The relationship between mass media and African ‘development’ has been an object of critical study for media studies scholars since at least the 1980s. The 1985 Live Aid concert, and the BBC coverage of the Ethiopian famine that inspired it, indicated that media coverage and the ability to mobilize resources for foreign assistance were connected – although this relationship was only beginning to be theorized. In this paper it is argued that two of the most influential models of the media’s power to mobilize assistance that subsequently developed remain under-theorized, and may operate in ways substantially different to their applied conceptions. Further refinement is needed if the role of the media in constructing distant suffering and mobilizing solidarity with those affected by it is to be productively understood. The paradigms of the ‘CNN Effect’ as the power of the media to compel humanitarian action, and ‘compassion fatigue’ as the tendency for audiences to lose empathy for distant victims after over-coverage of their plight have informed a long history of media advocacy related to Africa’s conflicts, famines and disasters. Though forming the conceptual foundation of media strategies ranging from the Kony2012 viral media campaign to the advertising of Oxfam and the United Nations, these theories of media influence are subject to numerous critiques from both more nuanced understandings of media power and actual case appraisals.
This paper argues that, influential as they have been, these theories are an inadequate basis for understanding the interactions of mass media, humanitarian action, and the creation of solidarity with distant sufferers. More nuanced and contingent paradigms, such as those argued by Žižek, Chouliaraki, Autesserre and others are required for the construction of a robust theory of media-humanitarian interaction.