The Motto on Foreign News Coverage: Through a Lens Darkly and Infrequently ISSUES PRESS JOURNALISTS

Article excerpt

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. …