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The CNN Effect- Fact or Fiction

by on November 30, 2013


CNN was founded by Ted Turner in 1980 and was a pioneer in providing 24 hours news coverage, allowing viewers to watch the news at their connivance rather than when it was scheduled. In January 1991 the United States began its war on Bagdad in the Gulf War. This marked the beginning of real time coverage on War, previously unseen, with satellite technology allowing for reporting to be seen by viewers in relatively no time at all. This was when the scope and power of CNN really came into fruition. By 1991 its reach stretched to over a hundred countries and governments also relied upon it to enhance their own sources of information from that of diplomatic channels to intelligence.  This meant that Governments and leaders had to change aspect of how they approached global politics. When George H.W. Bush invaded Iraq for example, rather that addressing the American Citizens to inform them, which could be seen by Iraqi governments, He allowed the live news reporting to inform the public once the invasion was underway. In the case of US, Iraqi relations CNN also acted as a medium. If negotiations between the two broke down either party could talk on CNN in the knowledge that the other side would be sure to see it. This prompted Ted turner to refer to the organisation as “a global network. If there’s any chance for peace… it might come through us” (Seib, P.2012) with CNN acting as a new mechanism for diplomacy.


While it can be said that 24 hour news coverage like that of CNN has changed some aspects of diplomacy and global communication, what is highly debated is the CNN effect and the idea that these new channels in fact become agenda setters and political catalysts. The CNN effect is the result of dramatic real time images being broadcasted which arouse public attention, causing policy agenda setting, the acceleration of policy making or the impeding of policies in some way.  In 1992 there was a US intervention in Somalia, following emotive images of famine which caught the public’s attention. In 1993 when harrowing images of a soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu emerged along with news of American soldiers losing their lives however, public opinion changed. The public now called for the withdrawal of troops and by 1994 this had happened. The CNN effect is also thought to have come into play in 1991 with images of Kurdish refugees fleeing to the Iranian and Turkish borders following the unsuccessful challenge of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Public pressure was seen by many to be the root cause in the US proposals for safe havens for the Kurds and the help they went on to give.

Are these examples of the CNN effect in its entirety? Many consider the CNN effect much too simple an explanation. In the case of Somalia it is argued that prior to the intervention media coverage on Somalia was little to none and for many it is inconceivable that the CNN effect was the driving force behind the intervention. What is suggested is that media simply follows the troops and therefore once the intervention had stated so did the mass of reporting on Somalia from the American media. Many would also argue that issues involving States intervention are far more complex than ideas centred on public opinion and emotive images and are in fact, much more to do with a States agenda. Furthermore, there are countless examples of instances where interventions or policy changes have not occurred, with emotive images in full effect. In the 1990’s for example the US media had intense coverage on crisis in Liberia, which did not result in intervention.


The true nature of the CNN effect is particularly difficult to pin point, with some adamant of its existence to others feeling as though it has no effect in the slightest on public diplomacy and decision making. While it seems as though the news media has caused some changes to the way in which public diplomacy is carried out, it does seem a little farfetched to assume that governments will go so far as to set agendas solely on the basis of the sensitive images news organisations report.



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  1. CNN effect is a theory in political sciences and international studies. However, this theory is applied to all modern media, which are 24/7 services. But the effect of CNN is more popular, because they are the first channel in USA which provided 24/7 news and live broadcast. As well as, the CNN is based in a very powerful country, which is the USA. Sometimes CNN work for diplomatic benefit. However, most of the time it works against people interest and support US agenda.

  2. The emerging of CNN television was a new version in terms of communication in 1980. It was created to cover the news on a 24 hour basis from anywhere in the world. CNN’s coverage revolutionised media, especially during the Gulf War in 1991, in which the news were covered without stopping and from Iraq itself. It was quickly copied by some Arab states that saw CNN TV as useful tool to influence their own people and the audience abroad. Overall, CNN was an impact back in the 1980s and 1990s. Its 24-hour coverage facilitated reports directly from the place where the news were originated.
    In the Gulf War, for example, CNN reported live coverage from a bunker outside Baghdad were 350 civilians were killed by an American bomber. The impact of reality in terms of media spread rapidly around the world and because of that, the US government had to reassess the strategy of war in Iraq. On the other hand,, CNN plays an important role in politics, business and influencing the audience on its own interest.

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