The answer is far more complicated than you thinkby Jessica Abrahams / March 27, 2019 / Leave a comment
From Yemen to South Sudan to Haiti, humanitarian needs are at record levels as crises driven by conflict and climate change become increasingly protracted. This year, the United Nations is estimating it will need $25bn to help 132m people in 42 countries.
There are lives at risk in all of those places—but some attract more attention than others, as a recent analysis from CARE International highlighted. Based on over 1m news reports in English, French and German language media, it found that hunger crises in Africa—including in Ethiopia, Madagascar and Chad, where millions of people are at risk of severe food shortages—were largely overlooked by the media in 2018, in favour of crises in the Middle East, including Syria and Yemen.
This raises some important questions. Most obviously: why do some crises receive more coverage than others? But there is a deeper issue in all of this, and that is whether media attention actually helps when it comes to humanitarian crises. Does the amount of air time any given crisis receives really affect how much is done to address it, as intuition might suggest—or is the reality more complex?
For a long time, the assumption has been that headlines do make a difference. “We see more and more complex and chronic crises competing for public attention. Media coverage has always been a strong driver of funding for crises as well as creating political pressure to protect those in need,” explained Caroline Kende-Robb, CARE International secretary general, in a press release.
The claim is backed up by the so-called “CNN effect”—a theory often taught as part of journalism and political science courses—which suggests that the advent of harrowing rolling news coverage of emergencies around the world, driven by new technologies since the 1980s, has helped to shape the political response to those crises.
But after decades of research on the issue, many analysts now doubt it. They believe media coverage has only limited impact on international funding and political action, and under specific conditions. In many cases, it is political attention that drives media coverage, rather than the other way round.
What is true is that media coverage leads to more charitable donations from individuals who are moved to help. Powerful images like that of Alan Kurdi, the young Kurdish-Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as his family attempted to reach Europe, can lead to a noticeable spike in giving. Some researchers have tried to quantify that effect: one study in the United States following the 2004 Asian tsunami found that each minute of airtime raised donations by an average of 13.2 per cent a day; another after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti found that each ABC News story created an additional $963,800 of donations.
But even that observation comes with caveats. News outlets may prioritise stories their readers already have a connection with. Many European and US tourists were caught up in the Asian tsunami, for example, which resulted both in prolific news coverage and in high donations.
Financial contributions might also limit other actions. According to Melanie Bunce, a senior lecturer in journalism at City University London and founding director of the Humanitarian News Research Network, there is a risk that donating money in response to news coverage may allow people to switch off from the issue—feeling that “I’ve done my bit, now we don’t need to take more refugees into my country.”
What’s more is that over three-quarters of humanitarian funding in 2017 came from governments, not individuals or trusts—and the question of how media influences these institutions is far more fraught.
The CNN effect was first used to describe a new phenomenon created by television news, where shocking images broadcast around the world in real-time were said to increase pressure on the US government to intervene or withdraw from situations such as the Vietnam War and Somalia, when it may otherwise not have done. “CNN is the 16th member of the Security Council,” as former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali is said to have complained.
But in-depth analyses of those situations have tended to show that it was really political discourse driving media coverage, rather than the other way around. Even now the level of media coverage of a crisis can at least partially be explained by political interest in it rather than the scale of the disaster—hence why crises in the Middle East have received such a high level of attention in European and US media over recent years.
As Martin Scott, a senior lecturer in media and development at the University of East Anglia, put it: “there are parts of the world in which there are humanitarian crises that neither conform to news values nor do they conform to the interests of western governments, for the same reasons—because they’re geopolitically not vital to the interests of the country. Like Central African Republic… There is a lack of media coverage because that crisis isn’t relevant to the policy of the country that the media’s in in the first place.”
While media coverage might play a role in government thinking about how to respond to a crisis, there are more important factors at play—such as diplomacy, geopolitics, or even domestic politics.
That said, the media can be instrumental in determining how a crisis is framed in the public eye—as a military problem, for example; or a humanitarian situation; or a climate change issue. That in turn could have a longer-term impact on how a crisis is understood that is harder to quantify than immediate funds released or political action taken.
And it can also help governments justify the need to act to a public that wants to know where its resources are going. So while media coverage alone might not be enough to secure relief efforts from western governments, it’s still less likely to happen without it.