The News Media, Civil War, & Humanitarian Action
Now They Tell Us by Michael Massing
The News Media, Civil War, & Humanitarian Action
by Larry Minear, Colin Scott, Thomas Weiss
A Literature Review
There is little doubt that the current state of news media has significantly altered the way government policy is formed, portrayed, and interacts in the international arena. Specifically, news media has the ability to call attention to humanitarian crises or events that can produce an affective response strong enough to illicit reaction from a state’s policymakers. Dubbed the ‘CNN effect’, Larry Minear et al. outline how news media can have the profound effect of oversaturating the particulars of a news story such that it develops the power to command action from international actors. Through the CNN effect, we can sometimes even consider news media itself to be an agent of policy change. Michael Massing, on the other hand, posits that American press coverage of the build up towards the war in Iraq failed to hold the US government accountable for its actions, which he argues is the most important responsibility of news media (Massing 34). Though both texts engage with the role of media in shaping and correcting government policy, Minear et al. focus on how media participates in the ‘crisis triangle’ -- composed of itself, policymakers and humanitarian agencies -- and is both constrained and emboldened by its influence on governments and humanitarian action, whereas Massing chooses to highlight the, in his opinion, faulty link between media coverage and the US government during the buildup and initial period of the Iraq War. However, neither of the texts directly address the effect that advances in media technology may or may not have on the delivery of press coverage as information versus entertainment. In fact, it is perhaps technological advance itself that has led traditional news coverage astray from its glorified moniker of ‘the fourth estate’.
Massing argues that American press coverage of the build up to the Iraq war as well as its initial period was flawed in several ways, most notably a lack of knowledgeable, investigative journalists as well as an administration that valued faith-based policy and disregarded the media, in his articles published in the New York Review of Books in 2004. In the case of cable television journalists, most were severely impeded by their inability to speak or understand Arabic, which resulted in a limited scope of access once on Iraqi soil (Massing 15). Insubstantial reporting, continues Massing, combined with the Bush administration’s “...creating a set of truths” (47) for itself simultaneously promoted a censorship of graphically violent images and a perception of the media as a vehicle for indoctrination of the ‘war on terror’. Massing also adeptly points out that most journalists feared a denial of access as punishment for questions too probing, and those who did critically examine the administration’s justification for war on Iraq often didn’t contribute to publications with strong enough distribution numbers to warrant a response or trend. In addition to Massing’s conclusion that these problems arose in part because of the transformation that the US administration experienced during the Bush era, Minear et al.’s definition of media as “an institution with a process” (Minear et al. 31) proves helpful in conceptualizing how the introduction of new technology has radically altered the volume and pace of information flow. After information is transmitted, it undergoes an extensive editing and packaging process; there are now more stakeholders in individual pieces of information than there have ever been. Widespread use of the internet and computers was a still relatively novel phenomena during the beginning of the Iraq war, and so perhaps the journalistic structure, instead of reflecting a failure on all anchors, journalists, and media personnel has been slow in adapting to our online, oversaturated, and hyper-informed style of media consumption of today.
Minear et al.’s work critically addresses the way in which the visibility produced by media can have adverse effects on foreign policy agenda setting. Specifically, Minear et al. discuss how the mutually beneficial relationship between media and military forces in Somalia between 1992-1994 actually changed both the course and outcome of US military missions in Somalia as well as the quality of press coverage as a direct result. Similar to Massing’s accounts of American journalists embedding themselves with marines in Iraq for security and access, so too did the media in Somalia, in exchange for “publicity for domestic consumption and useful intelligence about conditions in the interior of the country.” (Minear et al. 55) According to the authors, the ill timing of US intervention and subsequent withdrawal of forces in 1992 and 1994 were a direct result of an affective response of policymakers to media coverage portraying young famine victims. (54) This style of reporting prompted the desire and constant search for the frontline story for the purpose of authenticity as well as the first to distribute information; ironically, Massing argues that US journalists often unwittingly fabricated authenticity for on-the-ground reporting because of their inability to speak with Iraqi residents or accurately interpret the conflict and battle they were witness to. (Massing 45) As a result, American reports on the war often centered on stories of military heroics, quenching the thirst for war back home and softening the harsh realities of battle; American media coverage in effect leveraged the Bush administration’s position within Washington a great deal, enabling it to continue the war efforts back home and its aggressively punitive foreign policy agenda.
Although both texts engage with the role media has played in the international arena, the transition to world in which a plethora of online news materials are available warrants some further exploration. While Minear et al. do assert that the work that visual imagery does particularly in garnering humanitarian aid and resources is in some ways more powerful than any printed coverage of a crisis, their work stems from before the era post-September 11th attacks on the World Trace Center and the subsequent global ‘war on terror’, not to mention painfully unaware of the recent ‘social media revolutions’ in the Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries in the Middle East, indicating that the world of internet news and the possibility of instant distribution without factual check remains an avenue that warrants careful review. As Massing indicates, the CNN effect has in some ways evolved into complete noise, a “bandwagon to jump on” (21), and if this is the case, implications on news media’s role in the Minear et al. crisis triangle will likely suffer a significant impact.