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Role of Media in Conflict Zones: an Analysis of Cnn Effect and New Media

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Media during Crises
  3. CNN Effect
  4. Indian Experience
  5. 26/11 Coverage and Self-Regulation
  6. The Shifting Media Landscape
  7. Conclusion


Image of Alan Kurdi, a 3 year old Kurdish boy, drowned in Mediterranean Sea quickly spread around the world and caused a dramatic upturn in the international concern over the refugee crises. The powerful photograph taken by Turkish journalist Nilufer Demir prompted international responses not just about the death of an innocent boy but about the wider refugee crises. Deeply moved by the shocking image, leaders across the world came out and gave reactions reminding everybody that refugee crises was a human catastrophe and was world’s responsibility.

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With a 15 fold increase in donations within 24 hours of the release of the picture, the image is credited with causing a surge in charity for refugees and humanitarian crises. Debates across the news channels, opinion in the newspapers and social media trends cause overnight change in policy stance of several countries and affected elections in many.

Alan Kurdi has since then become immortal and shall always be one of the best illustrations to reflect how media reporting can impact international and national political dynamics. However, Alan Kurdi is not the only incident that illustrates the escalating role of media as ‘opinion shaper’, ‘perceived influencer’, ‘guide of public attitude’ during humanitarian crises.

Media during Crises

The US Civil War was the first war extensively photographed, Vietnam was the first televised war and Kosovo was the first Internet War. This onward march of communication technologies has affected not only the way wars are reported, but also how wars are resisted.

The prime time News media to which every individual is glued to irrespective of his class, caste or ethnicity has evolved into a filter that has a dominant role in shaping public opinion and influencing policy thus disrupting the free, critical and rational public sphere. The concept of news media as filter shaping opinion and indirectly influencing policy lead to the development of a school of scholarship: the ‘Manufacturing Consent Approach’ or the ‘Propaganda Model’; developed by Herman and Chomsky wherein the underlying idea is using mass media as a tool to mobilize public opinion in the support of government or private special interest.

By proposing the mechanism of five media filters, the model explains the means and methods through which public opinion is fixed and managed through manipulation of the discourse by regular propaganda campaigns. The scholarship has challenged the view that media is an independent, objective and unbiased entity reflating the reality as it is.

The bare idea that media instead of developing a neutral, critical and rational public sphere is manipulating public opinion seems to be dangerous. When this whole concept of role of media and image formation is applied to wars, the impact is magnified and is far reaching. The recent ‘Pulwama attack’ that happened on the convoy of paramilitary forces and the retaliation by the Indian government by an air strike -popularly known as surgical strike- and its positive impact on the results of 2019 General Elections that favoured the incumbent government cannot be negated.

The contention is not that whether the impact is positive or negative, but to acknowledge that media has an impact on public opinion relating to wars. The reason is that, most of the governments cannot successfully engage in war without the support of the population. This support depends on the belief in the necessity of military action and its emotional rewards.

As the majority of the younger generation have had no personal experience of war, their knowledge stems primarily from mass communication: modern media play a substantial role in the construction of reality as well as in attitude formation in the audience. While propaganda has always played a crucial role in military activities, it has reached new professional levels with the occurrence of global television and the development of increasingly differentiated public relations’ strategies.

Jo Groebel in his landmark work has described that how creating the ‘enemy image’ of the opponent is a major part in army strategy through which he illustrates the working of the propaganda model during humanitarian crises. While one’s own side is described in terms of moral motives and heroic behavior, evil and cowardice are attributed to the enemy. Creation of enemy image becomes easier if they audience already have a prejudices against the target group.

If we have to look back, we can find innumerable evidences in war that have occurred, most of them during the times of the World Wars, where not just the sovereign States and their armies were fighting but their populations were also participating actively in the global struggle. People abandoned their own aspirations for a common and collective aspiration of their nation.

The feeling of sacrifice was at the its peak where, people were ready to sacrifice their dream, money, wealth and their loved ones too for the sake of their country. All-out public cooperation was essential. To accomplish these ends, attempts were made to arouse hatred and fear of the enemy and to bolster the morale of the people, for which the mass media was put into great use by the respective governments.

The mass media had been used in ways they had never been used before to propagandise the entire population to new heights of patriotism, commitment to the war effort and hatred of the enemy. Carefully designed propaganda messages were communicated through news stories, films, photographic records, speeches, books, sermons, posters, rumours, billboard advertisements and handbills to the general public.

However, with the satellite revolution taking place and with the live telecast of violence in the audio-visual media the real-time images of dead soldiers, starving children, and pity condition of victims aroused a feeling of guilt and made the policy makers rethink about the necessity of war and its justification. This policy change due to news broadcast has been termed as “CNN Effect”.

CNN Effect

“Television has changed the way the world reacts to crises”. We are in the ‘Decade of Dish’. The statement was made 15 years ago and as decades passed, militaries of the world have armed themselves with the smartest and strongest weapons and so has media armored itself with wireless mode of communication that has made it more powerful. The biggest shift brought by globalization was “the breaking of state’s monopoly over the collection and management of information.”

It was the culmination of the first Gulf War, in the mid-night of a night in January of 1991 that left the international audience enthralled which was watching, for the first time, the instantaneous and spontaneous transmission of live images of bombing over Baghdad on their TVs. On the same night, the Iraqi communications network was destroyed, as a result the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) stopped broadcasting the reports from Baghdad. That night and for the next two weeks it was only the CNN that was on air, resulting in not just increase in the viewership of CNN but also its importance on politics and foreign policy.

These incidents led to the culmination of a new phenomenon called as ‘The CNN Effect’, which in many ways is the manifestation of the larger globalizing term. The CNN effect has been defined in several ways all of which describe the impact of news reporting of global events on diplomacy, foreign policy and public opinion.

Steven Livingston defines CNN effect as the impact of new global real-time quality of contemporary media on diplomacy and foreign policy, although not significant but profound. Piers Robinson states that CNN effect is caused by the real time images of war which compel governments to take action in situations not necessarily suitable for them.

Although, media has always played an important role in modern international politics, foreign policy and war, significantly during the World Wars I and II by selling and maintaining support for the war effort in many countries, globalization makes CNN Effect a novel phenomenon, where the role of media is different in nature than the traditional role because it is rapid in transmission, transcontinental in the reach, and qualitatively richer that its past media formats. These features distinguish the CNN Effect and make it political impact potentially more powerful.

A full page color picture published in a newspaper caused uproar in the western part of globe highlighting the public opinion against the humanitarian action. Apart from condemnation from various Ministers and Congressmen, President Bush called it as a “humanitarian nightmare” and demanded restoration human rights by the United Nations. The most significant aspect in all this episode was that the abuses of the camp were already known by the governments, however only when brought to light they created political and diplomatic resonance. Within months UNHRC and ICRC response to the situations and the camps were emptied.

However, the same Somalian conflict is also a greater example of the negative effect of media coverage and consequential public opinion. In order to respond to the public uproar, President Bush ordered his ground troops to provide medical support to the victims, for which the government agencies were not ready.

The ground reality was not assessed properly, and the US army was in turn attacked by the Somalian tribal troops In reply to the American public’s vocal support, Bush implemented immediate ground troops to assure assistance and aid to the suffering women and children. Unfortunately in the President’s haste to respond to the outcry of the American people, his staff and fellow government agencies were unable to inspect and evaluate the situation appropriately. As soon as the images of wounded and killed American soldiers was telecast-ed people demanded their return, leaving once again the tribal under the threat of violent authorities.

These instances show that real time coverage do have impact on policy decisions which when taken in an unprepared manner can cause havoc as policies are not drafted merely based on public emotion. There is a scenario of paradox where policy makers muddle in handling and reciprocating to the public opinion and tend to act where they do not refer to.

Indian Experience

India’s first experience with CNN effect was in 1999 when the Kargil conflict broke out. The Indian media was modernised by that time and reported the conflict on an active scale. Every household celebrated the victory of the battle and mourned on the images of martyred Indian soldiers. It was unprecedented converge in itself as for the first time, Indian viewers were watching their favourite journalists on the front covering the intricacies of the war, talking the the army officials and interviewing the locals. Being the the first instance, it turned out to be the learning experience for all the participants, the Government, media and the Indian army.

This has been a learning experience for the Government, the Armed Forces and the media. Also, “just as Kargil was the media’s first experience of a real war, though along a limited front, it was also Indian military’s first real experience of dealing with an intrepid corps of young, mobile war correspondents, armed with satellite phones and television cameras, filing from the spot.”

Initially, it was smooth ride for everybody, however later it turned bumpy when the media started criticizing army for its failed mission. Journalists were banned again after their coverage allowed Pakistan infer strategic information. Army complained of “inaccurate reporting” and journalists were now banned to enter the forwards. It was an army’s style of censorship that the media could not get even a single piece of information during that time.

Doordarshan and All India Radio crticised the ‘treacherous’ task of the ‘enemy’ and lauded the sacrifices of the army. The Indian Government banned PTV and ‘Dawn’ Karachi based media houses, which was portrayed by Pakistan as an act of censorship for the fear of truth.

Apart from coverage on the front, the coverage off the front was also very effective to create a public opinion in favour of the war. It was because of the live coverage of the battle that the people could experience the tough life of a soldier. The sacrifices of family members of the martyrs when broadcasted made every Indian feel the loss and aroused a feeling of patriotism. Media raised awareness campaigns and motivated people to contribute to welfare funds created for the soldiers by contributing large sums themselves. However, these positive aspects cannot overshadow the charge of sensationaling and commercialising the war, of which media was accused of. In order to increase their TRP and viewership, Indian media hyped a very serious event bringing to light the lack of objectivity that is suffered.

26/11 Coverage and Self-Regulation

Blunders were committed while reporting the terror attack in November 2008. Transcripts of conversation between the terrorists and their handlers revealed that how they were guided by the live reportage. The problem faced during the Mumbai attack was not just that the media was unprepared with a code of conduct for such situations, but also that the government was clueless about the consequences of live coverage. Media came up with a self-regulation guidelines that were framed by News Broadcasters Standard Authority under the Chairmanship of Justice Verma.

The Authority drew up “Guidelines for Telecast of News during Emergency Situations” and “Specific Guidelines for Reportage” following 26/11 found in “Guidelines for telecast of news affecting Public Order” whereby the guiding principle while telecasting of news relating to armed conflict, internal disturbance, communal violence, public disorder, crime and other similar situations is the touchstone of “public interest”.

The Shifting Media Landscape

With every new invention, the nature of mankind and how his history has been written has been changed and its graph of evolution has changed. With the revolution in new media and access to internet, the nature of media vis-a-vis public sphere has changed rapidly. Advent of new media has raised novel issues in conflict management and mitigation.

Media technologies are growing faster than any other sector irrespective of a rich or a poor country and this upward graph also has its own implication on ongoing conflict mitigation and prevention. The new media has made significant change in the way news was generated and consumed by the traditional media houses and the readers. Today, the users of social media themselves have become the content creators. The censorship or filters of mass media are no more applicable to social media. However, social media is prone to a filter bubble where users are exposed to content that supports their believes and thus creating polarization.

Thus, the problem that existed earlier with older forms of media has been aggravated by the rampant influence of social media. It is true that new media has revolutionized the way information was processed and news was perceived. Today, with a smart phone in hand, which is equipped with a camera and a microphone, and is connected to the network 24*7, every individual has become a journalist. However, his role from the traditional journalist might be similar, but the way of doing the job is strikingly difficult.

“Stripped down to the bare essentials, a journalist gets paid to take in vast amounts of information and to winnow the wheat from the chaff, before using their professional skills to mill the grain, mix in the water and yeast and turn it into a fine loaf that is hopefully flavorsome and digestible, the staple diet of those hungry for information. Hopefully it will not be half-baked, overcooked or delivered so late it’s mouldy. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and countless online offshoots provide a vast amount of wheat and chaff, not to mention stones, burrs and weevils. Anyone with the time and skill can of course bake their own bread from that, without going to the source, but there are many pitfalls.”

A ‘citizen journalist’ is the one who shares information on the social media with zero accountability. It is no more than gossip if taken seriously without being substantiated. However, coming from conflict stricken areas such information cannot be ignored, as they stand to be the first hand, raw information coming directly from the source, sometimes, not easily accessible to everyone.

However, considering their nature to be raw and first hand, they cannot be believed as they are shared, however, must be verified before taking any decision based upon them, reason being the prominence of fake news being used as a tool by the parties, actors and beneficiaries of any conflict. Apart from being part of a race to be first to share the breaking news, social media offers a peril named ‘anonymity’, whereby the person sharing the information can keep his identity and location secret which further protects those who run propaganda.

Thus, it becomes pertinent that social media needs a check at several levels when used as a tool in a conflict. Unlike, traditional media which because of its uniform organizational structure is easy to be checked, for social media, it requires efforts at several ends. Information may originate form several sources like, from the people participating in the conflict, from the victims of the conflicts and from the readers or viewers to whom the information is further shared.


British politician Edmund Burke, in the work “Heroes and Hero Worship in History’ written by historian Thomas Carlyle, is found saying, “There were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying, it is a literal fact….Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, and I say often, is equivalent to democracy: invent Writing, to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank has, what revenues of garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite”.

The historian is describing the new found power of the press, as the fourth estate which is an addition to and shall maintain checks and balances within the other three organs of the government in those times, the clergy, the aristocracy and the commons. With the passage of time the constituents of the government have changed, and so have their powers. But, the press still remains as powerful as it was described in Carlyle work.

But from where does this power come? Indeed the influence media has on the public sphere and the role it plays in the creation of public opinion, media has become synonymous to public sphere. And public sphere has its own significance in the democracy. In a representative kind of democracy that we have, every political leader, in his decisions, is influenced rarely by his morals and righteousness but mostly by the demanding public opinion rising in the public sphere.

However, what makes media so much powerful? Is it just the power to check and balance the other three powers, or the increased transparency and accountability that are being brought in the times of collapsing standards in public life? Media has been able to establish monopoly over this, as the opposition has failed to maintain their integrity and sustain public confidence. It turns out that media has very well shouldered the role of the watchdog of democracy, defend public interest, expose corruption and check abuse of authority

With the technological advancement in the 20th and 21st century, the power dynamics of the mass media has not just been limited to scribe, but has spread leaps and bounds by the coming of various means of mass communication. The recent digital revolution has been the most transformative of them all. Media has become all pervasive, an omnipresent present force, watching everybody. With a microphone in hand, a camera on the face, a satellite on the head, media has become the most powerful of all estate.

Firstly, keeping media free and independent is the most imperative solution to eradicate problems associated with the public sphere. Media ownership is one of the essential issues that need to be looked into so as to keep the flow of information unbiased and objective. Issues like conglomerate ownership patterns need to be addressed by the government as soon as possible.

As it is important to keep media free from any kind of money power, equally important is to keep it free and unaffected by government control. Hence, strong self-regulatory mechanism need to be brought into place. Further, lack of people’s trust needs to be reinstated, where the first step can be taken by the media itself by adopting the strong self regulatory mechanism and by improving the standards of journalism.

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Today, either the quality of journalism is poor or the reporting is plagued with partisan motives. Further, low internet access in conflict-inflicted zones create lack of awareness among the victims. Media can also play active roles in conflict prevention and peace resolution. Media can also play active roles in conflict prevention and peace resolution. It can bring together different groups to discuss issues, help improve governance, increase knowledge of complex issues, provide early warning, become an outlet of emotions, and motivate people for peace.

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