The aim of this project was to explore how U.S. mass media—particularly newspapers—enlists text and imagery to portray human rights, genocide, and crimes against humanity from World War II until the present. From the Holocaust to Cambodia, from Rwanda to Myanmar, such representation has political consequences. Coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who fled Hitler’s antisemitism, the term “genocide” was first introduced to the American public in a Washington Post op-ed in 1944. Since its legal codification by the United Nations Convention for the Prevention of Genocide in 1948, the term has circulated, been debated, used to describes events that pre-date it (such as the displacement and genocide of Native People in the Americas), and been shaped by numerous forces—especially the words and images published in newspapers. Alongside the definition of “genocide,” other key concepts, specifically “crimes against humanity,” have attempted to label, and thus name the story, of targeted mass violence. Conversely, the concept of “human rights,” enshrined in the 1948 UN Declaration, seeks to name a presence of rights instead of their absence.
During the summer, the team focused their work on evaluating the language used in Western media to represent instances of genocide and how such language varied based on the location and time period of the conflict. In particular, the team’s efforts centered on Rwanda and Bosnia as important case studies, affording them the chance to compare nearly simultaneous reporting on two well-known genocides. The language used by reporters in these two cases showed distinct polarizations of terminology (for instance, while “slaughter” was much more common than “murder” in discussions of the Rwanda genocide, the inverse was true for Bosnia).