TV coverage of Bosnia overshadowed economy


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton took office wanting to focus on the economy. Television had a different agenda.

In the first three months of the year, the number of stories on Bosnia by the major TV networks was almost double that on Mr. Clinton's economic package, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonprofit research group in Washington.

The trend intensified after April 1, the center said, and culminated in the graphic broadcasts three weeks ago of refugees fleeing a horrific Serb attack on the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica.

Media analysts said yesterday it was no accident that Srebrenica was the turning point for the Clinton administration's policy in Bosnia.

Just as television coverage of the famine in Somalia last fall played a critical role in pressuring President George Bush to intervene, the images of suffering Bosnian women and children broadcast into millions of American homes helped bring President Clinton to the doorstep of military action.

It is the latest example of the extraordinary role played by television in setting the national agenda -- especially in foreign affairs.

"Some call it the 'CNN effect,' " U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright told a congressional panel this week.

"Aggression and atrocities are beamed into our living rooms with astonishing immediacy," she said. "No civilized human being can learn of these horrid acts occurring on a daily basis and stand aloof from them."

While that may be so, there are those who criticize the international community for waiting to act until the media declare a crisis "news."

In a speech before a conference of TV journalists in Atlanta Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali urged the media to give greater coverage to conflicts that are as terrible as the one in Bosnia but now largely overlooked.

"When one crisis is in the spotlight, other equally serious situations are left in the dark," he said.

More people were killed in one day in the Angolan capital, Luanda, during Angola's civil war than in months in Sarajevo, he noted, yet TV hardly noticed.

"Why is the U.N. deeply involved in one crisis and not in another? One of the reasons is media attention," Mr. Boutros-Ghali said. "The interaction of television coverage and political interest is powerful and hard to predict."

The media are selective. An estimated 500,000 people died from famine in Sudan last year -- a tragedy of equal gravity to the one in Somalia -- yet Sudan barely made a blip on the media's radar screen.

Doris Graber, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois in Chicago who studies the media and politics, said a number of elements determine whether the media get interested in a story.

"You have to have a journalist in the area or a journalist who is particularly interested," she said. On top of that, she added, "it has got to be a story that is dramatic, can be readily told and is not too complex."

Even when a crisis is receiving some attention by policy-makers, the arrival of TV cameras adds a sense of urgency, she said.

"When you start getting very graphic scenes, it arouses the general public," she said. "And that puts pressure on the administration."

When the Yugoslav civil war broke out in Croatia in 1991, ABC, CBS and NBC did not have reporters on the ground full time because of budget cutbacks, according to Rich Noyes of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

"There was a dearth of coverage until last summer, when stories of the Bosnian death camps emerged," he said.

Even then, Bosnia had to compete with coverage of Somalia and the presidential election.

Ms. Graber said the result was that it was much easier for the Bush administration to resist pressure to get involved in Bosnia than it is for the Clinton administration today -- when Bosnia is the No. 1 story.

"This is a topic that might get attention anyway," she said. "But getting this amount of exposure, you tend to get action faster."


The top 10 stories in the evening news for ABC, NBC and CBS (January-March, 1993):

1. Bosnian civil war -- 233 stories

2. Clinton transition/inauguration -- 137 stories

3. Clinton economic package -- 136 stories

4. U.S. bombing of Iraq -- 131 stories

5. World Trade Center bombing -- 124 stories

6. Crisis in Russia -- 121 stories

7. Somalia -- 82 stories

8. Mideast peace process -- 77 stories

9. Confrontation in Waco -- 72 stories

10. Gays in military -- 64 stories

Center for Media and Public Affairs, Washington

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