The Media and the Refugee
A COMMON THREAD runs through the humanitarian crises involving the flight of Kurds from Iraq in 1991, the starvation of Somalis in 1992, the shelling of Sarajevo in 1993 and 1995, and the slaughter of Rwandans in 1994. A different common thread is present in a second group of humanitarian emergencies: war, chaos, and suffering in Azerbaijan, the Sudan, Angola, and Liberia. What makes these situations different from those in the first list?
The answer is prime-time television news coverage of the Kurds, Somalis, Sarajevans, and Rwandans. The troubles in Azerbaijan, the Sudan, Angola, and Liberia received relatively little coverage.
It is no accident that the international response to the first group of emergencies was faster, more massive, and more successful than it was for the second group. The so-called "CNN factor" was the difference. Television created a constituency for the victims of one group of emergencies, fostering among all of us a feeling of responsibility for their fate and causing world leaders to try to alleviate the horrible scenes of inhumanity that we were seeing every night on our television screens. It is interesting that in the four emergencies we identified in which media coverage was heavy, the international response was military. In Somalia, Rwanda, and Iraq, the United States mounted a military rescue operation. In Bosnia, the military response came from NATO airstrikes against rebel Serbian forces shelling civilians in the city of Sarajevo.