Essay on Mass Media and New York Times

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The “CNN Effect” of Mass Media on Humanitarian Aid: A Case Study of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria

Monica Farrell
SUNY New Paltz

I. Introduction

Often times, certain humanitarian issues receive more media attention than others. The media’s role in providing information to citizens has been amplified due to globalization. Recently, issues of politics and specifically foreign policy have been focused on largely by mass media (Robinson 1999, Ogrizek 2007). Many refer to this as the “CNN Effect.” Although some argue that the news plays no role in determining the outcome of a foreign policy issue, some people believe that news can dictate foreign policy decisions (Robinson 1999, Ogrizek 2007, Baum 1998).

Many different factors help determine the level of humanitarian aid a state is expected to receive, including the interests of donors, political interests of the region as well as the nature of the aid business. However, in prior examinations of states with previous humanitarian conflict such as Rwanda, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq and Bosnia, studies have demonstrated that the stronger the media portrayal of a humanitarian conflict, the larger the amount of humanitarian aid the region will receive (Robinson 1999, Livingston 1997, The Brookings Institution, Baum 1998).

This paper will conclude that a higher amount of media attention will lead to a larger amount of humanitarian aid intervention through analyzing the CNN Effect, goals of the media, previous scholarly research on Somalia, conducting original research on the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria and finally, examining the framing of these issues.

II. Defining the “CNN Effect”

In order to understand how exactly media portrayal affects humanitarian aid, the terminology “CNN Effect” and the different aspects of the effect need to be defined. During the 1980s, new technology allowed media coverage to be live, constant and international (Robinson 1999). The end of the Cold War brought about a new wave of thinking regarding the role of technology. The news aimed to provide coverage that would evoke an emotional reaction and demand a rapid response from political elites. The public witnessed events such as the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the rallies of Tiananmen Square and the fall of communism through TV news media (Robinson 1999). Even today, policy makers have acknowledged that they often first hear of troubled regions in the world from international news coverage (Robinson 1999). The CNN Effect also allows enemies such as Osama bin Laden to use the news to spread negative propaganda about the US (The Brookings Institution 2013). Although there is little disagreement that the CNN Effect has altered the way citizens receive and view events in the media, there is still question of whether the media portrayal changes the way governments shape their foreign policy and respond to issues of international affairs.

The media can be perceived as a non-state actor that operates in three ways. First, the media is an accelerant (Robinson 1999). Because the CNN Effect allows media portrayal to be in real time, it demands a quick response from policy makers and political elites. For example, during times of war or genocide, the media may reference potential security risks that would require an immediate response from the government (Livingston 1997). Former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III states his view of the CNN Effect as, “The one thing it does is to drive policymakers to have a policy decision. I would have to articulate it very quickly. You are in real-time mode. You don’t have time to reflect” (Livingson 1997). An example of this was when the media criticized President Bush’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina because of the administration’s slow response to the situation (Ogrizek 2007). The media’s disapproval of how Bush handled the hurricane solicited a better response to the crisis from the Bush