Several journalists said that the Catholic Church’s presence must have boosted international human rights coverage. As one noted, Latin American liberation theologians had transformed parts of the Church in the 1970s and 1980s into ”champion(s) of civilians and … critic(s) of governments.” And as another said, “much of the human rights reporting and even more of the general consciousness raising [in Latin America] … was done by the Catholic Church…[including] most famously, the Jesuits and the Maryknolls.”
To investigate, we pulled a mountain of data from the Vatican’s statistical yearbooks, including the number of baptized Catholics, pastoral centers, Metropolitan sees, and bishops; the size of the country’s religious and lay Catholic workforce; the number of Catholic K-12 schools, as well as the number of institutions of higher education; and the Vatican’s tally of Catholic hospitals, old age homes, orphanages, and the like.
This hitherto untapped data source, we hoped, would help us discover whether the Church’s institutional strength, along with the intensity of its outreach to the poor, had any impact on the media’s human rights reporting.
With the exception of Catholic K-12 schools, however, none of these factors were statistically significant, possibly because the Church was never uniformly critical of human rights abuses. In some Latin American countries, after all, senior bishops openly endorsed the government’s anti-Communist agenda. These opposing vectors within the Church may have statistically canceled each other out.
In short, we don’t really know, for sure, what drove the Latin Bias from 1981-2000. With new data, however, we’ll be able to learn whether other world regions have moved to the center of the West’s human rights interests. Is Africa finally on top, or is it now Asia, the Middle East, or former (and current) Communist countries?
Regardless of what we find next, reflect on this statistically proven fact: In the 1980s and 1990s, the big international media cared more about Latin American human rights abuses than those occurring anywhere else.
A longer version of this story was originally published, in Spanish, at Foreign Affairs-Latinoamerica.
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