On July 20, the UN officially declared a famine in two southern regions of Somalia, and “warned that without action, famine-level conditions could soon spread to the rest of the south.” As Robert Paarlberg writes in The Atlantic, the situation in Somalia is perhaps more dire than it was 19 years ago, when 300,000 Somalis starved to death. Not only is this famine worse, but the militant Islamist group Al Shabab is keeping needed food aid from the people, “distrusting food-aid workers as spies,” and spreading propaganda that “it is better to starve than to accept help from the West.”
But this creeping humanitarian disaster has, as yet, attracted much less media attention than the 1992 famine or more sudden recent disasters such as the tsunami in Japan or the earthquake in Haiti. This media “blackout” has hampered fundraising by aid groups, notes a recent New York Times piece entitled “Off Media Radar, Famine Garners Few Donations”:
“Relief organizations say the discrepancies underscore the pivotal role the media plays in spurring fund raising after disasters. The famine in Africa has had to compete with the wrangling over the debt ceiling, the mobile phone hacking scandals in Britain, the killings in Norway and, in Africa itself, the birth of a new country, the Republic of South Sudan. `I’m asking myself where is everybody and how loud do I have to yell and from what mountaintop,’ said Caryl Stern, chief executive of the United States Fund for Unicef, a fund raising arm for the organization. ‘The overwhelming problem is that the American public is not seeing and feeling the urgency of this crisis.’”
Beyond stimulating greater private donations (the focus of this article) can the media actually drive governments to intervene in humanitarian crises? This question surrounds research on the CNN effect–the alleged ability of the media (particularly television news) to arouse public attention and compel government action. Alleged examples of the CNN effect include the 1992-94 U.S. intervention in (and withdrawal from) Somalia and U.S./British intervention in Northern Iraq (1991). But political scientists disagree about whether such an effect exists and how strong it is; for a good review of this research, see this article by Eytan Gilboa in International Studies Perspectives. As Gilboa notes, despite ongoing debates among policymakers, journalists, and scholars, the empirical evidence supporting the CNN effect is “mixed and confusing.” There does appear to be a correlation between heightened media coverage and intervention, but whether this is a causal relationship (and the direction of causation) remains unclear.
Will large-scale intervention to deal with this humanitarian crisis only occur when the media places it on the agenda of policymakers? Even if media coverage dramatically increases, would the United States and other great powers necessarily get involved? What are the limits of the CNN effect?