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Media’s Attention Span Mirrors Western Priorities

In this second installment of her series on refugee advocacy, University of Virginia professor Christine Mahoney argues that the Western media’s famously short-term interest in displacement crises is driven primarily by geopolitics.

Written by Christine Mahoney Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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A migrant speaks on the phone as he stands among railway tracks at the northern Greek border station of Idomeni. AP/Petros Giannakouris

In December 2015, Western media outlets celebrated the announcement of a U.N. Security Council resolution that laid out a peace process for Syria. By that point, France, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom were already navigating Syrian and Iraqi air spaces. There were still serious disagreements on whom to bomb.

Russia was primarily targeting rebel groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States, the United Kingdom and France were focused on fighting the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). The Turkish downing of a Russian fighter jet exacerbated an already tense situation between NATO members and Russia, leading to hysteria over an awakening of Cold War rivalries transplanted onto Syrian soil.

Syria is an exceptional case. Rarely do we see every major world power engaged in trying to stabilize a region while simultaneously contributing to massive displacement.

Yet, as unique as the Syrian case is in terms of the attention garnered and action mobilized, the story on the ground is all too familiar. Newswires continue to relay reports of the Syrian regime’s attacks on civilian areas and schools in rebel-controlled territory.

Photographs depict overwhelmed field hospitals trying to treat victims while being bombarded by both Russian and regime missiles. Entire cities have been reduced to rubble.

Meanwhile, clashes between ISIS fighters and Syrian rebels in and around Aleppo are leaving civilians with few options other than to flee for the Turkish border. But Turkey has increasingly clamped down on allowing people into the country since the E.U.–Turkey migrant exchange deal, with accusations of border guards shooting and killing civilians on sight.

Syria is just another case of a failed international policy – one of 61 such crises worldwide involving more than 60 million people living in precarious states, although with different levels of insecurity.

So, instead of looking at the “exceptional case” of Syria in isolation, it is important to examine every major case of large-scale, protracted displacement and the type of advocacy needed for the vulnerable civilians in relation to one another.

Through such an approach, we see clearly that most disadvantaged populations have no voice in advocating for themselves. The displaced are powerless not only in the places they have fled from, but also at every point of transition and every level of governance, even when third-party “advocates” take up their fight.

Barriers to Advocacy at the International Level

At the international level, a vast majority of the displaced populations around the world do not have advocates fighting for their particular case. The generalist refugee rights groups and human rights groups often operate on tight budgets to raise alarm about hundreds of “fires” simultaneously. Even when there is a mobilized campaign, like the Save Darfur Coalition or the International Campaign for Tibet, activists have a difficult time breaking into the thoroughly saturated media landscape. Maintaining attention is challenging in a media climate dictated by short-term memory. The hyperviral campaign Kony 2012 is a case in point. While its advocacy video (setting aside the questionable content) reached more than 100 million viewers in a matter of weeks, attention waned just as quickly.

The result is that the majority of massive displacement cases receive no attention at all. Since most social problems see governmental or intergovernmental action only when the media and masses have paid significant attention, there is no pressure to act without the critical mass. Syria is the exception that proves the rule, with Western powers only moved beyond words when hundreds of thousands of refugees started to show up on the shores of Europe and European citizens started pressing governments to do something about the migration crisis.

We have not seen such levels of mobilization further afield, in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Colombia or Sudan. Without clear national security implications for the West, political intervention or aid aimed at stabilization is unlikely. In cases where there are not millions displaced but merely hundreds of thousands, Western powers are unlikely to adjust their foreign policy owing to concerns for a sizable but small minority. For example, Tibetan human rights will not dictate U.S. foreign policy with China, nor will the rights of Myanmar refugees gravely affect E.U. trade policy with Thailand.

Media’s Disproportional Coverage of Displacement

Looking at media coverage of conflicts is a simple way of proving this imbalance in the foreign policy priorities of the West. Exploring the coverage of all 61 protracted displacement crises in the New York Times over the past decade further confirms that most issues received little to no coverage. Even with large-scale displacement, there were just a handful of news stories over the span of a decade.

The few cases that do receive coverage in the media outlets of the Global North do so because of their geostrategic importance in the Global War on Terror. Displaced populations in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Chechnya and Lebanon see the most coverage, but the topic of displacement is often a secondary mention. The main focus is almost always the conflicts themselves.

Further analysis of these news articles confirms that geostrategic importance drives attention, followed by the level of violence. Violence sells, and only spikes in violence or new types of violence seem to warrant coverage of massive displacement in Western media outlets.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

This is the second part of Christine Mahoney’s series of commentaries for Refugees Deeply on the barriers to advocacy for refugees and IDPs and the alternatives, based on her field research from 61 displacement crises across the world.

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