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Role of the Media in Shaping Opinion in Case of Humanitarian Interventions, Example of Somalia

By boutchou586 Feb 21, 2011 2423 Words
o EWHA Woman’s university|
Role of the media in shaping opinion in case of humanitarian interventions| Example of Somalia|
Mass Media and Society|
June 2010|

ThesisThe way that TV news is creating emotion (through the power of images) in its audience is an essential element to understand how some humanitarian interventions have been decided|


Nowadays, communications come across boundaries, thus we can, more easily than never, be aware of what is happening in isolated areas. Who, in Europe or in the USA, doesn’t remember the shocking images of people dying in Somalia that were diffused in all television, in all newspapers? In this particular case, it was the raise of public opinion, asking their governments to stop these atrocities that lead the countries to launch a humanitarian intervention there. This new form of communication has changed the way politicians and governments are acting, especially in developed countries with liberal views, and the importance they are giving to what their people think. But it also raises another question: the one about mass media agenda setting. When we see how many people are suffering in so many places all over the world, we undoubtedly ask us why media are talking about issues in some countries while other situations remain unknown by public opinion. And how do the media do to choose which humanitarian issue to emphasize and which not?

By considering the use of the right of humanitarian intervention when the population of a country is in danger and that its State is unwilling or unable to protect them, the UN Security Council can intervene in countries where serious gross human rights violations are taking place. Indeed, in such case like apartheid or genocide, the Security Council is authorized by the United Nations Charter to take coercive measures. As a result, it is most often admitted that the International Community has a “responsibility to protect” in such cases. However, tragedies like that are innumerable and daily, and yet, there have not been humanitarian interventions in every countries that could have needed it.

Then, it raises the question if there are "good" and "bad" tragedies. The first ones attract international aid like a magnet while the seconds are ruled out because they did not reach public opinion. How to explain that interventions are being decided in some countries rather than in others? To respond to this question, it is necessary to highlight the unknown role of media in a sort of consensual policy where they only talk about subjects if the other media are doing the same. During an interview given to Marie Dominique Perrot, the Swiss journalist Jean-Philippe Rapp clearly explained that the channels information is taking respond to the way globalization is working and that everything is interlinked. This way of coverage creates shadow areas and areas we speak a lot about, all over the world. No television can pretend acting by its own because all must work together. Thus, they are gathering, selling or exchanging their news together. But, undoubtedly, the most powerful ones have more weight.

A news organization of medium importance only produces 40 to 45% of what it broadcasts. It cannot be at the same time in every place in the world... Of course it can send its own teams abroad, but most of the time it will use images or information from others. “It follows the movement when it is focused at a point on the globe. Media are all reluctant to talk about a situation for which they have no sequence to show”. (Perrot, 1994, p123) Here, the influence of the three major agencies of the world is considerable and in a way, they set the public agenda. Indeed, the Reuter Agency, Agence France Presse and the Associated Press covers 80% of the information that circulate all over the world. To a certain extent, they can decide what to talk about and what not. Mccombs (2004, p117) argues in the same way by writing that “in this process of intermedia agenda-setting, high status news organizations such as Associated Press set the agenda of other news organizations”. Consequently, journalists transmit images that they don’t really control. Thus, this is the double danger for the media: not to speak of a situation by the lack of image, speaking about it under pressure, and talk about it without any real verification.

At the turn of the 1980s, the role of media was more and more associated with humanitarian intervention. The advocates of this latter understood that media could help saving hundreds or even thousands of human lives by creating emotion with chocking images. That is why, as explained by Jean-Philippe Rapp (Perrot, 1994, p125), humanitarian organizations are trying by all means to “use” the media. Like that, they could mobilize public opinion, as it has been shown during the Somali tragedy. Indeed, it was the emotion created by the shock of the image that brings the money allowing humanitarian organizations to continue their action. Media can provide credibility and funds to NGOs. That is why these organizations offer media to be associated with their current actions. Thus, media could have access to theatres of operation, whereas normally it is something very restricted. Humanitarian organizations should sell themselves to media because of constraints of the time: imperative for media coverage, need for financial resources, competition between associations which are fighting to receive money from businesses and public. Sometimes these organizations appeals to famous ambassadors which allow to access more easily to the media. In Somalia, it was the actress Audrey Hepburn, very engaged in humanitarian action, who went there to show her awareness to children "with bloated bellies". Even the most discrete organizations, conscious of the duty of reserve that they should keep, have reviewed their position and multiply "outbursts" about what they are witnessing on-site. They have no other choice than to take journalists with them because they allow them to be in their best light. NGOs have understood that the image makes humanitarian intervention "sellable" because it works on the register of emotion. And the reason that explains why humanitarian crises can have an impact on public opinion is mainly because television is now the main (if not the only) source of political information for many people (Baum, 2006, p3). Music and sequences of images are used in a way to create emotion. If the major role of humanitarian organizations is to help people in need, they cannot work without any contribution of money. Regular donors give funds to non-governmental organizations for which they esteem their action and commitment but, in some cases, it is not enough. Indeed, once the situation is worsening, not only do NGOs need more income but they cannot act alone. In this case, they need political support from government abroad. That is why these organizations can only rely on the media to raise awareness and allowing governments to consider the issue as a new priority. The influence of the media played a huge role for the case of Somalia. The shocking images that came in all TV all over the world caused a great emotion in the public consciousness which quickly lead the US, France and other European States to decide the establishment of an air bridge to transport the emergency aid on the ground. We can assume that TV news had some kind of influence on the decision of the government to intervene. Indeed, while famine reached its pinnacle in August-September 1992, all cameras in the world were in Baïdoba, the epicentre of the disaster (Brauman 1998, p81). Then, from the very first moment of intervention, lots of cameras were there to supervise the event. Thus, on January 4, 1993, in front of the television cameras deployed in Mogadishu, the UNITAF landed with close to 30,000 soldiers under American command. The staging strongly reminded the movie “The longest day” dealing with the landing in Normandy by the U.S Army. While recognizing that “media coverage can cause intervention during humanitarian crisis” (Robinson, 2000, p8) scholars such as Naureckas (1993) and Robinson (2000) refused the idea that it was this emotion that lead politicians to react. Indeed, they refute it by saying that it was not the media agenda setting that have caused the intervention but the political agenda. According to their point of view, media in the US have not talked so much of Somalia because they were focusing on the 1992 presidential campaign, but as soon as the US President decided to intervene, all media converged to the Somali theatre of actions. In fact, they considered that “rather than driving policy, the news media actually tended to follow the agenda of the executive, and moreover, helped to build support for that agenda” (Robinson, 2000, p4). This dilemma is summed up by Lofland (1992, p5) by this quote: “That’s the way the American public and the media work—it’s a chicken and egg kind of thing. You’re never sure which comes first—the activity in Washington that creates the media feeding frenzy or the media that creates the wake up call.” Nevertheless, whatever the cause that lead to intervention was, many political errors that were made by the armed forces of the United Nations (and especially the Americans) were due to a perceived need to respond to media pressure by visible measures and simple announcements. As Rony Brauman explained, from the moment the cameras were permanently installed in Mogadishu, the action changed its style: the management of the local crisis became a management of international emotion. They needed results that would be likely to satisfy the expectations of the public through the diffusion of TV news. Everything that was filmed had to meet criteria of Hollywood super-production where everything ends well (Brauman, 1998). Thus, it is easy to understand that the camera didn’t really describe the reality of the event. Indeed, television obeys immediacy and visibility constraints which are hardly compatible with the complex requirements of a military action. Therefore, media are trying to use and manipulate the impact of images on a population in order to politicize what was at first only a matter of the humanitarian field. In addition, whenever there is image, there is political issue: the power involved defends, manipulates, cheats and third States, seeking any king of gain (prestige or narrower interest), enter the game. Then, the intervention is no longer carrier of peace and it can end badly, as it was the case in Somalia. Naureckas argued in the same way by saying in his article (1993) that media dealt more with the issue of “whether camera crews should have used lights in taping the landing of the Marines at the Mogadishu airport” rather than really trying to help the Somalis from famine after the failure of the intervention. Furthermore, one of the limits of media for humanitarian intervention is its duration. Television conditions and shows the situation of the country by imposing certain standards such as brevity. Thus, as Paul Virilio said, even if an event can be at the head page when it occurs, it cannot hold attention for a long time. Indeed, at the moment something else is happening elsewhere, the attention of public opinion just turns away from this issue to focus on the new situation. Television generates a "time world" that goes beyond "universal" and "local" time (Virilio, 2000). The world is now under the control of media, and public opinion is strongly shaped by them. Therefore, according to Philippe Moreau Defarges, media are interfering in the domain of others in many points of view. "It goes from the vague advice to a massive pressure, from soft invitation to open brutality" (Moreau Defarges, 2005). Whether deliberate or totally unconscious, by informing people of the massacres perpetrated worldwide, media are intervening in the political life of the country. Thus, the role of the media is now strongly related to the notion of right to intervene.

If responses to multiple human tragedies which took place in the past (and go on today) are different for each country, it is primarily because an event causes a stir only if it reaches the attention of international public opinion, and if it can rally people. Even politicians understood that they won’t be able to go into war if the public opinion does not support them and, as well as the NGOs do, they are using media to create emotion and then a support for intervention. Beyond this idea, there is the belief that, even if NGOs can use media to sensitize public opinion, their influence may not be enough to lead to a real move if politics are not willing to intervene in their theatre of action. Indeed, whereas famine was killing many people in Somalia for almost a year, the humanitarian organizations had not been able to really reach public awareness and had to wait until the governments decided to intervene there. Although humanitarian organizations are trying by all means, including the press, to increase people awareness of the massacres they witness, they must deal with geographical and emotional distance. Moreover, paradoxically, if reporting has the advantage to mobilize individuals, the impact of the image is so fragile and ephemeral that it is soon replaced by another massacre. Intergovernmental organizations and States, guided by the public opinion, can therefore stop to help the country in need and its endangered population as soon as the public opinion stops to be interested in. In Somalia, the US withdrew its troops when many US soldiers were killed and public opinion stopped to focus on what was happening there, even if the situation was still bad.


BAYM Matthew A., « Soft News goes to War, public opinion and American foreign policy in the media age », 2003

BRAUMAN Rony, « Les medias et l’humanitaire», CFPJ, 1998

LOFLAND Valerie J., « Somalia: U.S. Intervention and Operation Restore Hope», 1992

MCCOMBS Maxwell, « Setting the agenda, the mass media and public opinion », Polity, 2004

MOREAU DEFARGES Philippe, « Droits d’ingérence, dans le monde post-2001 », Les presses Science Po, 2005

PERROT Marie-Dominique, «Humanitarian Action off Course: States of Emergency and the Right to Intervene », PUF, 1994

ROBINSON Piers, The News Media and Intervention: critical media coverage, policy uncertainty and air power intervention during humanitarian crisis

VIRILIO Paul, «Medias, The information bomb», Verso, 2000

Website, Article from Fair
NAURECKAS Jim, «Media on the Somalia Intervention, Tragedy Made Simple», March 1993 :

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