Tag Archives: media

The Media, Tipping Points, and a Massacre in Syria

Images of rows of bodies in Houla, Syria–many of them women and children–were publicized by many media outlets on Saturday.

It is difficult to predict when policymakers will decide that “enough is enough” and it is time to intervene to stop genocide, mass starvation, and other humanitarian crises. Some crises, such as the Rwandan genocide, never produce that level of commitment, or “political will,” from the international community (or at least from one powerful actor with the means to stop the carnage).  But widespread media coverage of particularly galling atrocities appears to be one catalyst for intervention.  For example, in 1995 the massacre of 8,000 civilians in Srebrenica, along with the subsequent shelling of a Sarajevo marketplace, galvanized NATO countries to take military action against Bosnian Serbs.

So there is some reason to believe that the news today that Syrian government forces have massacred approximately 100 civilians (perhaps as many as 50 of them children) in the town of Houla, together with the presence of graphic video and pictures to tell the story, could have the ability to shock world leaders into finally taking serious action on Syria.  So far, the UN has taken the largely ineffective steps of sponsoring an oft-violated ceasefire and sending unarmed monitors to watch the events unfold.  As discussed previously in this blog, the UN Security Council has failed to take stronger action at least in part because Russia, a staunch ally of the Syrian government, has veto power over any Security Council resolution that might authorize force or harsh sanctions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Political scientists have noted both the agenda-setting and framing power of the media.  Agenda-setting refers to what the media chooses to cover (which can dictate what issues are on citizens’ and policymakers’ minds), while framing involves how the media chooses to cover an event (the “spin” that is given to the facts).  Grotesque images paired with a clear identification of the guilty party–whether the full story is given or not–can be a powerful incentive for policymakers to take notice, particularly in democracies where they are accountable to the public.  The rise of blogs, Twitter, cable news, and other outlets beyond traditional print or TV news outlets has made it more difficult for the media to act in conscious unison to promote an agenda, but has also made it possible for events and interpretations to travel farther and faster than ever before.  (The unprecedented Kony 2012 campaign is but one example of the potential such media hold).

Whether today’s events in Syria will set off the kind of media firestorm that might force world leaders’ hands remains to be seen, but some leaders are already calling for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council, so it appears possible that we are approaching some sort of “tipping point” when it comes to Syria.

Famine in Somalia and the “CNN Effect”

A displaced Somali woman and her malnourished child. The current famine in Somalia has received much less media attention than the 1992 crisis.

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?