Now war photographers who could no longer snag an assignment from Time or Newsweek went on mission with HRW researchers. They shot video as well, and handed it over to a team of editors back at the Empire State Building in New York. Staff researchers were issued high-quality audio recorders to use when interviewing survivors of human-rights abuse, and former radio reporters assembled the audio files into powerful testimonials. The new HRW Web site (HRW.org) modeled itself on the BBC, with four prominent multimedia stories on the homepage and a clickable list, organized by geography and topic, with the latest information on human rights from dozens of countries. The day after the presidential inauguration saw homepage news on Obama’s decision to halt the military commission hearings at Guantánamo Bay (where HRW had two staffers at the proceedings); an Israel-Gaza package including a q&a on the complex issues of civilian casualties and international humanitarian law, an audio interview with HRW’s researcher on the ground, and a lengthy briefing paper on the humanitarian situation in Gaza; and a piece on the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s lawyer. The audience for this material went beyond HRW’s own Web site. Because the mainstream media wouldn’t pick up whole stories edited and distributed by an advocacy group, HRW also made it available in disaggregated form. Radio reporters could pull a quote off the site and stitch it into their own stories. TV producers could use video shot by HRW in the field, mix it with a little stock footage or some wire shots, and create a foreign-news piece from the field without ever leaving midtown Manhattan. And media companies were getting less choosy about where they got their stories from, anyway. For sure, the price was right: HRW gave its content away for free.
But it isn’t journalism! cried the stalwart defenders of the sacred flame. And they were right. But it wasn’t exactly a video news release sneaked onto local TV news by the Bush White House, either. The origins of Human Rights Watch’s material were clearly marked, not least because it wanted the publicity.
The idea caught fire. Within several months, other nonprofit research groups saw the value in producing their own digestible information products—dare not call it journalism!—and before long, they banded together to create economies of scale. Rather than replicating multimedia capability across a number of NGOs, they formed a consortium to report on the work of them all. This news service leveraged the expertise within the nonprofit sphere to feed the mainstream media with high-quality international content, to inform the public about what was happening in the world, and to cycle multimedia content back to the NGOs themselves, for use on their own sites or with their own donors. A board of overseers watched over the journalistic integrity of the product. And an open forum on the service’s Web site meant that no NGO could purvey a false or inflated storyline without the possibility of public challenge.
In 2014, just as in 2009, the public continues to hold the media in low esteem, right down there with businessmen and politicians. The nongovernmental sector, meanwhile, still enjoys higher approval ratings than any of them. What we learned is that readers don’t trust the information less because it doesn’t come from the mainstream media. They trust it more.