Impact of Live TV Coverage on Conflict Management and Relief Efforts

CNN EffectAlmost two decades ago, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali warned, “Television has become part of the event it covers. It has changed the way the world reacts to crises.” He was referring to television broadcasts from war zones like Bosnia and Somalia. Real-time satellite coverage (often referred to as the CNN Effect) had essentially changed the role of journalists from reporters to participants.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali was arguing that instantaneous, global broadcasts of atrocities put pressure on governments “to do something quickly.”

Nik Gowing writing in the UK-based The Independent raised the question, “But is this true? Does television really influence foreign policy?” For four months, he stepped back from the daily pressures of TV news reporting. He interviewed more than 100 diplomatic, military, and foreign-policy decision makers in the U.S. and Europe to test the conventional wisdom that images transmitted ‘live from the battlefield’ drive foreign policy decisions.

When he began the project, he felt that television coverage did drive foreign policy. After the interviews, he wasn’t so sure. He concluded that:

“Television’s new power should not be misread. It can highlight problems and help to put them on the policy agenda, but when governments are determined to keep to minimalist, low-risk, low-cost strategies, television reporting does not force them to become more engaged.”

Walter Strobel, a White House Correspondent for the Washington Times, like Gow, interviewed many foreign policy makers and military leaders. He published his findings in an article for the American Journalism Review. Like Gow, he concluded that “The CNN Effect is narrower and far more complex than the conventional wisdom holds.” He continues:

“To say that CNN changes governance, shrinks decision making time and opens up military operations to public scrutiny is not the same as saying that it determines policy. Information indeed has become central to international affairs, but whether officials use this or are used by it depends largely on them.”

The controversy over the CNN Effect continued for several years. In 2000, Peter Jakobsun from the University of Copenhagen’s Institute of Political Science studied the phenomenon and published his findings in the Journal of Peace Research. He titled the study, “Focus on the CNN Effect Misses the Point: The Real Media Impact on Conflict Management is Invisible and Indirect.” Jakubsen analyzed media coverage before, during and after violent conflicts. He concluded that:

“The media ignores most conflicts most of the time. The coverage of the pre- and post-violence phases is negligible at best and only a few armed conflicts are covered in the violence phase. As focus and funds follow the cameras, the 1990s have witnessed a transfer of resources from more cost-effective, long-term efforts directed at preventing violent conflict and rebuilding war-torn societies to short-term emergency relief. Selective media coverage also contributes to an irrational allocation of short-term emergency relief because coverage is determined by factors other than humanitarian need. This invisible and indirect media impact on Western conflict management is far greater than the direct impact on intervention and withdrawal decisions that the debate over the CNN effect focuses on.”

Jakubsen felt that real-time, satellite media coverage of conflicts contributes to “an irrational allocation of resources.” He observed that  resources are channeled from long-term development and regeneration projects to short-term emergency relief by media-inspired demands that funds be given to emergency ‘X’ one month and emergency ‘Y’ the next. During his study:

  • Official development assistance provided by The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) fell by more than 20% in constant dollars, and reached its lowest point in 45 years when measured as a percent of members’ gross domestic product.
  • By contrast, the funds provided for humanitarian relief by OECD members rose more than five fold.
  • Statistics from the UN Consolidated Inter-agency Humanitarian Assistance Appeals showed that appeals for emergencies covered by the media were far more successful than appeals for forgotten emergencies.

My Take

Live 24-hour news coverage of international crises seems to have had little effect on public policy. The biggest impact, according to Jakubsen is that more effort seems to be focused on dealing with the results of conflicts than preventing them in the first place.

New technologies always have unintended consequences. This seems to be one of the less foreseeable. But decades later, little has changed. Less than three months ago, a mass shooting of elementary schoolchildren in Newtown, CT, riveted the nation’s attention. Now, the cameras have moved on and so has the debate over how to prevent the next mass shooting. The lead story on tonight’s national news was the weather.