The media has the power to influence the issues we discuss, the charities we donate to and the conflicts we should condemn. Kony2012 publicised the atrocities carried out by warlord Joseph Kony in Uganda. Yet, until the video went viral these human rights violations went largely unnoticed. The video forced the USA to act and, by 2017, the Lord’s Resistance Army had less than 100 members.
Social media attention is erratic, and its effects are short-lived. For a few months, #BringBackOurGirls placed huge pressure on the Nigerian government to target Boka Haram. However, as months passed without success, attention faded and the kidnappings, still unresolved, were forgotten. At the same time, Boka Haram remained potent, with 8.5 million Nigerians requiring humanitarian assistance in 2017.
No conflict has been more neglected than the apocalyptic crisis in Yemen, despite the fact that over twenty million people require lifesaving aid. Saudi Arabia has successfully managed to keep Yemen’s conflict away from the media glare by preventing media access. After the bombing and destruction of Sanaa airport, journalists have a limited set of options for accessing Yemen, namely, trekking over the Saudi-Yemeni boarder or jumping onto an aid ship. Previously, access to war zones greatly determined media coverage, but mobile phones have enabled citizen journalism. Despite this, Yemen has been unable to grab the attention of social media, probably due to the persistent bombing, disrupting electricity and wifi connectivity.
With 195 countries, it’s impossible for the global media to cover all atrocities around the world. But why is Syria more deserving of the west’s attention than Yemen? Granted, Syria has experienced more deaths and casualties than Yemen, but deaths and casualties aren’t the explanatory factor. After all, the DRC conflict received sparse media attention even though it engendered more deaths than the Holocaust. Arguably, the world has neglected Yemen due to US interests in Saudi.
For a country to receive global attention, the world’s superpower – the USA – needs to be engaged. National interests have a significant influence on media coverage. In the case of the Middle East, oil concerns determine the West’s attention.
Sometimes, the international media fall into the trap of presenting conflicts in simplistic terms, creating heroes and villains. In Yemen, where the conflict is highly complex, it’s a mistake to present one side as being a force for good. Syria is arguably a more empirical conflict between a dictator clinging to power by any means available, and opposition forces seeking greater democracy.
These examples show that the factors determining the extent of media interest (and thus public awareness) in international conflicts are rarely purely humanitarian. We should not let the media dictate our awareness and response to conflicts. The death of one person should not receive a higher profile than the malnutrition of millions, and the political sensitivity of a topic shouldn’t deny it the attention its due.