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Media and international conflicts

A massive revolution in the field of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has defined the 20th century in a spectacular way. The very idea of globalisation has its origin in the mushroom growth of ICTs. As time went by, ‘media pervasiveness’ became a fact of life, transforming the potential of the media to provide uninterrupted coverage to diverse TV audiences.

Given these developments in the field of information and communications, media scholars and practitioners have been intrigued by the evolving role of the media in the present era. The media has emerged as one of the key ways that foreign policy is communicated around the world today. The use of social media by top political executives to communicate policy is a recent phenomenon. In this two-part series, we will look at how the media has played its role in framing international conflicts and covering foreign policy issues.

From literature one can find that scholars have thrown sufficient light on how foreign policy is formulated. There are two – policymaking and interactive – phases of foreign policy. During the first phase, experts consider various ‘options, tactics, and positions’ before they arrive at a decision. The process, which is generally time-consuming, is informed by a careful deliberation of the implications of the decisions. The second aspect of foreign policy relates to implementation of the policy, which involves the communication of the positions taken and decisions made earlier. This brings us to two prevalent theories that study the interaction between foreign policy and global media: the CNN Effect and the Theory of Manufacturing Consent.

The theory of manufacturing of consent is the opposite of what the CNN Effect stands for. While the CNN Effect implies that the media is capable of driving policy intervention in humanitarian crises based on its coverage of human tragedies, the theory of the manufacturing of consent refers to the power that the political elite and the governments hold in dictating the media to read and interpret events in a certain way as desired by them, according to Noam Chomsky. Under the elite paradigm of Manufacturing Consent, the media conforms to the agenda shared by the elite group of a society. As identified by scholars, the media is likely to be critical of the government and its agenda if there is a lack of consensus among the various players of the elite.

Researchers have developed various theories and analytical concepts to enunciate the impact of the media on the framing of international conflicts and foreign policy processes. They have identified four types of actors: controlling, constraining, intervening and instrumental to highlight the role of the media. These concepts have been classified depending upon the relevant activity and context of the media as an actor in the framing of international conflicts.

We begin our analysis with the media’s controlling aspect. The CNN Effect theory has originated from the work that scholars have undertaken on the role of global media in the areas of foreign policy, defence and diplomacy. The proactive coverage of human tragedies such as the Tiananmen Square crackdown on students in 1989, and the first Gulf War in 1990-91 etc by the mass media in general and CNN in particular helped frame these conflicts in a manner as to highlight deteriorating human conditions. The testimony of the impact that the coverage had on policymakers came from some of the people involved with decision-making at that time.

James Baker III, former US secretary of state, stated that “the terrible tragedy of Tiananmen Square was a classic illustration of a powerful phenomenon: the ability of the global communications revolution to drive policy.” A former UN secretary general made the most telling comment vis-à-vis the role of the media in international conflicts when he said: “CNN is the sixteenth member of the Security Council.” The implication one gets from the statements mentioned above is that it is the media that has usurped the space traditionally and legally occupied by the public policy circles.

While there is a dominant view among officialdom and political leaders about the potential of the CNN Effect of having deprived them of their policymaking space, there is literature that contradicts this notion by suggesting that TV coverage alone is not the sole criterion for decision-making. They say that in case the political establishments want to initiate an interventionist action, they use the media to cover events in a manner as to make a case for intervention in the public perceptions. This is when the ‘Theory of Manufacturing Consent’ comes into play.

Long before the ICT revolution, ambassadors and state representatives were at the centre of the whole diplomatic activity. They would represent their country in foreign lands where they were posted, collect reports, interact with top official circles, hold careful deliberations and recommend what they considered to be the best policy actions. The information explosion changed the dynamics of how diplomats would interact with their political bosses. While the official means of diplomacy may still be the best mode of engagement with foreign leaders and governments, mass media has come to create a space for itself in the whole process.

That brings us to consider the ‘constraining’ role of the media in framing foreign policy issues and international conflicts. While diplomats and political leaders may go ahead with the official procedure of conducting business and may not wholly act the way mass media would want them to, they still cannot ignore the broader message transmitted by the media. They, in a way, feel constrained to go ahead as official procedures would demand of them. As review of literature on international conflicts may suggest, political administrations are increasingly relying upon mass media to elicit ‘insights’ and ‘credible opinions’.

Diplomatic cables from conflict situations may still be very important as they are the result of careful deliberations, but they cannot compete with the power of the image and the live reporting done by broadcast journalists from the scene of occurrence. President W H Bush is reported to have stated in respect of the first Gulf war: “I learn more from the CNN than I do from the CIA.” Scholars have identified that a two-minute video footage can have a greater impact on decision-makers than all the cables and analysis reports dispatched by embassies to their capitals.

It has also been pointed out that the fast-paced nature of communication of news and analysis around international conflicts runs the risk of provoking a hurried and ill-thought-through response from political, military and foreign policy establishments. The phenomenon of 24/7 TV has increased the dilemma for decision-makers along with a real and manifest possibility of ‘losing control over policy.’

Amanat Ali Chaudhry, "Media and international conflicts," The news. 2019-06-18.
Keywords: Political science , Political bosses , Communication technologies , Foreign policy , International conflict , Humanitarian crises , International conflicts , Diplomatic activity , Policy makers , CNN