Humanitarian Intervention and Relief - Humanitarianism and sensationalism




In the 1990s scholars and pundits spoke of the "media effect" or the "CNN effect" because of their sense that the American public responded to foreign crises based on visual images. Concerned with the consequences of the immediacy of information, critics worried that the U.S. government, under public pressure, would make decisions based on emotional responses and inadequate analysis. Thus, television images of precision bombing in Iraq led to American confidence in the humaneness of contemporary war, while images of emaciated, starving Somali children and the brutal indifference of other Somalis resulted in cries for intervention.

Critics of the media complained that journalists often misunderstood the crises about which they reported, relying on relief or aid workers for information, or even intentionally manipulating opinion to foster public pressure on politicians on behalf of the journalists' pet causes. Americans were accustomed to seeing images of starving children on television as relief and development organizations sought to raise funds by evoking compassion. Save the Children pioneered in television and print advertisements of pitiful, blank-eyed children to help raise funds for its efforts. World Vision filmed and aired documentaries of its activities, often showing actress Sally Struthers caring for unclothed and hungry children while appealing for assistance. Critics charged that such images bolster stereotypical perspectives of other peoples, and imply helplessness and victimization rather than resourcefulness and dignity.

Sensationalized accounts of human suffering. however, have long been used to enhance giving. In the early days of the American republic, broadsides, newspapers, and sermons offered dramatic descriptions to promote fund-raising. In 1832 initial reports of hunger in the Cape Verde Islands stirred little sympathy until dramatic accounts of misery (including a comparison to Dante's Hell) spurred citizens from Portland to Philadelphia to Richmond to raise generous funds. In the 1890s sensationalist press accounts stirred support for intervention in the Cuban struggle for independence against Spain. Less well-known are similar stories of starving Russians, with reports of desperate peasants eating hair, leather, grass, leaves, and even each other. This type of reporting was powerful. Indeed, Clara Barton found it helpful to assure skeptical Turkish authorities that she did not have any journalists with her. The power of words and images to evoke compassion has long been problematic.

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