The CNN effect is known for supposedly effecting the foreign policies of Western states forcing them into humanitarian actions. The CNN Effect is juxtaposed by the Manufacturing Consent paradigm which supposes that media output is dictated by policy-elites. However, analysis by academics, Robinson, Gilboa and Cottle et al, of various research has highlighted discrepancies in examples of both concepts and concludes that neither is entirely convincing (Robinson, 1999, Gilboa, 2005, Cottle, 2008). The analysis finds that CNN media effect on foreign policy is contingent upon ‘a lack of policy coherence and clarity of interests’ and that the Manufacturing Consent paradigm holds whilst there is policy unity amongst elites which was more consistent during the Cold War (Robinson, 1999).
Robinson advocates a ‘media-policy interaction model’ as a ‘way forward beyond the debate impasse’ (Robinson, 1999: 308). This is based on the premise that media hold the capability to pressure states’ to focus on a particular issue and influence their response when there is a divergence amongst policy-elites on a particular issue. Therefore, if elite-policy cohesion is non-existence alongside media-framing of a humanitarian issue that calls on governments to intervene at a time when government intervention occurs or policy is adjusted, Robinson believes this supports his model (Robinson, 1999: 308). Additionally, Robinson highlights research by Martin Shaw in ‘Civil Society and Media in Global Crises’ which adds greater significance to the emotive framing of an issue and how that equates to the ‘potential pressure’ it may place on states to act (Robinson, 1999: 308). This is evidenced by the difference between the international media’s ‘documentary style’ reporting of the crisis in Liberia as opposed to ‘emotive and graphic’ coverage of the plight of the Iraqi Kurds (Robinson, 1999: 306). Thus, it was “the graphic portrayal of human tragedy”, that stirred Western senses.
Robinson’s ‘media-policy interaction model’ and Shaw’s emotive and graphic coverage point is exemplified by the tragic case of Aylan Kurdi. Aylan Kurdi was the young Syrian boy that was photographed drowned on a Turkish beach fleeing war-torn Syria with his family. The image, initially distributed through social media and then other media, sparked widespread outrage amongst publics, charities and influential actors and led to a greater focus on the plight of Syrian refugees throughout Europe and calls to EU leaders to respond.
This forced European leaders to focus on an increasingly important issue, that some were possibly ignoring, or risk a fall in their popularity rating. With large numbers of refugees entering into south-eastern Europe the reporting of the death of Aylan Kurdi and subsequent developments placed huge pressure on European leaders to allow large numbers of refugees into their respective countries. While there were statements made by some EU officials, in particular Angela Merkel, calling on European governments to take in their quota to ease the burden on countries in south-east Europe, some countries were more reluctant than others.
Thus subsequent events seem to confirm the lack of policy cohesion amongst EU policy-makers (state leaders) over the issue of accepting large numbers of Syrian refugees. This substantiates the idea that along with policy disunity and the media’s emotive framing of human tragedy media can effect publics and thus leaders responses to humanitarian issues as per Robinson’s ‘media-policy interaction model’. Although this did not force European leaders to conduct a military-based humanitarian intervention, it did force them to focus on the plight of Syrian refugees and increase their intake which was a humanitarian act.
This has since sparked an anti-refugee response in some parts of Europe which has also been reported through media and has placed further pressure on some EU leaders to act. These further repercussions across Europe can be seen in the rise of populist candidates in France and the Netherlands, elections of conservative governments in Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, and Switzerland and a general reluctance to allow large numbers of refugees and migrants beyond the Balkan states. Germany initially responded to calls to allow more refugees by allowing nearly one million to enter, but it has seemingly been detrimental to the once untouchable Angela Merkel’s domestic popularity. The rise in anti-refugee sentiment in Germany has seen a recent shift in Merkel’s refugee policy. It was also one of the major reasons for 52% of the British voters to vote for Brexit and has generally been a highly divisive issue across the EU. It may also lead to catastrophe for the EU.
Although neither the CNN Effect nor the Manufacturing Consent paradigm adequately explain the politico-media relationship, Robinson’s media-policy interaction model is an interesting development forward. The application of the model to the reporting of Aylan Kurdi and the plight of the Syrian refugees shows it has currency.
Simon Cottle GLOBAL CRISIS REPORTING: JOURNALISM IN THE GLOBAL AGE, 2008
Eytan Gilboa ‘The CNN Effect: The Search for a Communication Theory of International Relations’, POLITICAL COMMUNICATION, 2005, 22, 27–44.
Piers Robinson ‘The CNN effect: can the news media drive foreign policy.’ REVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES 25/2 : 301-309, 1999