A new poll from the Pew Research Center made headlines this week with the news that — despite the events of Sept. 11th — Americans are still more interested in Dallas than Jakarta. The rap on Americans from the rest of the world has always been that we're big-country cowboys who don't know anything about the rest of the world because we don't have to.
If you were looking for a huge transformation in Americans' interest in international news since our own world was so profoundly shaken by terrorists from countries we probably couldn't find on a map, then the news from the poll is discouraging. The percentage of Americans who closely follow international news has increased only slightly, from 14 percent to 21 percent, since the year 2000. But, if, like me, you're an optimist, and you believe news organizations should cover international news because it matters, there's room for optimism in the results.
In the past few months, the surveyors found, as many as four in ten Americans said they were paying very close attention to the Middle East conflict, with another 33 percent following the story very closely. That's a lot of people — the highest level of interest in the story since the 1980s. And we've even been paying attention to the fight between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, although it probably took the threat of nuclear war to get many Americans — and many American news organizations — focused on the story.
The cynical view about Americans has been that we don't care about a foreign-news story unless there are American troops on the ground. There is some truth to that, given our isolationism in the past. But that argument also has been a convenient excuse for closing expensive foreign-news bureaus.
In the Pew survey, two-thirds of those who were interested in international news said they don't follow these stories because they lack background in them. Whose fault is that? American news organizations do bear some responsibility for our lack of understanding about foreign affairs. (If you want to get really depressed as a media critic, look up the number of TV news minutes devoted to Chandra Levy — and even shark attacks — last August, compared to the number of stories at that time about Usama bin Laden.) But now that the tragedy of Sept. 11th has struck and we know how truly interconnected the world today is, it's up to each of us in the media-public equation to play our part. The media should tell important international stories in ways that make them compelling, not good-for-you boring. And the public should stop for a minute and pay some attention.
Jane Hall is a FOX News Channel contributor and a weekly panelist on FOX News Watch. Hall is also a professor in the School of Communication at American University and is a nationally recognized expert in politics and the media, ethics in journalism and other topics relating to issues in the news media. Hall also has been editor-in-chief of the business magazine View and an associate editor at People magazine. She holds a master's degree in journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.