Does the “CNN effect” exist? Military intervention and the media

Article  by  Jean-Baptiste JEANGENE VILMER  •  Published 28.06.2012  •  Updated 03.07.2012
Reportage CNN Opération Restore Hope - Somalie 8 décembre 1992
What sort of influence do the media have on foreign policy, in particular on the triggering of military interventions?

Summary

The NATO intervention in Libya, between 24 March and 31 October 2011, was described by some of its critics as one more sign of the impudent power of the media over foreign policy.  According to Joshua Gleis in the Huffington Post, it is the media coverage of the massacres in Libya which triggered the military intervention, and which explains the “double standards” employed with Syria, a country that produces fewer media images, and therefore less attention. Paul Miller in Foreign Policy criticised the Obama administration for allowing itself to be pushed into action by the headlines in the media, and saw this as a lack of leadership. They speak of the harm resulting from the “CNN effect”.

This expression refers to the influence of the media on foreign policy and in particular on decisions to intervene in an armed conflict or following a natural catastrophe. It spread following the significant development at the end of the 20th century of non-stop news channels – CNN is the symbol of this development, but it is of course not the only channel. In the case of Libya, others refer to the “Al-Jazeera effect”. For the Arab Spring, it would be more appropriate to talk of a YouTube, Facebook and Twitter effect. This does not mean, however, that this phenomenon is new.

An ambivalent role

Nowadays, those who believe the CNN effect to be a good thing tend to come to the conclusion that the media are virtuous by nature. The media play two, somewhat contradictory roles: they alert the population of a catastrophe taking place or about to take place, and yet they may, at the same time, play an important role in the violent acts committed – as Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) did in the Rwandan genocide. The media are mere instruments; they are neither good nor bad per se.

They bring even the most distant conflicts, catastrophes and humanitarian crises into our living room almost instantaneously. The population becomes angry. One could say, in the 1990s, that the majority of Western public was in favour of an interventionist policy: the public consented to a national sacrifice if the latter would seemingly avert a massacre abroad[+] NoteSteven KULL, “What the Public Knows that Washington Doesn’t", Foreign Policy, 101, 1996, p. 102-115X [1]. This is far less the case now. Public opinion is relatively fickle and, following the bad experiences that ended the “golden age” of intervention in the 1990s, the public has become more prudent, more distrusting and more cynical.

Whatever the case may be, if the population becomes annoyed about a situation, and that population lives in a democracy, the immediate consequence is that pressure is placed on the government –the result being that a democratically elected government may feel obliged to intervene when public opinion favours intervention.

The CNN effect is double-edged, as can be seen in the case of Somalia. At first, the general public were emotionally moved (owing in part to media pressure), and defended the intervention. It was to meet the public’s expectations that the United States acted.
Opération "Restore Hope" retransmise sur CNN
Opération "Restore Hope" retransmise sur CNN, 8 décembre 1992

When the same general public, however, saw the images of fallen soldiers in the streets of Mogadishu and in particular the loss of 18 Rangers in October 1993, they changed their minds and demanded that the troops be withdrawn. There is a saying in the United States about this: “CNN got us into Somalia, and CNN got us out”.

“There is no doubt that well-made news reports,” according to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), “soundly backed-up editorials, and especially the immediate broadcasting of images of innocent people suffering, bring about national and international pressure in favour of taking action”. Nobody is in any doubt that pressure exists. The aim is to find out what this influence comprises, and to what extent it is real and decisive, not only during an intervention – Roméo Dallaire said that “one line by a Western reporter was worth as much as a battalion on the ground”[+] NoteCited by Samantha POWER, "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, New York, Basic Books, 2002, p. 355.X [2] – but, even more, in the actual decision to intervene.

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A weak effect

According to Piers Robinson, one can make a distinction between a weak and a strong CNN effect. According to the strong effect argument, the media exert a significant, even decisive influence, on the decisions made by those who determine a country’s foreign policy. They are described as a sometimes sufficient cause of the intervention. Martin Shaw believes that the media coverage of the floods of Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein led to the creation of a protected Kurdish zone in 1991[+] NoteMartin SHAW, Civil Society and Media in Global Crises, London, St Martin’s Press, 1993, p. 88.X [3]. Jonathan Stevenson puts forward the idea that the “Restore Hope” operation in Somalia 1992) would not have happened were it not for the large and decisive influence of the media. George I. Kennan agrees, saying that this operation would have been “unthinkable” without American television. Ken Booth supports the view that the United Kingdom was forced by the media to intervene in favour of the Kurds and in the Balkans[+] NoteKen BOOTH, “Military Intervention: Duty and Prudence”, in L. Freedman (ed.), Military Intervention in European Conflicts, Oxford, Blackwell, 1994, p. 59.X [4]. Charles Krauthammer sees a direct link between the media coverage of the 64 deaths caused by the mortar fire that rained down upon a market in Sarajevo on 5 February 1994 and the ultimatum that the United States then issued.

Televised news, France 3, 5 February 1994

Those in favour of the weak effect argument support the view that the media have a moderate or relative influence on decisions: they can encourage governments to act, but not force them to do so, and the media are in no way the cause of intervention. There is no zero-effect argument: nobody denies that the media have an effect. Those who criticise the CNN effect do not deny its existence; rather they regret that it exists.

I support the weak effect argument for several reasons: first, governments exercise a certain level of control over the media, even in democracies, be it merely by not publishing all relevant information on previous, current or planned interventions. This gives rise to two matters which may put the CNN effect in perspective: the independence, only relative in most cases, of the media; and access to information – the access being quite partial as regards foreign policy. These two factors give rise to what is referred to as the manufacturing consent media theory, which refers to the influence that governments and the media have on each other.

The media may influence governments, but they are in turn influenced by governments and by others. It may well also be the case that the views of the government coincide with those of the mass media; one may not be able to go as far as to say that they are using each other, for, in such cases, they share the same views and take advantage of this complicity. This happened when the United States intervened in Iraq in 2003, and is what Divina Frau-Meigs called the “Fox effect”[+] NoteDivina FRAU-MEIGS, “L’effet Fox contre l’effet CNN: le journalisme américain entre surveillance et propagande” [The Fox effect versus the CNN effect: American journalism between surveillance and propaganda], in Jean-Marie CHARON and Arnaud MERCIER (dir.), Armes de communication massive. Informations de guerre en Irak: 1991-2003, [Arms of mass communication: war news in Iraq] Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2004, p. 188-189.X [5].

Second, the media generally only take an interest in humanitarian situations when they are of catastrophic proportions, that is to say, when it is often too late. Counting on the media to “trigger” the intervention means forgetting about all the preventative work and ordinary diplomacy that governments are engaged in every day, without media coverage. Hubert Védrine disapproves of the perverse relationship between the media and governments and is rightly mistrustful of this relationship: “we are going to end up launching operations because the media are able to create more of stir for that particular operation compared with another one that would have taken place discretely and over the long-term”[+][6].

Third, empirical surveys tend to confirm the weak effect theory. Walter Soderlund and Donald Briggs examined ten cases. They concluded that “the CNN effect appears to be more a case of hyperbole than fact”.

Fourth, when a state intervenes, it is rarely disinterested. It has, by definition, something to gain by doing it. This means that media pressure alone cannot bring about an intervention: it can at the most speed up a trend that already exists, adding another benefit to the existing one of intervening. Indeed, media pressure itself constitutes a benefit in its own right: governments who “give way” to media pressure must have an interest in doing so: that of satisfying the public who have been moved by a humanitarian crisis and who demand that their government become involved. This is what transpired from the interventions during the 1990s. Apart from Kosovo, the decision to intervene was taken not so much to help foreign victims as to keep the public happy. In the case of Kosovo, the order of events shows that the British and American governments pushed for intervention even before their respective population exerted pressure on them.

We should therefore not compare the “national interest” in the traditional sense of the word with satisfying public opinion that could have been manipulated by the media. In a democracy, keeping the public happy should mean the same as defending national interest, and should perhaps even be the uppermost objective. Taken this way, why should we condemn the CNN effect? We should not necessarily condemn it if it is part of the machinery that shows that a democracy is functioning healthily, but we should nevertheless put its effect into perspective.

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The influence of the media is inversely proportionate to political clarity

Political uncertainly ensues either if the government simply has no policy on a particular issue, or if opinion is divided on the matter[+] Note Piers ROBINSON, “Operation Restore Hope and the Illusion of a News Media Driven Intervention”, Political Studies, 49, 2001, p. 943-944.X [8]. The influence of the media is inversely proportionate to the clarity and coherence of current policies: when governments have clear policies, notes Kofi Annan, “television has little impact”, but when this is not the case, when the political response has been bad or weak, they are more sensitive to the influence of the media and “they have to do something or risk a disaster in terms of public relations”.Given that the more fragile their position, the more they are likely to be subject to the influence of the media, politicians will have to make their position clearer. The media help to determine a policy that has not been determined.

The other side of the coin is that this virtuous incitement to act is always made precipitously. The media do not wait and politicians therefore have to take complex decisions in a very short time. “In today’s society that is utterly bombarded by the media (…),” explains Hubert Védrine, “and that is eager for "transparency" and for a feeling of being "at the heart of the action", that is awash with emotions and instant news, and that is distrustful of governments and all knowledge, it is all the more difficult to pursue reliable foreign policies, that is to say ones that are determined, coherent and based on a true vision of the world and our interests”[+] NoteHubert VÉDRINE, Continuer l’histoire [Continuing History], Paris, Fayard, 2007, p. 31.X [9].

The CNN effect encourages politicians to make a decision, which in itself may be considered a good thing, but in doing so it may also have the perverse effect of pushing them to proceed quickly – to make this decision too quickly, without the taking time to think, which, in matters as serious as a military intervention, is a necessity. In other words, it may – and it has – a negative effect on the long-term development of foreign policy, which, because of the CNN effect, increasingly boils down to national policy.
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The influence of the media depends on the way in which the event is covered

The resorting to emotional content, or empathetic coverage, also affects the force of the CNN effect. It is the way in which the event is covered, more than simply covering an event, which determines the sway it has. Coverage is deemed empathetic if the media dedicate the headlines and the main stories to the victims of a humanitarian crisis for several days. They often use raw, shocking images without giving viewers the tools to analyse them, for they are not trying to convey information, rather they are aiming at producing a commercial effect, which is more effective thanks to the emotional shock. There are two aspects to this sensationalist approach, according to Patrick Charaudeau, Guy Lochard and Jean-Claude Soulages who studied French television news programmes during the ex-Yugoslavia conflict (1990-1994): an internal one, whereby the “images broadcast are given priority according to their supposed level of emotional resonance”, and an external one “which tends to give priority to and to weight (time dedicated to the event, and the space given to it in the programme) events according to their supposed impact on viewing figures”. Reporting news in an increasingly sensationalist way has upset editorial priorities, driving back “noble information” and “turning international news into mere short news items”[+] NoteClaire SÉCAIL, Le crime à l’écran. La fabrique du fait divers criminel à la télévision française [Crime on the screen. Manufacturing news items on crime on French television], 1950-2010, Paris, Nouveau monde éditions, 2010, p. 397.X [10].

Televised news, Antenne 2, 4 April 1992

The problem with sensationalism is that it gives a distorted impression of what is then considered to be a just cause for intervention - violations of human rights, violent acts, a humanitarian crisis. Violent acts are being perpetrated every day, just as serious as those being reported, or indeed even more serious, but these other acts of violence are unfortunate in that they are neither spectacular nor telegenic: ordinary famine, malnutrition, and disease. It should also be borne in mind that sensationalism is not necessarily effective: it may bring about compassion in some people, while the news is viewed with suspicion by others, who are not just cynics who don’t want to do anything, but those who feel despair and who don’t know why they can do. “Media coverage of suffering is likely to cause reactions of despair in viewers who do not understand the “offence” of not providing assistance to those in danger”[+] NoteJacques GONNET, Les médias et l’indifférence. Blessures d’information, [The Media and Indifference. News wounds] Paris, PUF, 1999, p. 50.X [11].

Empathetic coverage is the most obvious example of a way of exercising influence, but it is not the only way. If we are aiming at our leaders, for example, we can stress the fact that the humanitarian crisis is a threat to peace and international security, in order to make them take responsibility. In both cases, media coverage may present the facts in such as way that politicians feel obliged to intervene.
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Collateral damage of the CNN effect: subjectivity, selectivity and simplification

The influence of the media may well depend on how the event is covered, but this influence bears the weaknesses of the coverage. There is therefore a risk that the effect on political decisions be biased. The first difficulty is that of remaining subjective: news are a social construction, “the product of how journalists perceive events and how they present them to their readership, listenership and viewers”[+] NoteAkiboa COHEN, “The Media and International Intervention”, in Michael KEREN and Donald. A. SYLVAN (eds.), International Intervention: Sovereignty versus Responsibility, London, Frank Cass, 2002, p. 80.X [12]. But the events are often sensationalised.

This brings about the “law of ideological positioning”, explain Charaudeau, Lochard and Soulages: “the priority given (…) to spectacular images and unifying subjects with a high emotional impact such as the exhibiting and relating of the victims’ lives, reveals the bias in the way the conflict is dealt with: the face of the Other shown as a “suffering” face can become a way of causing us to identity with the sufferer and to become the face of the Same”. Presenting matters in this way on news programmes comes down to guiding the viewers towards one side or the other. During the ex-Yugoslavia conflict, the ideological stance was clearly playing on the notion of victimhood.

A certain fringe of the public is well aware of the subjectivity that is at the heart of the crisis of trust affecting the media, for we can have doubts about how suffering taking place far away is portrayed. Some feel “uncertainty about how accurately the news is being represented: is it objective or biased? Truthful of fictional? Factual or made up? Accurate or tampered with?”[+] NoteLuc BOLTANSKI, La souffrance à distance, [Far-away suffering] Paris, Gallimard, 2007, p. 318.X [13]. There is therefore a risk of the opposite effect happening: empathetic coverage may cause some people to feel the opposite of what was intended: the feeling of indignation people are supposed to feel ceases.

Another consequence of empathetic coverage is that it causes people to be selective; they cannot feel empathy for everything. The media aim to and indeed have to make a profit, and this directs their selection: they cast light on what they think will bring in an audience, depending on how they see the public and the “qualities” of the story being covered, that is to say its suitability, potential for arousing emotion, how close the events are to home, and how close people feel to the events psychologically. All this has to be weighed up of course against the cost of the media coverage, which depends in particular on how far away the events are, the resources needed and the associated risk. This clever calculation explains why - as observed by the CIISE - “some humanitarian crises enjoy excessive attention while others stagnate in indifference and are forgotten”. Esther Duflo made the following calculation: “a catastrophe that takes place in Africa needs 48 times more victims than one taking place in America or in Europe in order to receive the same level of coverage”.

Simplification also takes place: the crisis to which the media wish to draw attention must be accessible to the largest number of people. Since they are addressing the general public and they have a relatively pejorative view of them, the media – especially the audiovisual media – often tend to bring down the level, resorting to vulgarisation and even producing caricatures. The “stories” are willingly turned into children’s fairytales, in which the good, the bad and the saviours are clearly identified. The Western media, for example, have the annoying tendency to reduce African conflicts to issues of ethnicity and tribe. We saw this in the case of Rwanda[+] NoteSteven GARRETT, Doing Good and Doing Well: An Examination of Humanitarian Intervention Westport, Praeger, 1999, p. 82.X [14], and then for the Darfur drama, which was deliberately described as a genocide of blacks by Arabs – while the term of genocide is debatable, and the ethnic aspect of the conflict is much more complex.

For all these reasons, and given all the faults that the media commit with their influence, we should be wary of the CNN effect, as much for the exaggeration that produces a strong effect as for the naivety that underestimates the effect of the media. The foreign policy in democratic countries should take into account the increasing weight of public opinion, but policy should not be determined by what the media do with it.

Translated from French by Peter Moss

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Photo credits:
- screenshot of CNN, 8 décembre 1992
- screenshot of Al Jazeera English website, 28 janvier 2011, goblinbox (queen of ad hoc bento) / Flickr.

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References

Akiba COHEN, « The Media and International Intervention », in Michael KEREN et Donald SYLVAN (dir.), International Intervention: Sovereignty versus Responsibility, London, Frank Cass, 2002, p. 75-91.

Divina FRAU-MEIGS, « L’effet Fox contre l’effet CNN : le journalisme américain entre surveillance et propagande », in Jean-Marie CHARON et Arnaud MERCIER (dir.), Armes de communication massive. Informations de guerre en Irak : 1991-2003, Paris, CNRS Editions, 2004, p. 188-197.

Philip HAMMOND et Edward HERMAN (dir.), Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, London, Pluto Press, 2000.

Peter JAKOBSEN, « National Interest, Humanitarianism or CNN: What Triggers UN Peace Unforcement after the Cold War? », Journal of Peace Research, 33:2, 1996, p. 205-215.

Peter JAKOBSEN, « Focus on the CNN Effect Misses the Point: The Real Media Impact on Conflict Management is Invisible and Indirect », Journal of Peace Research, 37:2, 2000, p. 131-143.

Steven LIVINGSTONE, Clarifying the CNN Effect: An Examination of Media Effects According to Type of Military Intervention, Research paper R-18, The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 1997.

Steven LIVINGSTONE et Todd EACHUS, « Humanitarian Crises and US Foreign Policy: Somalia and the CNN Effect Reconsidered », Political Communication, 12:4, p. 413-429.

Andrew NATSIOS, « Illusions of Influence: The CNN Effect in Complex Emergencies », in Robert ROTBERG et Thomas WEISS (dir.), From Massacres to Genocide: The Media, Public Policy, and Humanitarian Crises, Washington D. C., The Brookings Institution, p. 149-168.

Piers ROBINSON, The CNN Effect: The Myth of News Media, Foreign Policy and Intervention, London, Routledge, 2002.

Walter SODERLUND et al., Humanitarian Crises and Intervention: Reassessing the Impact of Mass Media, Sterling, Kumarian Press, 2008.

Warren STROBEL, « The CNN Effect: Myth or Reality » in Eugene WITTKOPF et James MCCORMICK (eds.), The Domestic Sources of American Foreign Policy: Insights and Evidence, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 1999, p. 85-93.

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  • 1. Steven KULL, “What the Public Knows that Washington Doesn’t", Foreign Policy, 101, 1996, p. 102-115
  • 2. Cited by Samantha POWER, "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, New York, Basic Books, 2002, p. 355.
  • 3. Martin SHAW, Civil Society and Media in Global Crises, London, St Martin’s Press, 1993, p. 88.
  • 4. Ken BOOTH, “Military Intervention: Duty and Prudence”, in L. Freedman (ed.), Military Intervention in European Conflicts, Oxford, Blackwell, 1994, p. 59.
  • 5. Divina FRAU-MEIGS, “L’effet Fox contre l’effet CNN: le journalisme américain entre surveillance et propagande” [The Fox effect versus the CNN effect: American journalism between surveillance and propaganda], in Jean-Marie CHARON and Arnaud MERCIER (dir.), Armes de communication massive. Informations de guerre en Irak: 1991-2003, [Arms of mass communication: war news in Iraq] Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2004, p. 188-189.
  • 6.
  • 7. Rony BRAUMAN and Hubert VÉDRINE, Entretiens avec Patrick Frémeaux, [Interviews with Patrick Frémeaux] 3 CD, Paris, Frémeaux et Associés, 2003, CD II, 12.
  • 8. Piers ROBINSON, “Operation Restore Hope and the Illusion of a News Media Driven Intervention”, Political Studies, 49, 2001, p. 943-944.
  • 9. Hubert VÉDRINE, Continuer l’histoire [Continuing History], Paris, Fayard, 2007, p. 31.
  • 10. Claire SÉCAIL, Le crime à l’écran. La fabrique du fait divers criminel à la télévision française [Crime on the screen. Manufacturing news items on crime on French television], 1950-2010, Paris, Nouveau monde éditions, 2010, p. 397.
  • 11. Jacques GONNET, Les médias et l’indifférence. Blessures d’information, [The Media and Indifference. News wounds] Paris, PUF, 1999, p. 50.
  • 12. Akiboa COHEN, “The Media and International Intervention”, in Michael KEREN and Donald. A. SYLVAN (eds.), International Intervention: Sovereignty versus Responsibility, London, Frank Cass, 2002, p. 80.
  • 13. Luc BOLTANSKI, La souffrance à distance, [Far-away suffering] Paris, Gallimard, 2007, p. 318.
  • 14. Steven GARRETT, Doing Good and Doing Well: An Examination of Humanitarian Intervention Westport, Praeger, 1999, p. 82.
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