The Power of Television

The vast majority of Americans continue to rely on broadcast and cable television as their primary source of information (Source: News Audiences Increasingly Politicized,” Pew Research Center for People and the Press, June 8, 2004). No other source of information, including newspapers, radio, and the internet, comes close to the power of television. For many of us, if an event is not reported on television, it does not happen. Television combines the compelling images, music and dramatic narrative of the movies, with the personal immediacy of talk radio. It should come as no surprise that television news continues to provide most Americans with information about their neighborhoods and our global village.

When the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were under attack, Americans rushed to their television sets. When political candidates run for election, when celebrities want us to see their movies, they all go to television to get our attention. And so we undertake this campaign to remind major American television networks of their responsibility to report on our world, even when the story is as horrible as the genocide in Sudan. Television has told us stories of important human brutality before, and Americans have responded by demanding action from our elected representatives.

Birmingham, Alabama, 1963 – Courage in the Face of Hatred

Many people regard the television images of the brutal effort to suppress a crowd of young people marching for freedom in Birmingham as the turning point in the Civil Rights movement. On May 2 and 3, 1963, Police Chief “Bull” Connor’s forces employed water cannons, billy-clubs, and attack-dogs to try and suppress the peaceful crowd. The events in Birmingham shocked the millions of Americans who watched it replayed on television. Only a year later, Congress passed and President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Ethiopia, 1984 – Putting a Face on Famine

In October 1984, images taken by a BBC camera crew of the famine in Ethiopia were first broadcast in the United States. The effect of the images on the public was astounding. Almost immediately, spontaneous volunteer efforts large and small sprang up to respond to the crisis. Governments too took action and dramatically increased aid funding for Ethiopia. Although Ethiopia has continued to struggle with humanitarian crises and in recent years famine has returned to parts of the country, these aid efforts of 1984-85 saved millions of lives. The aid may not have been forthcoming unless those television images put a face to the famine.

The South Asian Tsumani, 2004 – Showing the Scale of Suffering

On December 26, 2004, waves of unimaginable force struck the shores of a huge area of the coastline of South Asia. The death toll quickly reached more than 300,000 with the numbers of homeless, injured, and malnourished people quickly rising into the millions. In the first few days, the international response was limited, but as home video footage trickled out of the region and TV news crews moved in, the world came to see the scope of the devastation. U.S. assistance jumped from an initial pledge of $15 million in aid to $350 million and then beyond. Read a Center for American Progress analysis of the initial Tsunami assistance.