The CNN Effect

The enormous influence of the media on the policy-making process introduced a new concept: the CNN effect. About 30 years ago, a series of humanitarian crises highlighted the position of media in the policy-making process. Thus, the term the CNN effect came to be understood as shorthand for the concept that mainstream news media in general, not just CNN, were having an increased effect on policy formulation (Robinson, 2013). Steven Livingston, a reputable scholar from George Washington University, conceptualizes the CNN effect in three categories: as an accelerant, an impediment and as a policy agenda-setting agent. This article discusses the influence of the CNN effect in the light of these three conceptual variations.

Figure 1: The CNN Effect: An instrument of propaganda devoted to the public opinion

The CNN effect as an accelerant shortens the time spent on policy formulation. The idea here is that an issue that receives a lot of media attention is often elevated to the top of a government's agenda. Any subject that has received a lot of media attention, puts pressure on governments to provide a quick response and policy change to satisfy the queries raised by journalists and the broader public. Due to this limitation, the government has to operate in much shorter periods of time to formulate policy. This fast-paced environment requires being fundamentally responsive. Otherwise, there may be a perception of government being unprepared and reluctant to manage the country. When the government is unable to feed the media a convincing and well-rehearsed policy position on an issue, and therefore set the agenda, journalists are able to frame reporting in a way that is critical of government inaction and demands for a certain course of action (Robinson, 199, p. 308). This explains how CNN effect occurs.

Former US Secretary of State James Baker comments on the influence of media by saying “The one thing it does, is to drive policymakers to have a policy position. I would have to articulate it very quickly. You are in real-time mode. You don’t have time to reflect” (Soon, 2016). This may be true in most cases, especially from the point of view of policymakers. Nevertheless, there are cases where these policymakers have already chosen not to do anything as any action may contradict other interests. This results in disregarding occurrences that are covered by the media. Rwanda of 1994 provides a sorrowful example. Encouraged by humanitarian NGOs, the media did not ignore the genocide and refugee crisis in Rwanda, yet almost all of the major powers worked within the UN Security Council to cut the presence of UN peacekeepers instead of calling for any type of intervention (Neack, 2014, p. 136).

Figure 2: TV broadcasting and the impact of the CNN effect on diplomacy

CNN effect acts as an impediment in two ways: by inhibiting emotions and creating a threat for operational security. US media played a critical role in mobilizing antiwar sentiment in the United States during the Vietnam War by providing interpretations of events that did not fit the official presentation (Neack, 2014, p. 137). Due to the media coverage of casualties and defeats, the public's faith in the government was shaken. The photos spread by the press, sImage 3uch as the burned Vietnamese girl and the public execution of a Vietcong officer, caused an intense public reaction. Similarly, pictures of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 revived some of the same fears and concerns evoked by Vietnam, resulting in withdrawal of Clinton administration from Somalia (Livingston, 1997, p. 4).

Figure 3: South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan summarily executing a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon (3)

Maintaining operational security is a crucial requirement of conventional conflict and tactical operations like anti-terrorism (Livingston, 1997, p. 5). The media, with as much technological capability and resources as an intelligence agency, can unintentionally expose such activities that should remain confidential. Retired general Norman Schwarzkopf recounts an instance: “It was reported (by an American television network) that at this time, right now, we are witnessing an artillery duel between the 82nd Airborne Division and the Iraqis. If they (the Iraqis) had any kind of halfway decent intelligence, they would have made note of the time . . . and through their intelligence network, they would have pinpointed the location of the 82nd Airborne. Until that time everything they ever saw of the 82nd was on the east coast. All of a sudden they would have found the 82nd way to the west and it would certainly have telegraphed something to them" (Livingston, 1997, p. 5). If Iraqi Intelligence had the necessary capabilities, they could have taken advantage of the situation using a piece of information provided by American media.

Figure 4: What is meant by the ‘CNN’ effect?

As a policy agenda-setting agent, the CNN effect refers to covering particular state interests in media with the aim of increasing their leverage. This sort of influence of media on policy-making process is undeniable. For instance, Russian media and other interest groups had a crucial impact on the Russian government to end the first Chechen war (Neack, 2014, p. 137). Nevertheless, as long as the government does not lose its authority, examining the following question would be more reasonable: how does government influence the media to cover a specific agenda?

After the Second World War, the British press differed in their opinions of the USSR, the USA and the UN. Many newspapers responded negatively due to anti-American sentiment and their preference for Britain being the intermediary. Adding to these reservations was the view that the United States was inexperienced in foreign affairs, and more likely to cause war than the USSR, a point of view echoed by the News Chronicle and Daily Mirror (Shaw, 1998, p. 77). Yet, the British government disagreed. Britain, which was dealing with many undesirable situations at the time, was aware that it needed US to solve its problems while standing against Moscow. Thus, the government decided that the press should be brought around the correct view, stating that “ All heads of Foreign Office political departments were instructed on ways to make subtler use of our publicity machine to ensure the publication of anti-Soviet material, including various ways of leaking information to friendly diplomatic correspondents and inspiring questions that the Foreign Office could pretend it did not want to answer” (Neack, 2014, p. 135). In addition, The Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office did a great deal of work to influence media perceptions. Just two years into a concerted government effort to manage the press message, the British press was unified in its's portrayal of the Cold War (Neack, 2014, p. 136). Al Jazeera provides a similar example. It was revealed that the broadcaster claiming to be independent, was in fact manipulating the news in accordance with Qatar's foreign policy. The news were framed in favor of the allies whereas the adversaries were poorly represented. In addition, it was revealed that Qatar used Al Jazeera in order to shape the Qatari–Saudi crisis. What happens here is that a government-sponsored station operates independently on routine jobs, which gives it the credibility of a private station and only returns to government-sponsored broadcast during a crisis involving the government (Samuel-Azran, 2013, p. 1295). In the light of these examples, it would be reasonable to state that the role of CNN effect as policy agenda-setting agent is mostly influenced by the political climate.

Figure 5: How to Save CNN From Itself

The CNN effect can be perceived as either positive or negative, depending on the circumstances and perspective. One of President Bush's closest advisers during the Persian Gulf conflict and former National Security Council member Richard Haass highlighted the opportunities offered by media in the eyes of policy-makers. He stated that the American administration could manage public opinion in Iraq and the alliance, or the coalition dimensions of the war, as well as get to the Iraqi people and the Arab world (Livingston, 1997, p. 3). On the other hand, political scientist and former US Assistant Secretary of Defense for international Security Affairs Joseph Nye, sees the CNN effect as harmful to policy-making since the media forces issues into the agenda and shortens the time for deliberation (Neack, 2014, p. 134). In addition, proponents of the CNN effect suggest that it values public opinion by revealing images of injustice and suffering that is misrepresented by official resources. As a result of the pressure on the administration, policy change occurs in necessary fields. Therefore, the consequences depend on how the situation is leaded. CNN's effect can go in any direction, from encouraging humanitarian intervention to manipulating information for the sake of national interests.


Livingston, S. (1997). Clarifying the Cnn effect: An examination of media effects according to type of military intervention. Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Neack, L. (2014). The new foreign policy: Complex Interactions, competing interests. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Robinson, P. (2013). Media as a driving force in international politics: The CNN effect and related debates. Global Policy Journal.

Retrieved from

Robinson, P. (1999). The CNN Effect: Can the News Media Drive Foreign Policy? Review of International Studies, 25(2), 301–309.

Samuel-Azran, T. (2013). Al-Jazeera, Qatar, and new tactics in state-sponsored media diplomacy. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(9), 1293–1311.

Shaw, T. (1998). The British popular press and the early Cold War. History, 83(269), 66–85.

Soon, C. (2016). Filling the Information Vacuum Responsibly. Retrieved from:

Image References

Cover image: Supporter or killer of Afghan children? . (2021). [Cartoon]. Ariana News Agency.

Figure 1:The Cnn Effect: An instrument of propaganda devoted to the public opinion. (2004). [Hybrid Art]. Voltaire Network.

Figure 2: Veljasevic, V. (2013). Tv broadcasting and the impact of the Cnn effect on diplomacy. [Illustration]. Diplo.

Figure 3: Adams, E. (2009). 1968: Nguyen Van Lem. [Photography]. Executed Today.

Figure 4: Public Diplomacy and Global Communication 2015c. (2016). What is meant by the ‘Cnn’ effect and has this been beneficial or not for diplomatic purposes? [Illustration]. Wordpress.

Figure 5: Yellin, J. (2017). How to Save Cnn From Itself. [Illustration]. New York Times.

Author Photo

Deniz Aktunç

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