Abstract nakedness: how the media’s symbolic power magnifies and creates protracted humanitarian crises

“The survivors of the extermination camps, the inmates of concentration camps, and even the comparatively happy stateless people could see […] that the abstract nakedness of being nothing but human was their greatest danger” (Hannah Arendt, 1958)

Pierre Bourdieu (1986) coined the term symbolic power to refer to the ideological power wielded by the hegemonic influences, such as the state and the media. This ideological power cannot be tangibly perceived like the hard power of military force, but it exerts an equally significant strength on international and social relations. When analysing how the crafting of public opinion determines humanitarian response, it is extremely relevant to understand how symbolic power is shared and contested by the crisis triangle (Cottle & Nolan, 2007) composed by state, media and NGO actors. Foucault argues that “power operates through discourse by creating our social world and identities in particular ways” (Schroder & Phillips 2007, p.894). Similarly, Joye (2009) reflects that “discourses create representations of the world that reflect as well as actively construct reality by ascribing meanings to our world, identities and social relations” (p. 49).

The abstract nakedness (Arendt, 1958) of humanitarian crises are recurrently portrayed in the symbols and codes of the global media, who are aware that images of distress and distant suffering generate the most reader engagement and advertising revenue. Calhoun (2010) framed these codes within the conceptualisation of the emergency imaginary, upon which “humanitarian and emergency are cultural constructs” which “come together to shape a way of understanding what is happening in the world” (p. 29).

The way the the media disembodies the victims of a crisis of their identity is a phenomenon that has drawn significant academic research. Within this framework, Cottle & Nolan (2007) sustain that the media “are drawn selectively to images of distress (‘‘the pornography of suffering’’) rather than issues of structural disadvantage” (p. 863). Arendt (1958) recounted her own experience in The Origins of Totalitarianism, asserting that “a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow man.” (p. 300).

Art in Syria amidst the crisis. Source: BBC.

The policy implications of the power relations shaped by the media’s coverage of crisis have become the subject of significant academic research. Significant scholars (Robinson, 2002; Joye, 2009, Cottle & Nolan, 2007) have highlighted how this emergency imaginary may dictate what crises are tended to and which crises become protracted. Within this framework, the media are considered by many scholars to be the determining forces of global humanitarian responses. Robinson (2002) coined the term “CNN effect” to denominate “the […] ability of news media to provoke major response from domestic audiences and political elites to both global and national events”.

However, whereas there is significant evidence of the relationship between news coverage and the international response a crisis receives (Franks, 2006), it is important to differentiate between what we consider a policy response versus a humanitarian response. As Ignatieff (1998) sustains, the CNN effect will have little effect to drive policy but will have a big effect to promote humanitarian intervention.

Such a diversion from the true nature of certain crises can be inherently problematic, as it can detract from the true root where aid should flow and is conductive to a band-aid approach to crisis response. Furthermore, we can argue that the CNN effect magnifies and makes invisible certain types of crises, by prioritising the suffering that can be neatly condensed into the imagery of the digestible emergency imaginary –leading to protracted forms of suffering.

Art in a bombed school in Syria. Source: BBC.

It is pertinent to study the power relations between the actions of the media and the interests of the state in determining humanitarian response, within the context of globalization’s structural inequalities and social anomie (Durkheim, 1961). Within this framework, it is pertinent to highlight that whereas humanitarianism and crisis coverage in international media has surged exponentially within the last thirty years, Calhoun (2010) has asserted that there is not significant evidence that the number of crises have increased proportionally (p.29). It can be asserted how the symbolic power of the disaster imaginary flourishes within a globalized society that is characterized by widespread sense of anomie and the break-down of traditional sovereign and communal social structures. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (2005) defined this current period of time and space as a liquid modernity.

In a historical analysis of the evolution of humanitarianism, Givoni (2011) highlights how the foundations of humanitarianism are rooted in a Western fulfilment of the self. Likewise, Foucault’s (1983) conception of ethics alludes to the self-nurturing and self-fulfilment from a position of power. Significant parallelisms can be drawn between the use of humanitarianism by the capitalist industrial elites in the colonial era (to deflect from the detrimental working conditions in the West and ensure public stability) and the use of humanitarianism by Western governments in an era of unrest and social polarisation provoked by the inequalities of globalisation.

As Haskell (1985) has analysed “the formalistic conception of human freedom that enabled people militantly opposed to slavery to ignore the plight of the impoverished factory laborer and to turn their back on the ex-slave once he was legally free was powerful” (p.346). Within our current landscape, Donini (2010, as quoted in Davies, 2012) argues that contemporary humanitarianism is used “by Northern Governments to obscure and distract from fundamental structural issues, and as a way to extend globalisation” (p. 18). Within this framework, the role of the media in shaping policy response can be considered to be a secondary force and, furthermore, to be subjugated to the interests and the directives of the state.

When we try to assess the true influence the media plays in conducting humanitarian response, we shall argue that as a Fourth-Estate, the media may be able to shape the type of response, but state interest will determine whether any response at all will take place. As Cottle and Nolan (2007) note, “the media lens is peculiarly insensitive to the distant suffering of others and, based on geo-political outlooks and historical legacy, is apt to see through a prism of ethnocentrism and Western-led interests” (p. 863). Smillie, I., & Minear, L. (2004) further enforce this view by arguing how political interest and cultural proximity will prevail over the right to information, and the media will only engage when such hegemonic interests exist. Within this framework, we can assert how, at best, the media’s role in constructing the disaster imaginary has lead to a Marketingization of humanitarian intervention. This is reinforced by how “media spotlight is apt to roam quickly from one disaster/emergency to another and does so in a competitive environment informed by the pursuit of readers, ratings and revenue” (Cottle & Nolan 2007, p.863). This brings us to the study of the construction of symbolic power and geopolitical hegemony.

Prominent academic Noam Chomsky has highlighted the strength of the state in directing what is portrayed by the media, and consequently, what comes into reality. Chomsky (1984) described in a lecture at Berkeley how during many Cold War coups orchestrated by the US (under the pretence of humanitarian interventions), the spectrum of possible criticism offered by the media was shaped between the frontiers where the conservative media argued these were necessary for military purposes, while even the liberal media engaged in the defence of these interventions on humanitarian grounds. Within this framework, Wheeler (2003) asserts how “the media can be used by policymakers to build support for an intervention that they want to pursue for non-media reasons.”

Furthermore, Calhoun (2010) illustrates how humanitarian emergencies at the root cause manifest in the context of wars and violence with seeds in “past colonialism, continuing shifting global hegemonies, and sometimes new markets” (p. 29). This was the case in Iraq. Where the creative ideation of the US’s preventive defence (as opposed to legitimate defence regulated by International Law) was not only a symbol of asserting this power to shift borders and build states through bullets, but was also a quest for an important currency: oil.

Whereas the final bastion of hope of independence, has traditionally been enshrined in the impartiality of the NGOs capacity for policy response, we can consider how even the most powerful NGOs play a very minor role in the symbolic sphere of the influence on public opinion. This sphere is controlled by the two bipolar global powers of the post Cold War International World Order: the state and the media. As Cottle and Nolan (2007) note, “humanitarian organizations today confront a globalizing, increasingly competitive, media environment” (p. 863).

Furthermore, the whole structure of the UN system and many NGOs are increasingly dependent on state funding, politically allocated to certain projects, which leaves them caught in a pendulum between the crises that governments and media have interests in showcasing. From a developmental, albeit utilitarian perspective, NGOs have to prioritize efficiency. This is leading many NGOs into perpetuating the state and the media’s emergency imaginary.

Storytelling is an increasingly used medium by NGOs, in which a crisis is represented by a single real face and a deeply personal story with quasi-morbid details. Baumeister, Stillwell & Heatherton (as cited in by Joye 2009, p. 48), sustain that “people display more compassion and willingness to help when they feel close or related to the ‘Other’ in need”. However, it must be highlighted how this compassion is realized from a paternalistic reinforcement of otherness, where the other is disembodied from their cultural context, their agency and their identity. This way the other is solely represented by their suffering which can be manifested in media through their physical or psychological mutilation. This mutilation serves as a symbolic representation of a crisis and is engrained within our collective memory of a country or a region, stripping those who suffer the burden of these crises of being anything more.

While the media and NGOs are caught in a vicious circle of publically competing to represent the emergency imaginary, the state shapes an increasingly securitised form of humanitarian action in the form of policy. Whereas the media’s construction of the emergency imaginary is conductive to a humanitarian landscape which reinforces rapid instead versus long term development; the state shapes the hard humanitarian policy in the shadows while public opinion is caught in the consumption of media’s imaginaries. As Olsen, G. R., Carstensen, N. and Høyen, K. (2003) sustain, the true volume of Emergency Assistance depends on
the degree of political interest, particularly related to security, that donor governments have in a particular region (p.1, p101-125).

The question to ask, therefore, is not what type of humanitarian response is invoked by the disaster imaginary. But what interests conflate in the construction of this symbolic power. State, media and NGOs should not be seen as purely heterogeneous entities with separate functions. The emergency imaginary is determined by states, publically constructed by media it, and tacitly reinforced by NGOs, who comply within its boundaries. We can assert that since the process of industrialization and the flourishment of capitalism and globalization, there has been an erosion of the balances of power, notably the arbitrary power to the Fourth Estate. This is manifested by the significant increase media concentration, where currently seven multinational corporations produce 90% of global news. Amongst the shareholders of these multinational corporations, there are leading US policy and financial figures, such as congressmen and women, directors of US Think-Tanks, military figures and influential wall street actors. As Franks (2006) highlights, “Western self-interest is the pre-condition for significant coverage of a humanitarian crisis” (p.5).

One closing reflection we ought to make about the shaping of the emergency imaginary is on how these actors perpetuate what Tester (2001) defines as compassion fatigue “which refers to a possible overexposure of the audience to human suffering and the subsequent diminishing public concern”. We ought to ask, to what extent do state and media reinforce compassion fatigue by exacerbating the coverage of certain crises and making others invisible, and to what extent does this fatigue turn the population’s initial interest to apathy allowing state actors to perpetuate their geopolitical and economic interventions in these regions without public scrutiny in the aftermath of the immediate disaster?

Within this framework, contemporary humanitarianism flourishes an advanced-liberal formation of global governance, between a Foucauldian sense of ethics and a Hobbesian’s Leviathan’s benevolence to export a doctrine of human rights onto the abstract nakedness of distant others.

By Carlota Nunez Strutt. Carlota Nunez Strutt is a Master’s Student of Human Rights at the London School of Economics.


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