Western Media Coverage of the Syrian Crisis: A Watershed for the CNN Effect

Hanna Werman


What explains the absence of the CNN effect in the foreign policy decision-making process in the post-9/11 political context? A significant body of literature examines the CNN effect, the influence of the media on public opinion, and the effect this influence has on policy decision-making. However, this theory has not been applied to a case since the late 1990s. This paper analyzes the case of non-intervention in Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons against a civilian population to determine the applicability of the CNN effect theory in the post-9/11 context. By applying Robinson’s Policy-Media Interaction Model to television (CNN, Fox News) and print (New York Times, Washington Post) media coverage, this paper determined that the CNN effect should not have influenced this decision since the conditions favorable to influence policymakers were not present.  The lack of influence in a case similar to previous events where the CNN effect did play a role suggests that the media agenda has shifted to cover the legal discourse of intervention rather than the normative, humanitarian discourse that gave rise to the CNN effect theory. Robinson’s model is adapted to compare the empathy and critical frames used in the original model against a legal frame to determine that the legal agenda has a stronger presence. This concludes that in a transformed media environment, the CNN effect does not play the same role in mobilizing public opinion as it once did.


Media; Intervention; Policy

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