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"Intervening in Humanitarian Crises," [Review - Article]
Ethics and International Affairs Quarterly
[Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs] Spring 1997

Hess, Stephen. International News and Foreign Correspondents.
Newswork Series # 5.
Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1996. 209 pp.

Minear, Larry, Colin Scott and Thomas G. Weiss. The News Media, Civil War, & Humanitarian Action. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1996. Paper. 122 pp.

Rotberg, Robert I., and Thomas G. Weiss, eds. From Massacres to Genocide: The Media, Public Policy, and Humanitarian Crises. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution and Cambridge MA: The World Peace Foundation, 1996. 203 pp.

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 be called.

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 United States.

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 and prejudices.

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 ignored.

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 of information.

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 budgets.

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 the provenance.

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.



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