THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (DRAFT) by Fred H. Cate1
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. . . .
For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
1 Corinthians 13:1, 11
The image is stark and horrific. A vulture stands calmly in the background, peering over a small child who is bent double on the parched earth. The child’s head, bowed to the ground so that the face is invisible, dwarfs the emaciated body. Tiny hands clutch at tufts of straw. Incongruously, although the child is naked, it wears a string of heavy flat beads around its neck and bracelets around its one visible wrist. The scene is one of utter despair as the vulture waits for the child to die.
The photograph first appeared on March 26, 1993, in the New York Times, along with an article about the government of Sudan and its response to the famine which threatened a million Sudanese. The caption read: "In a move meant to placate the West, the Sudanese Government is opening parts of the country’s famine-stricken south to relief operations, but for some, it could be too late. A little girl, weakened from hunger, collapsed recently along the trail to a feeding center in Ayod. Nearby, a vulture waited."2 Neither the article nor the caption mentioned the fate of the girl.
Letters and phone calls poured into the New York Times. Four days after the original photograph ran, the Times took the unusual step of publishing an editor’s note about the fate of the girl in the picture. "The photographer reports," the Times’s editors wrote, "that she recovered enough to resume her trek after the vulture was chased away. It is not known," the note concluded chillingly, "whether she reached the center."3
The following week, Time published the photograph in color. The picture appeared on its own with this brief caption: "IN EXTREMIS: A million Sudanese face starvation. Here a child falters en route to a feeding center, while a vulture hovers."4 Before the month was out, Time, too, had been forced to print a response to the flood of correspondence the magazine had received. Some readers criticized the picture; others lauded its poignance and power. But virtually everyone who wrote or called wanted to know one thing: what happened to the child? Time offered this pale answer: "[The photographer] is not sure what happened to the little girl, who was moving toward the nearby relief center when he saw her, but he is hopeful that she received food and treatment."5
The photographer was Kevin Carter, a 32-year-old photojournalist for the Johannesburg Weekly Mail, who had borrowed money to travel to Sudan as a free-lancer earlier in March. As the popularity and controversy surrounding his photograph grew, Carter found himself explaining repeatedly the circumstances in which he took it.
Soon after his plane had touched down near the village of Ayod, Carter had sought refuge from the sight of thousands of people starving to death. He wandered into the open bush, where he heard a soft, high-pitched whimpering. Following the noise, he found the tiny girl, trying to make her way to the feeding center. As he crouched to take his picture, a vulture landed nearby. He waited quietly, not wanting to disturb the vulture and hoping that it would spread its wings for an even more dramatic image. When after 20 minutes it had not, Carter took his picture, chased the vulture away, and watched the girl resume her struggle. Afterward, Carter reported, he sat under a tree, smoked a cigarette, talked to God, and cried.6 He longed to hug his young daughter Megan. "I alone could never have helped all of them," Carter’s parents report he later told them. "I sat crying under a tree for a long time."7
The picture became, as Time later called it, an "icon of Africa’s anguish."8 It appeared in hundreds of newspapers and magazines around the world. Relief organizations used it in their literature; Amnesty International featured it on a poster. That single picture, James Fallows writes, "did more than any other news story" to draw attention to the horrendous drought and ensuing famine that was wracking Sudan.9 On May 23, 1994, the shot earned Kevin Carter the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography.
But the photograph also provoked a maelstrom of public, journalistic, and academic debate about Carter’s failure to help the little girl. Outraged readers wrote letters to newspapers calling Carter the "true vulture" and "devoid of humanity," and condemning his failure to act as "inexcusable," "inhuman," and "uncaring." Others defended Carter’s action, noting the magnitude of the crisis facing Sudan and the creed of journalists to not get involved in the stories they report. "Carter did what he was there to do and in doing so documented his own humanity. . . . By being himself and doing his job, he recorded a haunting image that brought attention to the starving in Sudan."10 "That image is captured for eternity," said Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "There were, ideally, lots of other people to give aid, medicines, care, but nobody is going to replace the role of the journalist. The military, the aid workers, the Red Cross--no one filled the role Kevin Carter did. He was the one who got the message out to the rest of the world."11
One reader wrote to the St. Petersburg Times, which had carried the picture on its front page, that "it appears that Kevin Carter did his job well as a photographer, but on a scale of 1 to 10, his humanness ranks as a -10." The letter continued:
The article indicates the child collapsed outside of a "nearby relief center." Obviously, nearby was too far for this child but was near enough for Kevin Carter to see her when he emerged from the relief center. He then positions his camera and takes some photographs of the child and then what? Walks back into the relief center and forgets about her? How? How could anyone forget about her?12
Kevin Carter did not, in fact, forget about that little girl on the outskirts of Ayod. "This is the ghastly image of what is happening to thousands of children," Time quoted him as saying. "Southern Sudan is hell on earth, and the experience was the most horrifying of my career."13 He later told his friend and journalist Chris Marais, "I’m really, really sorry I didn’t pick the child up."14
Carter’s pain and the criticism following publication of the photograph and again after the awarding of the Pulitzer, accentuated by problems in his personal life and drug abuse, were more than he could stand. Two months after standing in the classical rotunda of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library to receive the Pulitzer Prize, Carter parked his pick-up truck in a park in a Johannesburg suburb where he had played as a child, ran a hose from the tailpipe into the cab, and killed himself.
A note found next to him the following morning read: "I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain . . . of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners. . . . The pain of life overrides the joy, to the point that joy does not exist."15
The "Starving Sudanese Child," as the picture is called, is more than just a tragic illustration of drought and famine in Sudan, a little girl whose suffering was ignored, or the roller coaster life and premature death of a talented photojournalist. It highlights many of the critical issues posed by media coverage of humanitarian emergencies: the powerful--if often numbing or distorting--impact of images of devastation and suffering; the complicated relationships among relief organizations, the public, policymakers, and the media; the risks and costs to journalists of all forms of covering humanitarian crises; the desperate need to improve communication about, and understanding of, significant events and developments, especially in distant places; and the array of forces that make achieving that goal so difficult.
The "CNN Effect" and the Power of Mass Media in Humanitarian Crises
The mass media--television and radio, newspapers and magazines, wire services, and the journalists, editors, photographers, freelancers, and stringers that work with them--play many important roles before, during, and after humanitarian crises. Many of these roles involve providing information to people directly affected by a humanitarian crisis. The media help educate the public about complex emergencies, empower individuals to prevent or mitigate disasters, warn of approaching hazards, provide critical information during an emergency, link disaster sites with the outside world, evaluate responses to past crises, and facilitate public discussions about development, mitigation, and emergency response.
These activities are critical to saving lives and reducing suffering. For example, warnings of hurricanes, tornados, and storm surges carried by the media have been repeatedly shown to dramatically reduce the impact of natural hazards.16 There are, of course, issues surrounding the accuracy and timing of the warnings, the populations to which they are directed, and the penetration of media in affected areas, but the equation is a simple and uncontroversial one: accurate warnings provided in understandable terms far enough in advance to the relevant populations who have the capacity to receive them inevitably save lives. These internal communications by the media are not the subject of this article.
Other critical roles played by the media involve communicating to people outside of the affected area, often through images such as Kevin Carter’s. The media help provide information about events and developments in distant places, link the outside world to disaster sites, heighten public and political awareness about unmet needs, motivate individual and institutional responses, build public support for political action, evaluate responses to past crises, and facilitate public discussions about development and relief policies.
These activities are equally critical to saving lives and reducing suffering, yet they pose complicated, subtle, and far-reaching issues. And the small but expanding range of scholarship in this area suggests that not only do we understand comparatively little about these roles played by the mass media in humanitarian crises, but that what little we thought we did know may in fact be wrong or, at the least, changing.
Bernard Cohen wrote more than three decades ago: "The press may not be successful in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about."17 Today, that observation is widely accepted. Media, and particularly television, have grown to be the most powerful force in American political and social life. Few causes or events, no matter how dramatic or how many people are involved, motivate powerful governmental or institutional responses until captured by the cameras of the press.
This result has proven particularly true with international humanitarian crises, where the presence of media attention has played a critical role in determining political and popular concern about the underlying situation. The extraordinary film images recorded by Michael Buerk and Mohammed Amin in Wollo and Tigray in 1984, like Jonathan Dimbleby’s BBC documentary, "The Unknown Famine," a decade earlier, prompted public and governmental action in the West. In the United States alone, the federal government’s food aid budget leapt from $23 to $98 million.18 "In these crises, media coverage had an irresistible urge on mass audiences, producing surges of fund-raising and humanitarian response."19 The media did not necessarily tell government officials anything they did not already know, but their coverage built political support for decisive action.
Television coverage of the 1991-92 famine in Somalia was credited with motivating the United States’ decision to launch Operation Restore Hope. "TV got us in, and TV got us out" was the conventional explanation of the United States’ involvement in Somalia.20 The decision to intervene was reportedly prompted by powerful images of starving children carried on U.S. television and in U.S. newspapers and magazines. On December 9, 1992, the day that U.S. troops landed, George Kennan, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow and architect of America’s policy of containment towards communism during the early days of the Cold War, wrote in his diary: "When I woke up this morning, I found the television screen showing live pictures of Marines going ashore, in the grey dawn of another African day in Somalia." Kennan continued:
There can be no question that the reason for this acceptance [of President Bush’s action by Congress and the public] lies primarily with the exposure of the Somalia situation by the American media, above all, television. The reaction would have been unthinkable without this exposure. The reaction was an emotional one, occasioned by the sight of the suffering of the starving people in question.21
One year later, when the media was filled with images of the corpse of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu--ironically, a photograph of that scene earned Paul Watson the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography that same year that Kevin Carter won his for feature photography--the media was again credited with prompting the decision of President Clinton to withdraw troops from Somalia. The Economist editorialized: "Once again, television images are shaping American foreign policy. . . . [and causing] damage to America’s foreign policy in Somalia, and beyond."22
Dubbed the "CNN Effect," many scholars and journalists argued that the power of the media, and especially of images from far-away locations, had exceeded that of the government to define and motivate support for foreign policy. Nowhere did this seem more true than in the area of humanitarian relief. Bernard Kouchner, when France’s minister for humanitarian affairs, was often quoted as saying "where there is no camera, there is no humanitarian intervention."23
Situation after situation seemed to prove the accuracy of this statement. A 1991 article in Newsweek about the Kurdish refugees fleeing Iraq is typical of the growing attribution of action-motivating power to the media: "Thanks to the news media the face of grieving Kurdish refugees replaced the beaming smiles of victorious GIs. [Media images] galvanized the public and forced the president’s hand."24 The television in the reception area of the U.S. Secretary of State, the public was later told, is permanently tuned to CNN.25
Public officials bemoaned the new power of the press. In 1995 United Nations secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali referred to CNN as the "sixteenth member of the Security Council."26 He said: "The member state never take action on a problem unless the media take up the case. When the media gets involved, public opinion is aroused. So ‘intense’ is this public emotion that ‘United Nations work is undermined’ and ‘constructive statesmanship . . . is almost impossible.’"27
Relief agencies competed with each other to entice the media to cover "their" disaster, knowing that the presence or absence of media attention could mean life or death for affected populations. Jonathan Benthall, in his path-breaking study, Disasters, Relief and the Media, went so far as to write: "In can be said, therefore, that disasters do not exist--except for their unfortunate victims and those who suffer in their aftermaths-- unless publicized by the media. In this sense the media actually construct disasters."28
Reappraising the "CNN Effect"
More recent experience and in-depth research suggests, however, that the CNN Effect is far more complex and the relationship between media coverage of government action far less direct than first thought. For example, to credit the media either with the United States’ entry into or its exist from Somalia ignores other significant evidence. Warren P. Strobel, White House correspondent for the Washington Times and the author of Late-Breaking Foreign Policy, has noted that there were only 15 television reports on Somalia prior to Bush’s decision to begin an airlift. That decision caused a burst of reporting; the reporting did not cause the decision.29 Similarly,
There is little doubt that the image of a dead U.S. soldier being desecrated in October 1993 forced President Clinton to come up with a rapid response to calls in Congress for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Somalia. Often forgotten, however, is that by September 1993 the Clinton administration already was making plans to extract U.S. troops. Just days before the images of the dead soldier were aired, Secretary of State Warren Christopher had told U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Washington’s desire to pull out. Congress had withdrawn its approval, and public support for the mission, documented in opinion polls, began falling well before the gruesome video started running on CNN.30
If the media was less instrumental than first thought in defining and motivating U.S. policy towards Somalia, where the United States did ultimately intervene, the past decade is lamentably full of examples where despite compelling images and news reports did not cause the United States to become involved.
Consider Bosnia. David Rieff has written that "no slaughter was more scrupulously and ably covered" yet "it [did] no good"--"we failed."31 "If the lesson of Somalia was that cameras made things happen, and sometimes too quickly," according to Thomas Keenan, then a fellow of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, "Bosnia seems to tell the opposite story: a brutal combination of overexposure and indifference. Somalia was hyperactivity, Bosnia inactivity, just watching."32 "If Vietnam was the first war the media won, Bosnia is the first war it lost. Despite the passionate reportage by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour (and every other major journalist in the world) from Sarajevo, the armchair conscience of global TV viewers has not risen to resist the Serbs," lament former foreign minister of Israel Shimon Perez, former Canadian prime minister Joe Clark, former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger, and former New York Times foreign affairs columnist Flora Lewis in a 1994 essay.33
Consider Rwanda, which Perez, Clark, Kissinger, and Lewis call the "new model of warfare immune to the image media: No matter how brightly shine the klieg lights on the mounds of mutilated corpses in that deepest heart of darkness, the genocide goes on. The scale of the horror is only matched by the complete lack of connection with our own lives and our inability, let alone willingness, to do anything about it. In this case, the image demobilizes."34 Images of the brutal slaughter of half a million people in Rwanda in 1994, no matter how graphic or compelling, did not move Western governments to intervene with force. This was true, Warren Strobel writes, "despite the fact that there was more television coverage of the slaughter than there was of Somalia at any time in 1992 until Bush actually sent the troops." Once the slaughter in Rwanda ended and the massive exodus of refugees began, what had seemed to government leaders like an "intervention nightmare" became a "relatively simple logistical and humanitarian problem that the U.S. military was well-equipped to solve."35 The public’s reaction mirrored the government’s. Private relief agencies "got virtually no money whatsoever" from the viewing public when television was broadcasting images of massacred Rwandans. "Contributions began to pour in when refugees flooded across Rwanda’s borders and there were ‘pictures of women and children . . . innocents in need,’" according to Strobel.36
Consider the Sudan, where, despite the impact of and controversy over Kevin Carter’s dramatic photograph, no meaningful or political response resulted. Johanna Neuman, foreign editor of USA Today and author of Lights, Camera, War, has written: "For all of this media attention, nothing happened. There was no massive airlift of food, no invasion of the marines to deliver relief."37
"To give television credit for so powerful an influence," CBS News anchor and managing editor Dan Rather wrote in response to George Kennan’s lament over the role of television in prompting U.S. action in Somalia, "is to flatter those of us who toil there--but it’s wrong. If Mr. Kennan were right, there would be U.S. marines on the ramparts of Sarajevo right now, defending Bosnian Muslims. Bruce Babbitt would be on his second term in the White House. And newsrooms would have universal free health care. Reporters sometimes feel strongly about the stories they cover," Rather concluded, "and some may wish for the power to direct public opinion and to guide American policy--but they don’t have it."38
What then can we say about the power of the media to influence public and political opinion in humanitarian emergencies? Generalizations are dangerous, especially given the diversity of media and of contexts in which crises occur. However, I would like to advance cautiously six closely related observations, drawing largely on the observations of journalists and relief workers.
First, the public and policymakers are becoming desensitized to the power of images. Marshall McLuhan wrote more than 30 years ago: "The price of eternal vigilance is indifference."39 This observation seems more true than ever today and in the context of humanitarian crises. Anthropologists Arthur and Jean Kleinman have written extensively about the "consumption" of suffering, especially via the media:
Viewers are overwhelmed by the sheer number of atrocities. There is too much to see, and there appears to be too much to do anything about. Thus, our epoch’s dominating sense that complex problems can be neither understood nor fixed works with the massive globalization of images of suffering to produce moral fatigue, exhaustion of empathy, and political despair.40
Warren Strobel has described the public and government officials as becoming "inoculated against pictures of tragedy or brutality coming across their television screens."41 "If the film is overexposed," ask Shimon Perez, Joe Clark, Henry Kissinger, Flora Lewis in their essay, "Diplomacy and the Image," "doesn’t the image fade? If every horrid image is floated out there in the mediasphere, disconnected from any meaningful framework in the blood and soil of our lives, doesn’t it dim the conscience of all of us who lack the levers to take effective action? Doesn’t overexposure necessarily breed ironic detachment because the field of horrors so outstrips our limited capacity to do anything about it?"42
This is not to suggest that media images have no impact on their audiences. Viewers and listeners are often outraged, disgusted, or shocked by news reports of humanitarian crises. Who can look at Kevin Clark’s photograph without being moved? But that emotional response rarely translates into action--political or personal. Part of the reason for this may be that the response, like media coverages of most crises, is short-lived. Television pictures "often give a quick rush, like a dose of sugar," says media commentator Roger Rosenblatt, "but the dose wears off quickly. . . ."43
But the greater phenomenon may be the extent to which the public is in fact no longer moved by these images. As Johanna Neumann has written, "The pictures that once tugged hearts may have lost their punch. The public may have become newly immune to the emotions provoked by image."44 "We are developing an ability now to see incomprehensible human tragedy on television and understand no matter how horrible it is, we can’t get involved in each and every instance," commented former White House spokesman Michael McCurry. "We are dulling our senses."45
Whatever the metaphor--"moral fatigue," "inoculation," "ironic detachment," or "immunity"--the power of images, or at least of these images, to move the public appears to have diminished.
A second and related observation about the "CNN Effect" concerns the extent to which the media and the images they portray are manipulated by government officials, relief agencies, and others. This manipulation is comparatively innocuous evidence that the relationship between the media on one hand and the public, relief officials, and policymakers on the other is not one-sided. The media certainly influence their audiences, but the government and relief agencies have also recognized and learned to take advantage of the power of the media.
If George Kennan was troubled by the presence of television cameras covering the arrival of the Marines in Somalia, he might be more troubled still by the fact that the media were there at the invitation of the Pentagon. According to press reports, the military had thoroughly briefed the reporters who were covering the landing and had timed the Marine’s arrival to coincide with evening news broadcasts in the United States.46 The Guardian wrote: "Media complicity in the shot-free and artificially-lighted night invasion was an essential element for the mission to succeed."47 "Indeed," the authors of The News Media, Civil War, & Humanitarian Action write, "the media-military cooperation extended well after the invasion. The military provided the media with security and logistics. The media reciprocated with publicity for domestic consumption and useful intelligence about conditions in the interior of the country."48
Relief agencies actively try to use the media to attract attention to the crises they are addressing and, not infrequently, to themselves. As already noted, particularly in the past decade, agencies have greatly improved their sophistication in dealing with the press.
Andrew Natsios, then an assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, gave numerous media interviews and held news conferences in Africa and in Washington in early 1992. "I deliberately used the news media as a medium for educating policy makers in Washington and in Europe" about the crisis and "to drive policy."49
We witness every day hundreds of examples in which the government takes advantage of the press’ power through press conferences, opportunities for photographs and exclusive interviews, off-the-record briefings, film from "smart" bombs, "ride-alongs" with government agents, advance copies of speeches, press pools for military coverage, and the chance to accompany the president and other high-ranking leaders on official trips. Similarly, researchers have documented many examples in which the government has used the knowledge that foreign political leaders were watching--for example, Sadam Hussein’s viewing of CNN broadcast during the Persian Gulf War--to convey information to them.50
Moreover, a growing body of research suggests that the relevance of the "CNN Effect" depends in large part on the action and resolution of government officials themselves. ABC News "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel has observed that to the degree "U.S. foreign policy in a given region has been clearly stated and adequate, accurate information has been provided, the influence of television coverage diminishes proportionately."51 If, on the other hand, that policy is in flux or poorly articulated, the media exercise greater impact. Warren Strobel offers this analysis of the interaction of the news media and humanitarian policymaking. During the course of more than 100 interviews for his book, Late-Breaking Foreign Policy, "[t]he officials I interviewed did not identify a single instance when television reports forced them to alter a strongly held and/or well-communicated policy. Rather, the media seemed to have an impact when policy was weakly held, was already in the process of being changed or was lacking public support."52
The influence of the media is not unilateral. Government and military leaders, relief officials, and others influence, as well as are influenced by, the media. In the words of Johanna Neuman, media "technology has been a gift to those who learned to exploit its blessings to shape public debate instead of being driven by the whims of public opinion."53 If the impact of the mass media is on the decline, it may reflect in some small way a growing awareness that the media may be manipulated by those whose messages they carry.
3. The Nature of News in the Nineties
The third observation about the "CNN Effect" and its apparent weakening focuses on the nature of the news and of reporting, especially when the story is about a foreign crisis, and their impact on the public. The public’s lack of sensitivity may tell us as much about its response to media as about its reaction to the subject of the media report.
Coverage of foreign and international news by the U.S. media has dropped precipitously following the end of the Cold War. According to the Tyndall Report, news reports from the foreign bureaus of ABC, CBS, and NBC has declined from 3,261 minutes in 1988 to 1,596 minutes in 1996--a 50 percent drop. Other reporting of foreign news by the networks has fallen from 3,914 minutes in 1998 to 2,270 minutes in 1996--a more than 40 percent drop.54 Together, the three networks have only 16 foreign bureaus staffed with correspondents; CNN has 23; the BBC has more than all four U.S. companies combined.55 A survey by the Joan Shorenstein Center showed a drop in time devoted to foreign news on network television from 45 percent in the 1970s to 13.5 percent by 1995.56 In 1987 the New Yorker ran a cartoon captioned: "Owing to cutbackes in the news department, here is Rod Ingram to guess at what happened today in a number of places around the globe."57
Print media do little better. Foreign news dropped from 10.2 percent of substantive newspaper content in 1971 to 6 percent in 1982 to less than 2 percent in 1998.58 California State University journalism professor Michael Emery found in 1989 found that only 2.6 percent of the non-advertising space in ten leading American newspapers was devoted to foreign news.59 Peter Arnett, Pulitzer Prize-winning former CNN international correspondent, writes in his essay, "Goodbye World," that:
International news coverage in most of America’s mainstream papers has almost reached the vanishing point. Today, a foreign story that doesn’t involve bombs, natural disasters or financial calamity has little chance of entering the American consciousness. This at a time when the United States has become the world’s lone superpower and "news" has so many venues--papers, magazines, broadcast and cable TV, radio, newsletters, the Internet--that it seems inescapable.60
Former New York Times editor Max Frankel has lamented: "USA Today, which proclaims itself a model for the future, normally devotes more space to the United States weather map than to all foreign news."61 From 1985 to 1995 the space devoted to international news by weekly news magazines declined from 24 percent to 14 percent in Time, from 22 percent to 12 percent in Newsweek, and 20 percent to 14 percent in U.S. News and World Report.62
Why is there such a decline? Many explanations have been advanced, including the high cost of covering foreign and international news, the increasing focus of media owners on generating profits, and the declining importance to U.S. audiences of events in foreign countries following the end of the Cold War. All of these, however, point to an underlying reality: the U.S. public is losing interest in non-U.S. news. A 1997 survey of 2,000 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that much of the public believes that foreign news is irrelevant to their lives. Sixty-one percent report that what happens in Western Europe is not important to their lives; 55 percent for Mexico, 61 percent for Asia, and 66 percent for Canada. Fifty-three percent support the expansion for NATO, but only 10 percent could name any one of the three nations (Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary) to be admitted.63
Circulation statistics bear out the survey’s findings. Time recently compiled lists of its ten best- and worst-selling covers since 1980. The worst-sellers included "Anguish Over Bosnia" (1993) and "Somalia: Restoring Hope" (1992). The only two foreign stories to make it on the best-seller list were the death of Princess Diana (which ranked twice, as the first and second best-selling covers) and the start of the Persian Gulf War (which ranked eighth on the list)--two dramatic events, one about a celebrity (Diana’s death also ranked first on People’s list of best-selling covers) and the other more American than foreign.64 The other weekly news magazines reflect a similar experience. Newsweek’s editor, Maynard Parker, reports that featuring a foreign subject on the magazine’s cover results in a 25 percent drop in newsstand sales. U.S. News & World Report editor Mortimer Zuckerman agrees: "The poorest-selling covers of the year are always those on international news."65
Joan Konner, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, sums up the problem this way:
There is a crisis in international news reporting in the United States--and not one that should simply be blamed on the reporters, the gatekeepers, or the owners. We know that there is stagnation, and even shrinkage, in the number of international stories in the media and the number of correspondents in the field for most U.S. media outlets. But the primary reason for this decline is an audience that expresses less and less interest in the international stories that do appear. What we’re increasingly missing, as a culture, is connective tissue to bind us to the rest of the world.66
The result is ironic, according to Edward Seaton, former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, because "today our readers are more engaged with the world than ever, yet our news columns seldom help them understand that world. If they read or hear about the world at all, they often see unconnected disasters that they learn to ignore--with confidence that they will go away--and come to view the world outside the United States as inexplicably complex and even dangerous."67
As a result of declining international reporting and declining public interest, important stories about humanitarian crises go unreported. In December 1998 Médecins sans Frontières issued its annual "‘Top Ten’ List of the Year’s Most Under-Reported Humanitarian Stories." The stories identified there affect millions of people--in many cases, threatening their very existence--but went largely unreported in the U.S. media. "There has been a precipitous drop in the quantity and quality of international news coverage in recent years," Joelle Tanguy, executive director of the U.S. office of Médecins sans Frontières, writes in the press release that accompanies the list. "Without adequate information, we lack the ability to form responsible personal and societal responses to events that affect many and may one day affect us."68
In 1998 major English-language newspapers devoted 95 stories to the December freeze which caused $600 million in damage to the California citrus crop, but only 20 to the drought and subsequent fires that killed 600 people and did $20 billion in damage in Indonesia. Hurricane Earl, which killed three people and caused $70 million in damage in Florida, was the subject of 459 stories, while the flooding in Bangladesh and China, which killed more than 5,000 people and caused over $30 billion in damage, was reported in only 277. The media devoted 5,060 stories to Hurricane Georges, which took 3 U.S. lives and caused $3-4 billion in damage in the Florida panhandle, but 2,980 to Hurricane Mitch, which killed approximately 11,000 people and caused $5 billion in property damage in Central America.69 This bears out the results of a study in the Journal of Communications showing that in terms of coverage of natural disasters, "[t]he world is prioritized so that the death of one Western European equaled three Eastern Europeans equaled 9 Latin Americans equaled 11 Middle Easterners equaled 12 Asians."70 Whatever the "CNN Effect," less coverage means that it simply has less opportunity to apply to non-U.S. disasters.
Moreover, the under-reporting of many important humanitarian stories is paralleled by the over-reporting or mis-reporting of others. "During the Kurdish emergencies," for example, Andrews Natsios, former director of the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, has written, "the Washington Post reported on epidemics that were not occurring and failed to report on those that were. Pressure was directed against OFDA for not responding to a meningitis epidemic in Kurdish refugee camps when, in fact, a cholera epidemic had broken out. . . ."71
Other features of the media may also contribute to a reduction in the "CNN Effect." For example, news is composed largely of negative stories, reflecting both the concept of news as the exceptional and the greater audience attraction of negative news. The old newsroom adage "if it bleeds, it leads" is surprisingly accurate. "A television news program has the capacity to deliver more images of violence, suffering, and death in a half hour then most people would normally view in a lifetime."72 This is particularly true of news about developing countries. Carole Zimmerman, director of public relations for the American Public Health Association, has commented: "Good news is too often considered not newsworthy. Bad news is not ‘news’ until it offers good visual images. Murder in a small town and its big-time equivalent war within or between nations, makes better news than a nutrition program that improves a million lives."73
The Third World and Environment Broadcasting Project reported in 1993 that two-thirds of mainstream international news coverage about developing countries concentrated on conflicts and disasters. As already discussed, the focus on tragedy has a demonstrable impact on policy makers and on the public. In his opening address to the 1994 World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction, Olavi Elo, then-secretary-general of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction Secretariat, stressed:
Societies are so overwhelmed by human emergencies, by human disasters, that we have halted in our tracks, as it were, on the road to progress and development, to stand helplessly by, paralyzed, watching so many human tragedies unravel before our eyes. We are not helped by how the priorities are perceived in the eyes of the media: human misery is far more news-worthy than a population that has been made safe and sound. In short, an earthquake or flood that does little or no damage is not news.74
Event-based coverage is often limited both by the time of each report (often to 30 or 60 seconds) and by the time that media will stay with a developing story (rarely longer than a few weeks). The media’s interest, like the public’s, is short-lived. Two-thirds of stories in major English-language newspapers about the Yangtze River flood in China in 1998 appeared in a one-month period: between August and September, coverage declined by more than 85 percent.75
As a result of short-lived interest, and reduced overseas assets, U.S. media most often cover humanitarian emergencies with what has become known as "parachute journalism." Veteran foreign correspondent Garrick Utley has written of a week in March 1978, when he was working for NBC News based in London. "On a Monday morning of a quiet news period, I had no plans to leave the city. By Saturday, I had covered South Moluccans seizing hostages in the Netherlands, the Israeli incursion to the Litani River in southern Lebanon, and the kidnaping of Prime Minister Aldo Moro in Rome, and had returned home--three stories in three countries on two continents in five days."76
Stephen Hess, author of International News and Foreign Correspondents, has described "parachutists" as "reporters of no fixed address whose expertise was in dropping in on people trying to slaughter each other. This was an economical system of new gathering and one guaranteed to make the world appear even more dangerous than it is."77 This type of coverage does not lend itself to understanding complex, complicated subjects, whether development or a banking scandal. And the issues of crisis prevention and mitigation, particularly when intertwined with development, are enormously complex and difficult to convey in brief news reports.
Consider media coverage of famine. Although not a primary feature of the developing world, famine is one of the topics from the developing world most widely reported by Western media. Yet the causes of famine are numerous, complex, and often develop over long periods of time. While news reports tend to focus on drought--certainly an important cause of famine--other significant causes include war, tribal conflict, civil unrest, poverty, unemployment, livestock loss, corruption, and government inefficiency. Famines are usually long-term processes, not events.78 Images like Kevin Carter’s, while capturing the public attention, inevitably focus that attention on one symptom rather than the myriad causes of the underlying condition. Most media are simply ill-equipped to deal with the often complex and ill-focused issues surrounding humanitarian crises.
Jane Harrigan, a reporter who was working temporarily in Kobe, Japan, when earthquakes struck in January 1994, has written about the media’s short-lived interest in this major natural disaster:
When the shaking stopped and the fires were extinguished, the media moved on to the next disaster. In doing so they missed two years’ worth of good stories--not just about the suffering that continued long after the cameras blinked off, but about the ways in which the earthquake laid bare the strengths and weaknesses of the Japanese system.
How relief money was allocated, how officials balanced commercial needs with human needs, how a hierarchy based on inflexible rules withstood the test of extraordinary times--all these things could have provided rare insights into a complex culture. The earthquake’s aftermath opened fissures of light in the dark mass of secrets that is Japan. But few reporters stuck around long enough to explore them.79
It is also important not to overlook the impact of covering humanitarian stories on the people who report them. There is no dispute but that covering humanitarian crises exacts a tremendous toll on journalists, photographers, and others involved in the process, just as providing that assistance in such crises challenges relief workers. Two days after Kevin Carter’s death, his father told the South African Press Association: "Kevin always carried around the horror of the work he did."80 Carter himself once described his thinking while photographing a shoot-out: "I had to think visually. I am zooming in on a tight shot of the dead guy and a splash of red. Going into his khaki uniform in a pool of blood in the sand. The dead man’s face is slightly gray. You are making a visual here. But inside something is screaming, ‘My God.’ But it is time to work. Deal with the rest later. If you can’t do it, get out of the game."81
American photojournalist James Nachtwey agrees: "Every photographer who has been involved in these stories has been affected. You become changed forever. Nobody does this kind of work to make themselves feel good. It is very hard to continue."82
The words of Jim Wooten, senior foreign correspondent for ABC News, about his experience covering the exodus of Rwandan refugees into Zaire, speak more eloquently than could any researcher’s analysis of the issues, and they conjure up what Kevin Carter might have felt on his trip to Sudan:
We landed in mid-morning, schlepped our gear across the tarmac, strolled to the airport fence--and watched a little girl die. She was about six years old but so wasted from cholera it was hard to tell. Her mother laid her beside the road, knelt to touch her one last time, then lifted her face and fists to the African sky and screamed.
This was my introduction to a week of reporting on the exodus of nearly a million refugees from the horrors of Rwanda to the hell of Zaire: ten thousand minutes of my life, each soaked in death, all coagulating into a reality that would penetrate every defense I’d ever devised against personal involvement in a story.
. . . .
. . . . In the wee hours of that first night, bone-tired but sleepless, I crawled from our tent and watched a huge moon leap straight up out from Rwanda, and saw in silhouette against its ivory light an endless line of refugees still trudging past, shambling along beyond the fence, headed north on the airport road. I listened for some time to the scrape of their bare feet against the macadam, to their coughing and their snuffling and the crying of the children cradled in their arms or swaddled on their backs, and for the first time ever on assignment, I wept."83
"It’s one of the hardest things about being a journalist in places where so many people are dying and begging for help," Paul Watson, who for two an done-half years was bureau chief of the Toronto Star’s Johannesburg bureau, has written about the challenge that journalists face of not becoming personally involved. "Soldiers are trained to kill, doctors to save lives. But journalists are supposed to stand and watch so that the rest of the world might see."84
"It’s the eternal dilemma for journalists--do you just record what’s going on or do you get involved as well?" comments Chris Marais, a friend and colleague of Kevin Carter. "The criticism devastated Kevin. Few people knew how badly the Sudan had affected him. Just in the small area where he’‘ been working, people were dying at the rate of 20 an hour and he was there to compose pictures of those grisly scenes."
"What should he have done?," Marais asks? "Helped one person and not all the others? That decision is up to the individual. But I don’t think it should be expected of a photographer to change the social flow of what’s going on in front of him. If the publication of his pictures changes the flow, that’s another matter, that’s part of his job." Moreover, he adds, "all the journalists in that area had been instructed by the UN not to touch the local people because of the risk of disease."85
4. The Media Market
Many people, especially those involved in humanitarian relief, ask: "Why doesn’t the media do better?" There are a number of answers, almost all of which ultimately focus on the growing focus on profit and the resulting competition viewers, listeners, and readers. New models of media ownership and new expectation of media profits are clearly changing the content of the news and the quest for relevant, important news stories. Seymour Topping, former managing editor of the New York Times, believes that the "great threat today to intelligent coverage of foreign news is not so much a lack of interest as it is a concentration of ownership that is profit-driven and a lack of inclination to meet responsibilities, except that of the bottom line."86 The Walt Disney Company owns Cities/ABC, Westinghouse owns CBS, and General Electric owns NBC: it should not be surprising if these new corporate giants are more focused than their predecessors on generating profits by providing consumers with exactly what they want. Former NBC News president Reuven Frank wrote in his autobiography that, "[l]ike all American companies and later than most, broadcasting had moved from supplying customers to maximizing stock prices and their managers’ bonuses."87
Bill Buzenberg, author of Salant, CBS and the Battle for the Soul of Broadcast Journalism, has argued that prior to being acquired by Westinghouse, CBS "believed that news was the crown jewel and they protected it and they invested in it and they support it and they didn’t expect it to make money." Today, however, the networks are "much bigger and sport-oriented . . . and news is just a blip to them, and a blip that should make money."88
The corporatization of media is not limited to television. The 1980s witnessed a staggering growth in the profitability of American newspapers. The New York Times Company in 1975 posted earnings of less than $13 million; for 1989 the company reported a profit of $266 million; and for 1998 $521 million. The Washington Post Company’s profits rose from $12 million in 1975 to $197 million in 1989 to $417 million in 1998.89 Not surprisingly, owners began to view news outlets as money-makers and expectations rose along with profits. Edward Seaton, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, writes: "Most U.S. newspapers today are driven by the need to keep their ownerships’ stock up. If news helps the newspaper’s bottom line, it tends to be the lead story."90
Moreover, established news media face unparalleled competition from a rapidly expanding array of cable channels, satellite television, and the Internet for scarce viewer dollars. "Fear runs strong in every newsroom in the country," according to Dan Rather, "that if we don’t do it, somebody else will, and when they do it, they will get a few more readers, a few more listeners, a few more viewers than we do."91 The news has become "arms of the entertainment industry," according to "60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt92
As a result of what Rather has called "an obsession with ratings and profits," the perceptions that the public isn’t interested in international news, won’t sit through long stories, is looking for something lighter and more immediately relevant play an even greater role than ever before in influencing editors’ decision making.93 Why should the media feature stories about which the public doesn’t care? And certainly one feature of the media during the past decade has been a demonstrable increase in "consumer-driven journalism" both in print and broadcast. "Late sports scores, better weather forecasts, health and life-style tips, these are what are promoted," Foreign Affairs editor James F. Hoge, Jr., has written.94 As a result of perceived public demand, news in the United States increasingly focuses on celebrities, human interest stories, and practical information, while reducing hard news to fewer and shorter segments. This "Hollywoodization" of news, as Dan Rather has called it, "is deep and abiding."95 Washington Post media critic, Howard Kurtz, author of Media Circus: The Trouble With America’s Newspapers, offers these examples of what he calls "low-calorie journalism:"
There are car columns, health columns, gossip columns, advice columns, lawyers’ columns, computer columns, photography columns, gardening columns, men’s columns, women’s columns, fishing columns, finance columns. There are parenting tips, survival tips, pet tips, dining tips, shopping tips, travel tips. There are sections called Rumpus, You, Sunday Brunch, Almost the Weekend, High Style, Home, View, Scene, Tempo, KidNews, WomenWise, Living, Life, Yo, and Yo! Info!96
The concern is not about any one of these features. Rather, Kurtz writes, "the cumulative effect of these changes is often to de-emphasize news and replace it with a feel-good product that is more frivolous, less demanding. . . . [T]oo many newspapers have gone into the entertainment business, dismissing serious reporting as a luxury they can no longer afford."97
Interactive media, discussed below, are only increasing the consumer’s capacity to choose and decreasing the media’s ability to, in the words of CNN world affairs correspondent Ralph Beigleiter, "grab you by the lapels and say, ‘You may not know where Bosnia is, but here is why you ought to know.’"98
The commercialization of the news also explains a new and disconcerting use of startling images like Kevin Carter’s: to sell papers and attract viewers, preferably viewers with the right demographic profile. The commodification of suffering is not new, but it plays an increasingly important role in attracting the public’s attention in an environment in which that attention is short-lived and distracted by a wide array of alternatives. In short, the media are finding themselves trapped between the public’s declining interest in international affairs and their owner’s concerns about rising costs, profit margins, and the existence of competitors which give meaning to the threat of consumers looking elsewhere to satisfy their appetites.
5. The "CNN Effect" and Public Understanding
Limited, negative, short-term media reports inevitably tend to misinform, distort, and misfocus attention. Accuracy is one of the most important concerns about media reports, particularly when distance and time constraints combine to reduce the opportunity for first-hand evaluation and thorough fact-checking. Consider the earthquake that struck western India in 1993. On September 30, only hours after the worst earthquake in India in 50 years, a New York Times headline reported "1,000 Feared Dead."99 By the following day, the government-controlled Press Trust of India was reporting 6,500 deaths; India state television said 10,000; and local police estimates ran as high as 12,000 fatalities. USA Today, however, led with the headline "16,000 feared dead in India."100 By October 3, the New York Times even reported an estimate by one "senior foreign aid official" that as many as 50,000 lives had been lost.101 The next day estimates of the death toll were beginning to fall. And by October 6, the New York Times reported that the official estimate has been lowered to "fewer than 10,000"--the final death toll--while still offering "unofficial estimates . . . as high as 30,000."102
Three days after Hurricane Mitch struck Honduras, ABC’s "Nightline" reported that "thousand of bridges have been washed away." A subsequent survey by the U.S. military counted 170.103 This distorted information compromises public confidence and the ability of government and the public to formulate rational, appropriate responses. Relief workers offer no shortage of stories of media-motivated generosity gone awry--what U.N. relief expediter Abdou Dieng calls "the disaster after the disaster:" tons of unneeded clothes donated for Hurricane Mitch survivors; wasted and spoiled pharmaceuticals, more than five acres’ of clothes and other supplies sent in response to Hurricane Andrew burned or buried.104
Problems with accuracy are not unique to the media. Governments and agencies also offer erroneous information, sometimes deliberately in an effort to manipulate media, public, and government responses. "In the rivalry to get on television," Susan Moeller writes, relief groups operating in Rwanda and eastern Zaire in 1996, "released projections that were little more than speculation about the scope of the crisis across the border."105 The Chinese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department provided detailed instructions to local government officials, including a prohibition on negative reports, about what information to provide reporters covering the 1998 Yangtze River flood.106 The Chinese government has been accused of initially under-reporting and later over-reporting casualties following the flood. Similar charges were leveled at Chinese officials in 1994, after a Swiss medical team found a village that government officials reported had been "swept away" by flood waters completely untouched.107 Honduran President Carlos Flores reportedly "grossly exaggerated" the damage caused to his country by Hurricane Mitch to attract media attention and relief efforts.108
Even where news reports are accurate, they may distort or mislead, thereby undermining public and government confidence in the medium. In a series of meetings in 1993 examining the effects of media coverage of humanitarian relief efforts, senior officials from leading humanitarian relief and media organizations examined the impact of coverage of humanitarian relief operations. According to the project’s final report:
Much of the public throughout the industrialized world shares an image of developing countries that is incomplete and inaccurate. The efforts of the media to alert the public and report the news accurately and promptly, and of relief organizations to motivate public and governmental support and save human lives, inadvertently contribute to this image. Because western audiences often lack knowledge of developing countries, reports of exceptional events, such as famines or floods, may foster misimpressions of the developing world.109
Surveys suggest that these impressions are widespread and dramatic. For example, a 1993 World Vision UK public opinion survey concluded that the "public has a grossly distorted view of the Third World."110 Fewer than half of all respondents knew that loan repayments from developing countries exceed the aid they receive from more developed countries to the West and North.
Causes of these misimpressions are not difficult to identify. Most news media report the extraordinary, not the ordinary. As Peter Adamson, author of the annual Progress of Nations and State of the World’s Children reports, has noted:
From our own everyday experience we know that what appears on the news--the crimes, the deaths, the rapes, the motorway accidents, etc.--do not represent the norms of our societies; we know they are exceptions to daily life. That is what makes them news. When we take them on board, we do so against the ballast of our own everyday experience and knowledge of life in our own societies.
But when it comes to the developing world, most of the public have no personal experience; they have not been to the developing world. They have no ballast--no equivalent sense of the norms, the unexceptional aspects of life in the developing world--to set against the constant reporting of the exceptional.111
African historian Roland Oliver has written that "we are presented only with civil war, famine and AIDS, with the same or similar pictures used over and over again. It is not that the scenes depicted are untrue. It is that they represent such a small part of the truth."112
Most media report on "news" events, not issues or slow-developing processes. Particularly with increased reliance on television news sources, the dramatic story with compelling video about a specific event is the mainstay of Western news. Many times the links between important information and stories that appear "newsworthy" in the eyes of the media and the public are difficult to establish, as suggested by a 1994 Food and Agriculture Organization report. "When images of tortured starving faces and the bloated bellies of dying children lead the nightly news, the world rushes food and assistance to the hungry. As the food aid arrives, it feeds the news as well as the starving." Despite the impression of many Western observers that Africa is "a continent of recurring famine," the FAO report continued, it is drought, not famine, that is Africa’s "principal natural disaster. . . . Famine is not the necessary outcome of drought. There are proven strategies to reduce the effects of drought and prevent even the most vulnerable populations from starving." In 1992, for example, 12 southern African countries were hit by a drought that caused greater crop failure than Ethiopia, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa faced in 1984-85. But a rapid response by the countries involved, as well as international organizations such as the FAO, prevented that drought from causing famine. "The unprecedented early response prevented a famine and as such a major news story." What went largely unreported, the FAO concluded, was the "story about millions who could have died but did not."113
Finally, powerful media images themselves--like Kevin Carter’s--may help contribute to the public’s misunderstanding of humanitarian crises. Anthropologists Arthur and Jean Kleinman write: "But what of the horrors experienced by the little Sudanese girl, who is given neither a name nor a local moral world?"
Suffering is presented as if it existed free of local people and local worlds. The child is alone. This, of course, is not the way that disasters, illnesses, and deaths are usually dealt with in African or other non-Western societies, or, for that matter, in the West. Yet, the image of famine is culturally represented in an ideologically Western mode: it becomes the experience of a lone individual. The next step, naturally, is to assume that there are no local institutions or programs. That assumption almost invariably leads to the development of regional or national policies that are imposed on local worlds. When those localities end up resisting or not complying with policies and programs that are meant to assist them, such acts are then labeled irrational or self-destructive. The local world is deemed incompetent, or worse.114
We face a catch-22: the public’s attention is more likely to be caught be dramatic images than be detailed news analyses. Yet no image, no matter its force, is capable of making us understand the complexity and impact of a humanitarian crisis.
6. Media Diversity and Alternatives
Finally, although virtually all discussions of the "CNN Effect," including this one, refer to "the media" as a monolith, this phrase ignores the significant variety of media forms, content, economics, and norms of behavior. For example, mass media include broadcast, cable, and satellite television, radio, newspapers, magazines, among other forms. The United States today has 1,600 daily newspapers, more than 7,000 weeklies, 11,000 journals and magazines, 1,200 television stations, and 10,000 radio stations.115 Each of these media carry, to varying degrees, news ("hard" and "soft"), features, advertisements or other commercially supported content, editorials, opinion pieces, and the like. These diverse forms of content may be produced by the many owners of specific outlets (a particular network or newspaper or magazine)--through full- or part-time employees, stringers, freelancers, or others--or by some other organization altogether (a wire service, production company, public relations firm, or other concern). The great complexity and diversity of this matrix of media forms, outlets, and voices explains the nearly universal practice of discussing "the media."
Moreover, the past decade has witnessed an explosion in digital media, largely through the Internet and the World Wide Web, which are offering still more ways of gathering and disseminating information. First made available to the public in 1992, the Web is used today by more than 147 million people and continues expanding at approximately 30 percent per year.116 Beginning in 1996, U.S. consumers purchase more computers each year than televisions.117 The Internet now carries 25 times more mail just within the United States each day than the U.S. Post Office. The Electronic Messaging Association reports that about 4 trillion e-mails were received in the United States in 1998, double the number one year earlier.118 And, although created in the United States, the Internet is no longer a domestic innovation: 205 countries are currently connected to the Internet and Finland, Norway, and Iceland all have higher per capita percentages of Internet users than the United States.119
The established mass media have reason to worry about this powerful new technology. A 1998 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that 25 percent of the public went online each day, just slightly less than the 29% who report reading a magazine. One-fifth of American report turning to the Web for news at least once a week, up from only 6 percent two years earlier. Of those who use the Internet for news, 41 percent report they are looking for international news.120 In this digital world, M.I.T.’s Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte has said, "the medium is no longer the message--the message is the message."121 And while debate rages in the academic an online community about the future role of intermediaries--like the press--it seems clear that some form of change is on the horizon.
Much of this article has focused on the institutionalized media--the press. However, as this brief discussion makes clear, there are many other media venues for politicians, government agencies, and private organizations to use to build or undermine support for a proposed humanitarian action and raise money and other resources from the public. As a result, government and private organizations alike are increasingly turning to mass media and alternative communications technologies--including the World Wide Web--to get their messages out.
These non-mediated communications with the public, however, also pose serious issues. In addition to the financial resources and expertise required for effective communications, agency-sponsored communications may distort public perceptions. Many relief organizations compete against each other and against other issues and institutions for public support. To attract and maintain that support, organizations seek to draw attention to themselves and to the needs of the developing world. Repeated research has shown that audiences respond most to, and remember most about, images that evoke anger, followed by those that evoke fear and disgust.122 Relief organizations therefore have a considerable incentive, like the media, to stress negative news about developing countries; to focus on single, dramatic events, like disasters; to suggest simplistic solutions (e.g., give money); and to exaggerate the role of Western aid and minimize the importance of indigenous relief efforts.
Consider this report from Peter Adamson, speaking to a meeting of UNICEF’s National Committees:
Some of you may have seen the recent series of advertisements for the Save the Children Fund. These advertisements state, in a headline, that "13,000 children die every day from dehydration--your 20 cents can save this life."
If that were true, then all 13,000 of those daily deaths could be prevented for 13,000 times 20 cents--about $2,500--far less than the cost of this meeting. The annual cost of preventing all dehydration deaths--a third of all child deaths in the world each year--would be about one million dollars, far less than the cost of the State of the World’s Children report.
What are we saying to the public? They too can do these sums. And eventually, I am sure, cynicism will set in and we will simply not be believed--nor will we deserve to be. For, with the best intentions in the world, we are not telling the truth.123
In sum, the simple syllogism that if the public knows, then there will be action is no more straightforward or true in the context of direct communications with the public, than it is when CNN reports. And the capacity to misinform, to decontextualize, and to dull public attention is just as great
The "CNN Effect," the Vulture, the Girl, and the Photographer
The debate over Kevin Carter’s "Starving Sudanese Child" and the issues it has come to represent continues to rage. "The four horsemen are up and away," Germaine Greer wrote in the Guardian less than a month after Carter’s death, "with the press corps stumbling along behind. The media are involved in a revolting orgy . . . . Dying children are slung on the scales so that a photographer can get a cover shot, and maybe a Pulitzer, by clicking the shutter at the very instant the small heart stops."124
But the reality, as one would expect, is far more complicated. In its coverage of Carter’s Pulitzer Prize, the St. Petersburg Times ran an article by Reena Shah Stamets, which attempted to address the question of Carter’s inaction:
To many who see the picture, there is only one way to respond to such a tragedy: Go, pick up the girl, make sure she’s safe, make sure she’s fed. Otherwise, the man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene.125
However, Stamets goes on not to defend Carter, but to offer a different perspective on his failure to help the child.
Flash back to the news we were watching at the time Carter shot the picture. Then, American attention was focused on Somalia, where the Marines had landed a few months earlier. There were scenes of emaciated children finally being fed, of smiling Marines handing out candy to excited children.
In neighboring Sudan, famine has visited regularly for the past 10 years, almost as though it were another season. War has made it impossible for people to grow their own food or get food aid.
For the past decade, Sudan’s Arab government has waged a campaign to kill or convert southerners--who are black and Christian. They have made the country a fortress, keeping out foreign aid workers and journalists so the south is starved into submission.
Africa’s other civil wars, publicized by journalists, have kept the United Nations and international aid workers busy elsewhere. Hardly anyone has taken notice of Sudan.
Kevin Carter’s callous pause on that plain made us look. And it held us.126
Arthur and Jean Kleinman have put it this way:
Kevin Carter’s career is as much a story of courage and professionalism as it is a tale of moral failure. Moreover, the photograph he created provided political testimony and drove people to act. Photojournalists, like Kevin Carter, contribute to a global humanitarian effort to prevent silence. That is a considerable contribution.127
But did it?--did this image of the vulture and the child drive people to act, did it prevent silence about the devastation in Sudan, did it hold us? And would it today?
There is no doubt that the media exercise enormous influence in informing the public and thereby informing public debate and in creating pressure for action. What the past decade’s experiences with humanitarian crises tell us, and what the volume of recent research questioning the "CNN Effect" has demonstrated, is that the media’s influence is not as direct or certain as initially thought. The media not only influences, it is influenced by many constituencies, including the public (whose viewership and readership it is competing for more aggressive than ever before), relief organizations, and the government. Moreover, the media’s influence is also affected by pressures within media industries to reduce costs, avoid risking assets or personnel in dangerous situation, make the news more entertaining and therefore more marketable, and generate profits. The media’s influence is weakened--particularly in the area of humanitarian policymaking and response--by its own and others’ past practice of relentlessly inundating the public with images and stories of hopelessness and despair. This is particularly true the longer lasting, slower developing, and more complicated a humanitarian crisis or actions necessary to resolve that crisis. And the media’s influence can be resisted, and in some cases countered, when government policy is clearly defined and communicated.
Twenty years ago, George Gerber, former dean of the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, said: "If you can write a nation’s stories, you needn’t worry about who makes its laws."128 For years, many of us have thought that Gerbner was right. In the decade following Vietnam and Watergate, when the vast majority of Americans joined together each night to watch Walter Cronkite tell us the way it was, many believed that the power of the media--the nation’s storytellers-- had eclipsed that of any other institution. Today, there is ample reason to doubt whether that is true.
Moreover, there is equally good reason, however great the media’s agenda-setting power, to be concerned about what we are being told to think about and about the public’s capacity to think and act responsibly about the forces affecting our planet.
I vividly recall first encountering Kevin Carter’s photograph in the April 5, 1993, issue of Time. I was so struck by the picture, that I tore the page from the magazine; I still have it. Later that year, when I was working on a project about media images of the developing world, I mentioned the photograph to a small group of senior relief and media leaders and expressed my surprise that the photographer had left the little girl in the field. "That’s nothing," a senior Red Cross official responded. "I wouldn’t have been surprised if the photographer hadn’t dragged the child into the field in the first place to get a better shot."
That cynicism, although perhaps misplaced in this specific incident, may be growing increasing applicable to media coverage of humanitarian crises more broadly. As Arthur and Joan Kleinman have written:
Images of suffering are appropriated to appeal emotionally and morally both to global audiences and to local populations. Indeed, those images have become an important part of the media. As "infotainment" on the nightly news, images of victims are commercialized; they are taken up into processes of global marketing and business competition.129
Today, the saga of Kevin Carter is the subject of a song by The Manic Street Preachers. It is being made into a motion picture, "The Bang Bang Club," produced and directed by Emelio Estevez. It wouldn’t be surprising if the "Starving Sudanese Child" showed up on t-shirts as part of a marketing package. "Maybe pictures like the one of the starving Sudanese girl," Reena Shah Stamets writes, "tell us more about ourselves as citizens of the world than they do about the indifference of a single photographer. The Sudanese girl would not get a second look from most of us had she been alone in a tiny photograph. She would look emaciated, no different from thousands of others.
"The vulture landing near her made us hold our breath."130
- updated 8/26/99