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This article aims to demonstrate that the “CNN effect” – which posits that ample and appealing media coverage has a powerful impact on the international community, to the point of compelling action – has been wildly exaggerated in Africa, all the while also having benefits. The conventional wisdom that conflict situations in Africa might improve if only the media shone the spotlight on them places a misplaced confidence in the media and its ability to set the agenda. In a Western media environment that makes sophisticated, value-added reporting difficult, and where policymakers are able to set their own agendas, there just is not much room for the enterprising journalist looking to sound the alarm on unspoken atrocities.
The neglected continent
The conventional wisdom is that the lack of international engagement in Africa is largely, or at least partly, explained by insufficient media coverage. After all, how much international attention does Africa get? Not much. And how much international support does Africa receive when compared to other regions suffering from humanitarian crises (Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Balkans in the 1990s)? About as much. The continent, engulfed by conflicts, famines, and all sorts of other disasters, is virtually absent from international news coverage. And this despite the fact that, since the end of the Second World War, no other continent or region has endured such devastating wars, both civil and international.
In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, where events in faraway places can reach audiences around the world in a few seconds, many African conflicts have simply been forgotten. Take, for instance, the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It has been the deadliest conflict of the last 50 years. Despite a death toll of 5.4 million to date, this “invisible war,” as Chicago Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek puts it, has been all but ignored by the international media.(2) In the year 2000, for example, the DRC was barely mentioned in the international media. Judging by the amount of coverage by CNN, the DRC’s was only the 14th most newsworthy conflict in the world.(3) If you watched half an hour of CNN a day every day in 2000, you would have seen only 16 minutes of coverage related to the conflict in the DRC, as compared to 434 minutes covering the less deadly skirmishes between Israel and Palestine. The print media was not much better.(4) The New York Times spent more time reporting on seven other conflicts, and France’s Le Monde deemed 10 others more newsworthy.(5)
This, the conventional wisdom goes, explains to a large extent the international community’s feeble response to bloodshed in the DRC. If only more attention was paid to the DRC, its proponents argue, the international response would be greater, and better. They’re wrong.
Why more of the same won’t do any good
More coverage would not do much good. This is because the Western media environment simply does not allow for the kind of sophisticated coverage that could make a difference in Africa. There are many reasons for this.
First, most conflict situations there have dragged on for years, making them old news. As for the new ones, they almost necessarily occur where there are no or few reporters. Covering these situations directly and providing original analysis – rather than depending on (often-converging) secondary sources – just is not economical. With very few exceptions, media outlets have only a handful of journalists (if that many) covering the continent, stationed in a key capital. Given the “tyranny of real time,” if the area affected by violence is not easily accessible, or there are immediate safety concerns, a one- or two-day delay in original reporting makes a story outdated and the analysis unworthy of airtime.(6)
Second, the interpersonal networks of Africa’s few Western journalists are necessarily limited. They, therefore, come to depend disproportionately on a few sources, which they interview on a variety of topics.(7) When not at home base, reporters depend on local fixers who cater to many journalists at once, feeding them the same sources and the same narratives, and who are by no means free of bias.(8) Thus, more reporting would not mean better reporting.
Third, Africa’s conflicts are often too distant and too complex for any one analyst to understand, never mind explain to an audience with at most a passing understanding of the continent’s challenges. With Africa correspondents few and far between, covering a story there means transforming a complex issue into a clear, almost Hollywood-style narrative that can easily be told by the Western journalist and understood by his or her audience: one with a villain, a victim and a hero.(9) To stay with the DRC, the conflict there is too complex to be accurately described in a five-minute news story or a two-column article in a daily newspaper. An unprepared audience risks getting lost – or losing interest – in a conflict that juxtaposes such a diverse collection of actors as Government forces, rebel groups, militias, foreign militaries and civilians. On the other hand, a small-scale story about Congolese girls being tortured by local militias creates a clear villain vs. victim dynamic to which foreign audiences can directly relate – and does not require elaborate analysis.
In this environment, more reporting only means more sensational reporting. For example, between 2004 and 2008, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper dedicated 44 shows to the conflict in the DRC, over a third – 16 – of which featured the plight of gorillas or visits by Angelina Jolie.(10) In other words, says Bryan Mealer, a former Associated Press correspondent covering the DRC, “if a [DRC] story involved something exciting as cannibalism, endangered gorillas or little girls being raped with machetes, it might have enough wings to survive its journey across the Atlantic. Everything else left the desk and crashed straight into its watery grave.”(11)
If sensationalism worked as a hook to draw audiences in, it could be argued that it was a necessary evil. But it does not. The “manicheanisation” of Africa’s conflicts makes them seem practically indistinguishable, with various actors taking turns playing the good, the bad, and the victims. Images of child soldiers or overpopulated refugee camps easily attract international attention, but the monochromatic stream of such images coming from Africa has resulted in a general numbing of Western audiences, or what Virgil Hawkins calls “compassion fatigue.”(12) As a result, any attention is usually passing rather than protracted. More inevitably superficial reporting will not change that.
Debunking the CNN Effect
If Africa coverage is flawed, does it at least compel Governments to act? Unfortunately, not as much as many think.
Although media attention can build public support for international intervention, it falls short of being able to pressure resource-limited individual countries into action if their own strategic interests are not at stake. As Martin Bell, a long-time BBC foreign affairs correspondent puts it, “I can think of eight civil wars raging at this moment, with others simmering. Britain cannot be expected, even with allies, to intervene each time.”(13) Despite the lesson of Rwanda (among others), where hundreds of thousands were killed on the international community’s watch, the decision to commit resources is still dictated by strategic and diplomatic considerations – not media-generated public pressure.
In Burundi, after a 1996 coup, there were fears of a full-scale genocidal conflict, but even the compelling parallels with Rwanda failed to generate enough pressure for an intervention. Nicholas Burns, the United States (US) State Department spokesman, explained the lack of a US commitment to stop the violence by saying: “It is not possible for the US to lead everywhere and in every situation. We have led where we think US interests require: in Haiti, in Bosnia, and we will not hesitate to lead in future situations, where our national interests are directly or in some cases vitally affected.”(14)
Although the media is usually assumed to have a quasi-mystical agenda-setting capability, when it comes to conflict in low-priority countries it is too often the tail that wags the dog, with Governments and advocacy groups determining what the media will cover. For example, a 2004 Stanhope Centre study into media attention to the conflict in Rwanda found “a very strong correlation between amount of [State Department] press briefing attention and amount of press coverage, with coverage lagging slightly—indicating that the press corps was reacting to official announcements rather than prompting them.”(15) Other researchers have argued that the agendas of the media, policymakers and academics are so tightly intertwined that the media, far from driving the agenda, are caught up in a bandwagon effect that is “primarily based on the interests of powerful policymakers,” who can only focus on one or two conflicts at a time.(16)
Another example of media following rather than leading on news stories is the ‘Kony 2012’ campaign mounted by the non-governmental organisation (NGO), Invisible Children. The media picked up the story, trending on Facebook and Youtube, rather than driving it – and then covered the campaign itself rather than the situation in Uganda (where, the “Kony 2012” video failed to show, Kony no longer was).
What is to be done?
There is no doubt that Africa’s humanitarian crises warrant much more international attention than they are receiving. But the media’s ability to give voice to, and thereby to indirectly relieve, the continent’s suffering continues to be overestimated. As long as the media environment incentivises simplistic and sensationalist reporting, there will be little meaningful analysis. As long as Western reporting resources there are stretched impossibly thin, there will be little independent investigation. And as long as media outlets lead from behind in identifying newsworthy crises, there will be little stock to be put in the CNN Effect. Systemic change is needed – but who will call for it?
Written by Yuliya kovalenko (1)
(1) Contact Yuliya Kovalenko through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Conflict and Terrorism Unit (email@example.com).
(2) Timberg, C., 2008, ‘Report: Congo’s War and Aftermath Have Killed 5.4 Million’, Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com.
(3) Hawkins, V., 2004. Stealth conflicts: Africa’s World War in the DRC and international consciousness. The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. See http://sites.tufts.edu.
(6) Gowing, N., ‘Media Coverage: Help or Hindrance in Conflict Prevention’, Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflicts, Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1997.
(7) Seay, L., ‘How Not to Write About Africa’, Foreign Policy, April 2012, http://www.foreignpolicy.com.
(9) Hawkins, V., 2004. Stealth conflicts: Africa’s World War in the DRC and international consciousness. The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. See http://sites.tufts.edu.
(10) Hollar, J., ‘Congo Ignored, Not Forgotten’, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, May 2009, http://www.fair.org.
(12) Hawkins, V., 2004. Stealth conflicts: Africa’s World War in the DRC and international consciousness. The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. See http://sites.tufts.edu.
(13) Gowing, N., ‘Media Coverage: Help or Hindrance in Conflict Prevention’, Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflicts, Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1997.
(15) Hollar, J., ‘Congo Ignored, Not Forgotten’, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, May 2009, http://www.fair.org.
(16) Hawkins, V., 2004. Stealth conflicts: Africa’s World War in the DRC and international consciousness. The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. See http://sites.tufts.edu.