• Background Image

    News & Updates

    humanitarian crisis

October 25, 2012

Through a Glass Darkly – The Media’s Role in Humanitarian Crises

Humanitarian crises brought on by civil war or political upheavals like those in Syria and South Sudan have become a common occurrence.  On television news programs and internet news venues, we see horrific images of the suffering these conflicts wreak on civilian populations.  The media have proven a powerful force in shaping the response of individuals, organizations and governments to these periodic crises.

Syrian child refugeeFrom 1992-1995, Somalia and Rwanda experienced internal conflicts that resulted in casualties, diseases, famine, and political chaos of  biblical proportions, impacting the stability of the region and changing the future economic, political and social course of these countries.  It is important to look at the role played by the media during the Somalia and Rwandan crises  and how that influenced the international perceptions of peacekeeping efforts in the region, and the resulting reaction from policy makers in the international community up to the present day.

In the 1990´s, international media coverage, with its heartbreaking images of starving children, hopeless civilians and teenagers carrying weapons, became viral. The intention was to erase the geographical gap and bring the reality of these invisible people who were suffering thousands of miles away right into the comfortable living rooms of average American households. This media phenomenon, later dubbed the CNN effect,  made Americans aware of the humanitarian crisis in countries like Somalia, the uncountable civilian casualties, the lack of basic human needs and the need for a hero who would bring food, peace and stability to a distant and unnoticed country.

As it turned out, however, this transparency carried a price tag for policy makers and ultimately for the people they were trying to help.

The situations in Somalia and Rwanda shared many elements.  Both were humanitarian crises with failed cease-fire and peace agreements, as well as extensive civilian casualties and human rights violations despite the presence of UN peacekeepers.

The media played an influential role both domestically and internationally.  In the case of Somalia, it helped to create international awareness of the events with the intention of motivating key decision makers to respond. During the Rwandan crisis, however, the local media was used as a weapon to perpetuate fear, hatred and even direct the killings that took place.

Famine in Somalia

In Somalia, the media served up images of unimaginable suffering which persuaded powerful decision makers in the international community to get involved.  Journalists sought out the most sensational stories of suffering, asking aid workers where they might find some “stick action” referring to the emaciated infants who could be filmed at the point of death.  The stories and images they conveyed had the desired effect.  They inspired the American people to demand action. A UN humanitarian mission led by the American military known as Operation Restore Hope was launched.

But close media coverage of the Battle for Mogadishu and the Black Hawk Down incident later caused decision makers to rethink the impact that their presence was having.  In addition, the barrage of images from the Somalia chaos, showing children still starving and warlords still with control, resulted in Somalia Fatigue, the term describing a public weariness of a catastrophe they seemed powerless to deal with.  The very public exposure of these failures by the peacekeeping mission later made policy makers reluctant to react sooner to the petition of the UNAMIR (UN Aid Mission in Rwanda) commander to help stop the unfolding genocide in Rwanda.  It seemed an article of faith among the members of the UN Secretariat that, were the UN to suffer another disaster like Somalia, with more peacekeepers being killed, the organization would suffer a possibly fatal blow to its credibility.  In the process, almost 1 million people lost their lives.

Rwanda Genocide

The situation in Rwanda was also complicated by the fact that international media attention was focused on the historic election of Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa.  Consequently, the major news outlets did not respond fully to the Rwandan genocide until bloated corpses were strewn at the roadside or choking Rwanda’s rivers.

Regardless of the scale of a humanitarian crisis, how we respond to outbreaks of war, whether through aid, military intervention and / or the deployment of peacekeeping missions, depends upon our evaluations of what the media deliver to us.  The emotions generated by images of suffering sent back by the international media can motivate us to action, but can also make us turn away if we feel helpless and overwhelmed.  And if the media is blind, through inattention, to a developing humanitarian tragedy, we may fail to realize the need for action altogether.  The international media are, collectively, our eyes and ears, with regard to events in the world.  It is more imperative than ever that we learn to carefully evaluate the perceptions they create for us and the reactions they invoke.

Click to read Ana Maria’s full research paper.