Did pictures in the news media just change U.S. policy in Syria?

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tags: Syria, Assad, Trump



On April 4, horrific images of dead and dying children from a chemical gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s Idlib province apparently moved the visually oriented Donald Trump to empathize with the “beautiful babies” and seek retaliation. According to Trump himself, the pictures “had a big impact on me, big impact” and the attack “crossed many, many lines, beyond a red line.” This impact appeared to rapidly shift Trump’s Syria policy from going “after ISIS big league” and letting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remain in power, to retaliatory missile strikes against Assad just 54 hours after Trump saw the pictures and, more significantly, calls for regime change.

Trump, of course, is not the first U.S. president to have allegedly been affected by media images in making foreign policy decisions. After the 1991 Gulf War, images of Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam’s helicopter gunships were said to influence George H.W. Bush to set up havens and a no-fly zone in Northern Iraq to protect the Kurds. Likewise, images of starving Somalis purportedly led Bush to send troops to Somalia in 1992, while pictures of ethnic cleansing persuaded Bill Clinton to support military intervention in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999.

This type of media-induced policy shift — once called the CNN effect — is not new, and past experiences may illuminate potential outcomes and dangers for today. I studied the impact of media coverage on U.S. policy in Kosovo, which moved from relative neutrality in early 1998 to support for a NATO military intervention against Serbia a year later. After three media-sensationalized massacres in Precaz, Gornje Obrinje and Racak, I recorded notable policy shifts on the road to war. While these three incidents were horrific, they represented few deaths relative to the larger war, just like the Syrian incident, which accounted for approximately one hundred out of nearly 500,000 deaths. What made these cases unique was their ability to shock, dominate the media — including social media feeds now in the Syrian case — for a day or two and create political pressure for a response.




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