By Fred H. Cate*Humanitarian Affairs Review
Observers often argue that public support for foreign relief activities is directly in proportion to the amount of media coverage given to specific emergencies. These days, few humanitarian crises seem to produce a public response unless they have first attracted the attention of the press and television - the so-called "CNN effect". Bernard Kouchner -- a former health minister of France and first U.N. governor of Kosovo from June 1999 until January 2001 -- has been quoted as saying: "Where there is no camera, there is no humanitarian intervention."
But leaders in the international humanitarian relief community often bemoan the perceived power of the press. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has referred to CNN as the "sixteenth member of the Security Council." He said: "The member states never take action on a problem unless the media take up the case. When the media gets involved, public opinion is aroused. Public emotion is so intense that United Nations work is undermined and constructive statesmanship is almost impossible."
Images of human suffering can also desensitise audiences. As Marshall McLuhan commented more than 30 years ago, "The price of eternal vigilance is indifference." This seems especially true in the context of humanitarian crises, where most people lack a framework in which to place stark images of suffering, death, and destruction. The flood of these images not only desensitises the public, it can also distort policymakers' perceptions of humanitarian crises and their causes.
One problem is that the press focuses on "news" events, not on issues or slow-developing processes. News is composed largely of negative stories, particularly when it concerns developing countries; the Third World and Environment Broadcasting Project reports that two-thirds of mainstream international news coverage is now concentrated on conflicts and disasters.
What's more, the media sometimes uses dramatic images to attract an audience, whether or not they are relevant to the story.
To save money, Western press organisations have closed foreign bureaus and have reduced coverage of non-Western news by 75% or more over the past three decades. As a result, the public in many Western countries is astonishingly ignorant about life in other parts of the world, particularly about the causes of humanitarian emergencies and the practical tools for preventing and mitigating them.
Complicity of relief organisations
However, the media is not the only cause of these problems. Increasingly, relief organisations find themselves competing between themselves or with others for public support. Motivated by the best of intentions, they fight for the attention of the press and of the public, believing that it will make the difference between life and death for the people they serve.
Relief organisations, therefore, have a considerable incentive to stress negative news about developing countries. They too use eye-catching photos revealing suffering, focus on single, dramatic events, like disasters and wars and suggest simplistic and often unrealistic solutions. They may also exaggerate the role of Western aid and overlook the importance of indigenous relief efforts.
The relief community has already taken steps to combat these communications problems, but more can be done. First of all, it is important to recognise that the so-called "CNN effect" is not as clear-cut as many people think. This is not to suggest that the press is not powerful, but rather that the relationship between press coverage and humanitarian relief activities is complex and the power of media images to motivate action has been exaggerated. For example, many government and public activities attributed to press coverage were in fact underway well before media images were published. There are also numerous examples where news reports and dramatic stories have not resulted in humanitarian intervention.
Codes of conduct
Humanitarian relief organisations also need to adopt standards for handling communications with the public and the press. Some of the larger agencies have already done this. In 1994, six of the world's largest humanitarian groups joined with the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to adopt a code of conduct. Under this code, adherents agree to recognise disaster victims as "dignified human beings, not hopeless objects" in their information, publicity and advertising activities.
InterAction, a membership association of US relief organisations, also requires its members to "respect the dignity, values, history, religion, and culture of the people served by the programmes and neither minimise nor overstate the human and material needs of those whom it assists.
Save the Children UK says: "The images and text used in all communications must be accurate and should avoid stereotypes and clichés. Wherever possible, the views and experiences of the people involved should be communicated."
Many relief organisations have now made their communications strategies public. But it is also important to develop working relationships with the press before humanitarian emergencies and maintain them afterwards in an effort to draw attention to broader issues. Most importantly, information supplied to the press needs to be reliable and not overstate the scope of humanitarian crises.
Relief organisations should also evaluate media coverage for accuracy, quality, completeness, timeliness, and professionalism. They should recognise good coverage and correct inaccuracies through direct contact with the media. To raise awareness about media coverage, since 1998 Médecins sans Frontií¨res has issued an annual "'Top Ten' List of the Year's Most Under-Reported Humanitarian Stories," which is often reported by the press.
These strategies are not a panacea, but they reflect the fact that just as the power of the press to prompt public and government responses to humanitarian emergencies is not as great as once thought, the capacity of relief organisations to misinform and to dull public attention is very considerable.
Fred H. Cate is a professor of law at the Indiana University School of Law and a senior policy advisor to the Hunton & Williams Centers for Information Policy Leadership. He is also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of many publications on the media and emergencies.
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