Human Rights Agenda

THOSE busy with their Christmas shopping over the past weekend may be forgiven for not noticing, but Saturday was International Human Rights Day.

It was also, perhaps coincidentally, the concluding day of a conference in Cambridge, Mass., with a mouthful of a title: ''Humanitarian Crises, Policy Making, and the Media: Strengthening Interaction in the Electronic Age.''

The conference yielded no ''news,'' but the interchanges it provided among policymakers, journalists, academics, and aid groups should be important to those who want to see what we might call the human rights and humanitarian crisis news agenda get its due in competition for air time and column inches with stories of politics, local crime, and war.

The geopolitical bedrock of the Middle East, Russia, and East Asia remains in place, but this is a time when, day to day, many of the principal news events that have engaged our attention have been humanitarian and human rights crises: Haiti, Somalia.

Advocates for the humanitarian agenda will have a role to play in the coming national debate -- it must come -- on the foreign-policy agenda, including the use of military power.

Of all the sectors represented at the conference, it might well have been the aid groups that had the most balls lobbed into their court and that received the most readily actionable suggestions: Make sure, for example, that the news media understand who your group is; what its focus and concerns are. One conference participant, a journalist, told of rounding up a dozen or so high-level colleagues for a meeting with UNICEF, and finding that UNICEF was surprised to know that all this high-powered group k new about the agency was that it worked with children and had something to do with Christmas cards.

A former policymaker told how, while in office, he tried to cultivate journalists' interest in issues before they became full-blown crises: At his briefings, he would seat them so that they faced a world map marked with spots labeled as incipient crises. He wouldn't say anything about the map, but eventually the reporters' curiosity got the better of them and they would start asking questions.

Just as political leaders have a responsibility to build support for policies they feel are correct, if not easy, so news organizations must educate their readers and viewers in subjects beyond their immediate self-interest -- but in their long-term interest.

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