnesty's press releases from 1986 to 2000 that it was more likely to devote written advocacy efforts to abuses in countries with media-friendly profiles.
Amnesty's credibility and budget have grown enormously. In 2003, a leading "brand trust" consultant discovered that Amnesty's reputation outstripped most major corporations'. With a London-based staff of 400 and a budget of more than $46 million, the group has a powerful and respected voice on the global stage.
Yet while journalists increasingly seek Amnesty's views, they tend to ask questions about a small group of countries, putting Amnesty's press officers in a painful bind.
Although they are committed to exposing abuses wherever they may occur, Amnesty press releases on low-profile countries evoke little reaction. As one senior Amnesty staff member complained, "You can work all you like on Mauritania, but the press couldn't [care]."
Consequently, Amnesty feels obliged to adjust the flow of its written media outreach.
Consider Kosovo and the Republic of the Congo, which have populations of similar size and had civil wars during the 1990s. Amnesty issued 69 press releases on Kosovo from 1991 to 2000, compared with only two for the Republic of the Congo.
The media worried far more about the Balkans, and Amnesty's press officers were forced to respond in kind.
And while journalists care intensely about U.S. actions, abuses in distant lands attract less attention. As a result, Amnesty issued 133 press releases on U.S. violations from 1991 to 2000, compared with only 38 on Afghanistan, with an estimated 260,000 war deaths, and 15 on Sudan, where more than 636,000 perished in conflict.
Thus while Amnesty struggles to boost public engagement with little-noticed countries and conflicts, Western media preferences exert powerful, countervailing pressures.
The Western media and the public's compassion may be heartfelt, but their sympathies are unequally distributed. This impoverishes our understanding of the world, skews activists' priorities and undermines global respect for human rights.
James Ron is Canada research chair for conflict and human rights at McGill University in Montreal, where Howard Ramos is a Canadian Consortium on Human Security postdoctoral fellow and Kathleen Rodgers is a doctoral candidate in sociology.