CNN theory and the humanitarian crisis in Syria? unanswered questions
Dina Matar, Centre for Global Media and Communication, School of Interdisciplinary Studies
The war in Syria that has now been going on for nine years has produced ‘the biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st Century’ according to the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock. However, it is not a horror story, but a terrifying actuality, the latest chapter played out since December 2019 in Idlib, the last stronghold of opposition and anti-government groups. The war has seen unimaginable and unspeakable violence, killings, destruction and forced displacement, but the brutality witnessed over the past month as the Russian-backed regime forces try to eliminate opponents has been without precedent and has forced up to one million people out of their homes.
What is surprising and depressing is the lack of official, and public, response to this major humanitarian crisis, which has been covered so extensively by Western, international and regional media. And this absence is despite abundant imagery of the disastrous consequences for ordinary people with nowhere to go. Think back to the impact of a single BBC broadcast on famine in Ethiopia in 1984 which prompted Bob Geldof to launch his Live Aid benefit concerts. What has happened to the so-called CNN theory of the 1990s? The theory argued that mass media need only convey how terribly others are suffering for people and governments, even if not directly impacted by violence, to do something about it. What has changed? What is going on? Or are publics now all suffering ‘compassion fatigue’? Does familiarity, even with others’ suffering, eventually breed contempt? Or, as the media scholar John Fiske cynically, if appositely, put it: ‘For the western news media, the Third World is a place of natural and political disasters and not much else’?
To understand what is going on, we need a little history and theory about media coverage of the non-Western world. ‘The CNN effect’ was proposed in the 1990s as the 24-hour broadcast news networks were expanding, which coincided with several US interventions in Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia and Kosovo. US officials were debating how most favourably to represent the military activities of the world’s sole superpower in a post-Cold War period. The story they came up with was that armed interventions were a good and moral thing to do to protect human rights or stop atrocities. The task of new forms of mass media was to influence that debate. Not to put too fine a point on it: they were tools for propaganda. With the September 11 attacks, military priorities suddenly shifted to ‘fighting terrorism’, ushering in the trope of the ‘war on terror’.
The term ‘CNN Effect’ became shorthand (or cliché) for an evolving academic model to explain—or, perhaps better, to rationalize, how new, real-time reporting on US television networks was driving Western responses, or ‘humanitarian intervention’, a concept deployed to justify military missions in conflicts such as Northern Iraq, Somalia, and Kosovo. Admittedly, the CNN theory appears to account for some aspects of the dynamics between media, public opinion and government policy. But its defects become obvious when confronting the problem of how you represent such a complicated and confused reality, such as the war in Syria, described as the most tangled geo-political conflict in the contemporary world. For a start, there are so many, diverse participants in the war, each with their own accounts. But we also need to take account that media genres have proliferated; and mass media have splintered. And we cannot ignore the slick Syrian regime propaganda which offers a starkly counter-articulated version of events. These are ideal conditions for fake news and hoaxes to thrive.
What can we say about the CNN theory now? For one thing, its argument is cast in Euro-centric terms as one of causes and effect that encourages the belief that there are simple solutions. For another, the imagery of ‘empathy framing’ in much Western news reporting while with good intentions often reiterates the material and discursive power imbalances between the West and the rest. How the West imagines ‘Others’ is simplistic and is often plain counter-factual. The CNN effect falls flat on its face because it is a narrative dreamt up by Western politicians and media producers who imagine their audiences to believe, passively accept or, at least not overtly, dispute their account. The field of Audience Studies has shown such imaginings have little, if anything, to do with how actual audiences engage or refuse to engage. The CNN effect depends on audiences unquestionable swallowing what they are told. Meanwhile the immeasurable cost in human suffering mounts up. Simplistic media models end up fooling those who dream them up, not those out there, who remain largely ignored and unknown. That is where a critical analysis to media coverage of the non-Western world comes into its own.