Is public indifference to foreign news a myth?

January 10, 2005

I’ve never understood the complaint you always hear about drivers who slow down to look at an accident scene. Is it better to zip by at highway speed without a glance? Are we supposed to disregard the misfortune of others?

I don’t think so. I think the impulse to look and to pity is part of what makes us human. That’s why the extraordinary wave of media coverage of the extraordinary destruction on the shores of the Indian Ocean wrought by the Dec. 24 tsunami is so impressive. From the most glittering of network news stars to the scrappiest of reporters from the provincial press, U.S. journalists have poured into Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Thailand, to places that they, their editors, their publishers and their readers would have had a hard time finding on a map two weeks ago.

And that’s the problem. It isn’t just the sensitivity of the coverage or the poignancy of the stories that is remarkable. Nor is it the activation of whole new networks of Web-based reportage, which have brought a fresh dimension of direct experience and observation to millions of people worldwide.

What’s truly notable is that the attention lavished on the tsunami aftermath reminds us how rarely we pay any attention whatever to most of the rest of humankind. Despite the miracle of real-time global communications, we share the world with billions of people who enter our fields of awareness in one of only two ways: as threats or victims.

Shouldn’t these people have had some reality for us — lives, hopes, faiths, histories —before they became grieving supplicants?

Suddenly we’re flooded with images of Sri Lankans as desperate, bereaved people whose homes have been swept away and their children drowned. We’re aware of south Indians, people of coastal Thailand, Sumatrans and others, all in the same way. We are moved to help, thank heaven; our celebrity culture is mobilizing to insist that we give, and if Americans had more confidence that their donations wouldn’t be misused or stolen the contributions might even be more generous than they have been.

It seems apparent from the passion and scale of the response that people in comfortable, metropolitan countries are not necessarily apathetic when it comes to happenings on the other side of the world. We can care. The number of people in this country watching cable news jumped sharply in the wake of the disaster. British newspaper sales spiked.

Naturally, this was a searing, dramatic event. A staggering number of people, upwards of 150,000 were suddenly wiped out. Our fascination with that doesn’t readily translate into an equivalent interest in the chronic, slow-motion tragedies of life in the poor world where, as Nicholas Kristof noted in a New York Times column, malaria kills 160,000, AIDS 240,000 and diarrhea 140,000 people every month.

But the surge of interest may suggest that something is flawed in the universal assumption among U.S. news media that Americans really can’t be bothered with what happens overseas. That conviction has led news organizations to shut down foreign bureaus and cut way back on space devoted to reporting from abroad. That phenomenon was chronicled in veteran correspondent Peter Arnett’s memorable 1998 American Journalism Review article, “Goodbye World,” when he wrote: “International news coverage in most of America’s mainstream papers has almost reached the vanishing point.”

Since then things have only gotten worse, as TV news networks retrench and print media redirect their energies to such proven crowd-pleasers as celebrity break-ups and market-driven inserts. And we’re left with the paradox that the people who live amid the greatest abundance of informational resources in human history are shown, time and again, to be profoundly uninformed about the world around them.

Lamentation about the steady decline in the numbers of Americans who watch news or read newspapers has become a reliable motif in any sizable gathering of media people. The proportion of people ages 18 to 34 who read the paper regularly plunged to 26 percent in 2001 from 39 percent four years earlier.

No responsible media executive would believe for a second that the audience is melting away because of a lack of foreign news. But it’s a big world out there with a lot of great stories that nobody is even trying to tell. And the fascination with this calamity — unmatched since 9/11 — might suggest that the U.S. news audience is being underestimated by the U.S. news business. At least we can hope so.

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