The Motto on Foreign News Coverage: Through a Lens Darkly and Infrequently
ISSUES PRESS JOURNALISTS
WASHINGTON — YOU can learn a lot about Michael Jackson's troubled marriage from the US media. But you won't find much about politics in Mali, or the price of tortilla flour in Mexico.
International affairs remains an afterthought in many American newsrooms, despite trends in technology and trade that are tying the nations of the world closer together. The foreign news that does appear often centers on combat or deployment of US troops - and seldom mentions social, cultural, or scientific issues.
For many Americans "the diet of international news offered cannot be adequate to relate the world to the United States and the world's potential importance to their lives," concludes Brookings Institution media scholar Stephen Hess in an in-depth new study of foreign news and foreign correspondents.
Quantity - or rather lack of it - is the first foreign news problem. Numerous studies have shown that over the last 20 years the amount of international news broadcast on evening TV network news varies between 20 to 40 percent of each show. This figure seems solid, if not spectacular. But it overstates the case, according to Dr. Hess, as about half of all stories counted "foreign affairs" are in fact about US foreign policy, or the actions of US citizens overseas.
The incredible shrinking foreign 'news hole'
Newspapers do somewhat better - particularly the few dedicated metropolitan dailies that still maintain staff writers in foreign cities. But most Americans don't live in New York or Washington, and the average mid-sized city paper does about the same as network anchors to educate citizens about the globe. Mid-circulation newspapers use an average of 4.5 foreign datelines each day, according to a Hess survey. The New York Times, by contrast, uses 11.
Perhaps more problematic than the number of stories is the decline in the number of correspondents themselves. Over the past decade, the three major networks cut their overseas staff in half.
The number of Time magazine's foreign correspondents declined by a third, while an entire wire service, United Press International, dwindled to a shadow of its former self. All told, US media now employ about 1,500 foreign correspondents - about the number of people that work in one wing of a large metro shopping mall.
Yet it isn't quantity that Stephen Hess feels is the real problem with US media and international news. "I call it a quality problem - certainly as far as the TV networks go," he says in an interview.
Despite the rise of CNN and other cable news sources, network TV news remains Americans' primary source of information about the world. And what viewers see on network TV are primarily bombs and bullets: brief, intense images of violence in far-away lands.
More than half of all TV foreign news subjects are related to violence, either via combat or disaster, or accident or repression, according to Hess. Such a focus on the spectacular distorts the very map of the world.
The Middle East, for instance, accounts for 5 percent of the world's population, but gets 35 percent of foreign dateline stories. Indeed, one-tenth of the world's nations accounts for 80 percent of the foreign news broadcast in the US. Whole regions can go years without a mention by Dan Rather.
Even when combat isn't the subject, stories can be stereotyped by nation. Thus TV reports about Japan invariably focus on economics.
"If you watched everything, the only country I think you would really know much about would be Russia," says Hess. About 17 percent of network foreign stories focus on Russia, and the coverage includes discussion of culture, environment, the press, and other subjects. The second-most covered nation is Israel, with about 10 percent of stories. In contrast with Russian stories, datelines from Israel "are virtually all violence," says Hess.
Many news executives like to find a domestic link in foreign events. Bill Wheatley, NBC's vice president for news, says the network is most interested in foreign stories that have an "American connection, because we serve an American audience. So, foreign news that affects America is in demand," he says.
NBC drastically cut back its foreign coverage in the late 1980s and early '90s, but is now looking for ways to expand. The network plans a 24-hour cable news channel and is opening bureaus in Frankfurt and Tokyo.
The problem with the foreign coverage of most US newspapers isn't quality per se, according to Hess, but selection.
Even the smallest papers typically subscribe to the Associated Press, which produces a flood of interesting foreign stories every day, from analyses of Boris Yeltsin's political problems to the controversy over Canada's proposed Canoe Hall of Fame. Many also pay for The New York Times news service or the syndicate of The Washington Post.
Rather, the issue with newspapers is selection. Most city editors of mid-size and small papers use nothing but the crisis and combat foreign stories duplicated on TV. Filler foreign datelines often are cut-down, sketchy accounts that convey little information.
"It's very strange to read these papers and see the degree to which they had picked stuff that was meaningless," says Hess.
Our myopic world and welcome to it
Actually, American editors may not be alone in this regard. The media of most nations overwhelmingly focus on stories at home, says Everette Dennis, director of the media studies center at Columbia University in New York. In some parts of the world rulers still actively suppress news about happenings outside their borders.
Perhaps the real problem with foreign news is that it is a bastion of conservatism, muses Mr. Dennis. While domestic news sections have undergone large changes in the manner and focus of coverage since the 1970s, international stories are often formulaic, official-source driven news that interest neither editors, readers, nor viewers.
"If it was written better people would care more," says Dennis. "People are interested in health issues, wherever they are. They're interested in all kinds of economic news, if it's pertinent to them."
* Staff editor Scott Baldauf contributed to this report.