Media-driven Humanitarianism? News Media Coverage of Human Rights Abuses and the Use of Economic Sanctions


Despite significant research on the role that media coverage of human suffering has on foreign policymaking, no study to date has examined the news media's impact on the use of economic sanctions, a widely used policy tool to address humanitarian problems. This study explores whether news media coverage of human rights abuses in Newsweek and the New York Times increases the likelihood of US economic sanctions. Synthesizing insights from agenda-setting theory with recent work on the domestic origins of sanction policy, we argue that press attention to human rights violations increases the threat and imposition of sanctions by mobilizing the public to pressure leaders to take action against abusive regimes. We find support for this argument in statistical tests of US sanction cases between the 1976 and 2000 period. The results also indicate that the media's effect is conditioned by US strategic ties to potential targets: the effect of critical press coverage is stronger for US non-allies than allies. Further, this conditional effect occurs even though abusive allies receive more media attention than abusive non-allies. Overall, this manuscript shows that nonstate actors can have an important role on foreign policy decision making generally, and specifically that news media influence the US decision to use economic sanctions. Our analyses also suggest that leaders balance the public's demand for action with the security imperative to maintain good relations with allies.

Publication Title

International Studies Quarterly