US is long on game shows, short on foreign news

When Brits travel to the US, they find more knock-offs of their game shows and less of something else they care about: international news.

Coverage of world events has been declining in the US since the 1970s, but with more people visiting the land of the free, that omission is becoming more apparent.

"I was just amazed at how localized it was," says Emma Carmichael, a Londoner who visited the US several times last year and frequently watched TV in the morning. "Particularly in New York City, I would have thought [the news] to be a lot more serious and more involved."

London taxi drivers also inquire about it, telling of discussions with British businessmen who are amazed that Americans know so little about the world.

The lack of international news in the US -while a surprise to some in Britain -has been debated by the American media community for years.

By some accounts, the decline began after the Vietnam War, when the country turned inward and people were more interested in local news (still a top priority). It was exacerbated more recently by the end of the cold war, when the major TV networks in particular reduced their coverage.

"There's no question that as the cold war closed down, they closed down with it," says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution whose 1996 book "International News and Foreign Correspondents" highlighted the problem.

In the 1960s, at least 40 percent of US television news was international. By the late '90s, that figure was between 7 and 12 percent, according to a November 1998 article in the American Journalism Review by longtime foreign correspondent Peter Arnett.

While newspapers including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and the Monitor regularly cover overseas news, Mr. Hess reported in his book that three-quarters of the country's largest 100 papers had no full-time foreign correspondents.

Today, not only is the quantity of foreign news questioned but also its quality -now that some coverage comes from reporters parachuting in for events without much on-the-ground context.

In the past five years, Hess says international business news has increased, as has use of the Internet to find out about the world. Some local papers also appear to be making an effort to tailor international news, like that of the recent earthquake in India, to the specific immigrant populations they serve. And CNN continues to offer Americans some daily international fare (though most in the US don't have access to CNN's all-international channel).

What Americans themselves want is somewhat unclear. Over the years, public surveys seem to support both interest and lack of interest in international news. Newsstand sales for magazines, for example, suffer when foreign news is on the cover, according to Mr. Arnett.

The lack of international news "reflects our country as much as our press," Hess suggests, pointing out that all of the country's borders are secure, and that interest in overseas news is often driven by threats to US troops.

Last July, the Pew Research Center released a survey on media consumption in which more than half of Americans said they follow international news only when something significant is happening, while just over a third said they regularly follow it. Interestingly, the numbers are almost the same when people are asked how often they follow business and financial news.

Still, Hess argues that the media has a responsibility to provide foreign news. In the introduction to the paperback edition of his book, he says the country is being split into two media societies: "Americans who have the time, interest, and money will be awash in information," he writes, "while those with limited resources, who probably rely on an evening network television program and a local paper for news, will not get the information that reflects the importance of the world for their lives."

It's a point not lost on the British.

Cosmo cafes in Britain

In the latest example of brand extension, Cosmopolitan, Britain's largest-circulation women's mag, announced last month that it plans to open a chain of "lifestyle centers." These hip cafes will offer everything from health foods to exercise programs. Set to debut later this year in England, the centers are expected to eventually migrate overseas.

Meanwhile, back in the US...

Ever wonder why the hosts of the "Today" show often cut to commercial breaks with the random phrase, "But first, this is 'Today' on NBC"? Well, turns out those words are the cue for local broadcasters so they know when it's their turn to air commercials. The decades-old practice was revealed during a segment on pet peeves in last Friday's show.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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