Intervening in Humanitarian Crises
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the perceived lack of foreign
policy purpose in the latter days of the Bush administration
and the early days of the Clinton, there are those who say the
media drive foreign policy.
There seems to be a developing consensus that
the paramount post-cold-war foreign policy task for the developed
nations is to create principled and consistent criteria for intervention
in developing world humanitarian crises, as politically induced
famines and epidemics as well as some civil wars have come to
The clearest instance is surely Somalia, where
one can make a case that Bush felt compelled to get us in, despite
his often-expressed misgivings about trying to save the world,
because of pictures of starving children; just as Clinton felt
compelled to get us out, against his avowed humanitarian agenda,
because of pictures of the defiled corpses of US Marines.
Can we come up with any non-impressionistic,
"scientific" understanding of how media influence foreign
policy as it impacts humanitarian crises?
We would first have to define in a careful
way exactly what constitutes the media that report on foreign
affairs to the public at large and then analyze the constant
characteristics, if any, of their coverage.
This is precisely what Stephen Hess does in
the latest of his masterly Newswork series for Brookings.
Hess derived his conclusions and interpretations
from exhaustive and painstaking research. It drew on interviews
with 404 foreign correspondents from a universe of 1500 in 1992;
additional interviews with 370 former correspondents; site visits
to 12 bureaus in foreign countries and 12 foreign desks in the
Hess and his helpers at Brookings then did
a content analysis of 24000 foreign datelined stories appearing
in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Los
Angeles Times in the period 1989-1991; Newsweek and
Time for 1978, 1989; Associated Press in 1989;
or broadcast on ABC, NBC, CBS evening news programs for 1978,
in the period 1988-92; and on CNN in 1992.
If the media influence foreign policy it is
generally not because of stirring up grassroots pressure from
the populace at large. Hess found out that 99% of foreign news
is in newspapers with only 20% of US circulation. Meet the
Press on NBC, Face the Nation on CBS and This Week
with David Brinkley on ABC interviewed 14 foreign figures,
most of them officials, out of a total of 401 guests.
Most papers do not even use the foreign news
they have paid news services to deliver to them. This may be
because most local wire editors are ill-traveled and because
smaller papers which rely on such services have at times a reverse
snobbery against the big time like the Times and the Washington
Post. In effect, this makes the AP, the dowager of conventional
hard news reporting, the gatekeeper of most foreign news outside
the major national dailies.
What kind of people are full-time Foreign
Correspondents? Two thirds of them had professional parents.
Half of them had such parents and also went to elite colleges.
This argues for an elitist view of the world which tallies with
standard studies of class influence on journalists' attitudes
Although in fairness one must take note of
the very brave and enterprizing correspondents who place themselves
in harm's way and have even been killed [Bosnia has proved particularly deadly]
in going for stories of complexity and depth, as well documented
by the Committee to Protect Journalists, by and large, the majority
of foreign correspondents cover what is easy and what is of interest
to a domestic constituency. Thus, although the Middle East has
only 5% of the world's population and only 3% of its aggregated
gross national products, it provides 35% of foreign news, most
of it involving Israel, which is the size of Delaware with the
population of Chicago. Israel provides services for correspondents,
including translators and help with travel, food, and lodging.
In Africa, rarely are any of these aids present and there is
often actual lack of viable transportation and very real danger
to life and limb due to pervasive lawlessness and brigandage.
There is thus little news reported from Africa, despite the high
volume of combat and violence, favored categories of foreign
news. The massive catastrophe of Rwanda-Zaire gets noticed, but
hot spots like Liberia, Sudan, Kenya, and Nigeria are relatively
Full-time foreign correspondents are rarely
area specialists; they are crisis specialists who "parachute
in." Thus the content of foreign news is overwhelmingly
that of military combat and civil war followed by human rights
as a distant second. Most humanitarian crises involve both combat
and human rights. The area specialists tend to be part-timers,
often foreign themselves, spouses of those with foreign posts
in various fields, with a higher proportion of women. But they
only account for 15% of all foreign correspondents and for even
less of the stories published - about 5%.
Given these characteristics of media reporting
on foreign affairs and particularly on humanitarian crises which
these days make up the bulk of such reporting, how are we to
understand the policy process in these instances?
There are a number of helpful books and conference
reports that help establish a typology of different humanitarian
crises and thus promote distinctly appropriate and realistic
criteria for intervention - foreign policies, in short. In so
doing, the few reviewed here also get down to practical advice
for the actual interveners on site.
The News Media, Civil War, & Humanitarian
Action put together by Thomas G. Weiss
with Larry Minear and Colin Scott is a brilliant condensation
of just about all the pertinent information anyone would need
to know about the extent and nature of humanitarian crises, complete
with case studies and a typology of crises. Its principle of
organization is what the authors term the crisis triangle of
media, NGOs, and governments interacting over any given humanitarian
crisis. It also is intended to serve as a primer for relief organizations
in dealing with the media from a sophisticated understanding
of the media's own organizational and professional agenda.
This concise and authoritative primer is the
distillation of the work of the Humanitarianism and War Project
of the Thomas J. Watson, Jr., Institute for International Studies
at Brown University, for which its officers and supporters are
to be commended. Weiss is the associate director of the Institute.
It is of interest that Weiss et al.
take the viewpoint of the relief and aid organizations and see
the media as potential allies or hindrances in helping them to
help others by raising funds, firing up public support, and pushing
governments to cooperate. They ignore the presumably primary
task of the media to inform the world public accurately and dispassionately
of exactly just what is going on.
They note the great advances in technology,
such as satellite phones, light portable audio-video, and laptop
computers with fax-modems, which push more instant, if not more
thoughtful, coverage. They also speak of "the CNN factor",
referring to CNN's global distribution and coverage and its oft
noted indispensability for world leaders as an independent source
Hess' more thorough analysis indicates that
CNN does devote more hours to international news than other media
and at times is more immediate, but in general CNN follows the
established media norms for what constitutes "a story"
and covers it in about the same way. My own studies indicate
that countries with far fewer intelligence assets than the USG
do indeed depend on CNN for some news. Pace Colin Powell
and George Bush, it defies credence that federal officials outside
of public relations concerns would rely on CNN at all. The famed
pictures from the Baghdad hotel room by the entrapped CNN correspondents
was a great "actual" of what it is like to be stuck
in a hotel room while a major air offensive is going on outside,
but is utterly useless as a source of reliable information about
the success or failure, nature and extent of the actual raid.
And Colin Powell and George Bush know this very well, appreciating
what a great "infomercial" the footage was for Pentagon
From Massacres to Genocide: The Media,
Public Policy, and Humanitarian Crises
is a more expansive and discursive discussion of much the same
line of country, being a compilation of papers delivered at a
1994 conclave convened by the Humanitarian and War Project named
above in concert with the World Peace Foundation, directed by
Robert I. Rotberg, who also serves as a research associate at
Harvard's Institute for International Development and a professor
at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Rotberg co-edited
this collection with the aforementioned Thomas G. Weiss.
The editors see the conclave, which drew two
thirds of its participants from the USG, NGO's, and the academy
with the remaining third from the professional media, as a resource
for coming up with ideas to improve what they perceive as "capricious
and episodic" coverage of humanitarian crises. As part of
this problem they see the need of the actors (the old triangle
again) to communicate clearly and effectively among themselves.
The CNN factor resurfaces, but more as a sort of shorthand for
influential capricious and episodic coverage, whatever
Of the nine papers, it would seem no accident
that only one is by a journalist, and he not associated with
any of the major international media. Edward R. Girardet is an
outstanding independent journalist in both print and other media
who is currently editor of Crosslines Global Report, a
resource for all the actors, including the media, to understand
the roles of their sometime rivals and sometime collaborators.
Girardet offers an insider's critique of the institutional shortcomings
of the media, not least the Big Foot syndrome of celebrity television
journaloid personalities parachuting in to give star quality
to dramatic footage of ill-comprehended complex humanitarian
crises. He supports and commends efforts such as the new International
Centre for Humanitarian Reporting based in Geneva.
Peter Shiras, a career NGO relief and development
officer, currently head of press and government relations for
InterAction, a coalition of 150 US-based NGOs specializing in
relief and development, gives a thorough rundown of what he calls
the Humanitarian Response System, from the UN to the International
Red Cross to indigenous relief agencies. He sees a failure to
utilize and consult the latter as a major cause of the principal
obstacle to effective crises handling: incomprehension of its
multi-faceted nature and local peculiarities.
Shiras strongly urges every NGO to have a
spelled-out media strategy and to produce a Media Field Guide
for every theater of its operations, tasks that his current position
would understandably entail.
Andrew Natsias, vice-president for relief
and development at World/Vision, is a distinguished career military
and USG officer who sees things from firmly within the Beltway.
For him, local understanding of the complexity of any humanitarian
crisis is correctly provided by USG personnel on the ground,
principally the American Ambassador. Using the chain of command,
these career officers can mobilize relief assistance where it
will do the most good. The media are no more than a distracting
nuisance in this operation of professionals among professionals,
unless there is no inside-the-Beltway motivation for US involvement,
allegedly because no vital US interests are involved. He offers
convincing examples of his position: the virtually media-free
and effective aid to nine drought-stricken countries in Southern
Africa through 1991 and 1992 and similar relief to Sudan in 1990.
Even Natsias, the most indifferent to media
importance, grants their essential role, for good or ill, when
new policy must be invoked to deal with crises that governments
would prefer to ignore.
This volume is well worth studying and the
conveners of the conclave should be proud of themselves.
One conclusion this observer has drawn is
that the international brotherhood of NGO's is becoming a very
strong force indeed and in most instances has more influence
than the media; often NGO's act more effectively and quickly
than governments. NGO's are a growing international force, mostly
for good, that we should welcome.