Watch More, Know More. TV News and Foreign Affairs

August 16, 2013 • Specialist Journalism • by

It was a simple question: “Who are the Taliban?” An international research team posed this and other questions to 1000 adult TV viewers in 11 countries worldwide . In Europe, the majority of respondents knew that the Taliban were an Islamic terror group, while in Australia and Canada, almost half of respondents answered the question correctly. However in the United States, only 17 percent knew the correct response.

This and other findings led the researchers Toril Aalberg and colleagues from the Department of Sociology and Political Science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) to conclude that there is a direct link between the amount of hard international news coverage and citizens’ level of foreign affairs knowledge. The more foreign news TV stations broadcast, the more informed the population is about foreign affairs.

The results of the study, published in the June edition of Journalism Studies, show that there is a significant mismatch between the supply of foreign news coverage and the demand for these formats, especially in the U.S. As the researchers point out, Americans are interested in foreign affairs, but newscasts hardly satisfy the public’s demand for news from abroad.

The research team investigated the supply and demand for international TV news in Australia, Greece, the United Kingdom, India, Italy, Japan, Canada, Columbia, Norway, South Korea and the U.S., and analyzed the effects of the level of foreign affairs coverage on public knowledge. To conduct their analysis, Aalberg and her colleagues drew from a quantitative content analysis and a survey distributed to a quasi-representative sample in each of the 11 nations.

In each country, two primary evening news broadcasts from the leading television networks were examined. In all the countries included in the study, except for the U.S. and Columbia, researchers were provided with news bulletins produced by both a public service broadcaster and a commercial provider. In addition, researchers administered an online survey in nine countries via the market research company YouGovPolimetrix, while in Columbia the interviews were conducted face-to-face, and in Greece they were conducted by telephone.

Survey respondents were asked questions about their level of domestic and foreign news interest, as well as six questions on details of international news events that occurred in the months before the survey was administered, including specific locations and individuals.

Three survey items related to the West, while three related to Asia. Pictures were also used, as survey respondents were asked to identify Russian president Vladimir Putin, German chancellor Angela Merkel, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The final three survey items pertained to the Copenhagen Summit, the Thai Red Shirts, and the Taliban.

As the scientists expected, in all 11 countries analyzed, news programs devoted a larger share of their newscast to domestic news than to international coverage. The researchers cite previous studies whose results point to the gradual decline of foreign news coverage by mainstream media outlets, not only in the U.S. but also in Europe, a trend that exists in broadcast as well as print.

Aalberg and colleagues mention a study from the British Media Standards Trust which indicates that while 20 percent of each British newspaper was reserved for foreign news coverage in 1979, by 2009 this figure had fallen to only 11 percent.

In general, all of the news programs analyzed focused more on their home country than on foreign countries, however significant differences between each country were identified. For example, news programs in the U.K., Norway, and Canada devote a relatively large share of their coverage to foreign news (approximately one-third of total coverage).

While the U.S. (14 percent), India (13 percent), and Australia (12 percent) are at the bottom end of the scale, due to hefty coverage of their home country instead of foreign nations.

In five of the nine countries included in the study, public service channels broadcast more foreign news than their commercial counterparts.  The frontrunner was Norway, where 36 percent of news coverage from their leading public service broadcast deals with news from abroad, while the leading private channel contains only 27 percent of foreign news coverage.

By contrast, commercial TV channels in Italy, South Korea, and Japan broadcast more foreign news than their public service channels (Italy, 29 vs. 18 percent; South Korea, 27 vs. 16 percent; Japan, 23 vs. 14 percent).

Drawing on the results of previous studies which indicate that public service TV programs devote a larger share of their coverage to foreign news than private outlets, the researchers were “rather surprised” about the heterogeneous results of their international study.

Therefore it is important that researchers emphasize the sub-division of foreign coverage into soft and hard news. Hard news should be characterized as coverage pertaining to politics, economics, and society, while soft news deals with human-interest topics, such as celebrities, sports, and other entertainment.

As expected, the study also revealed that the public service channels analyzed devote a larger share of coverage to hard news (56 percent of foreign news coverage) than the private channels (41 percent).

However, there are exceptions. For example in Norway and Italy, public and private TV channels both broadcast approximately the same amount of hard foreign news (Norway, 65 percent vs. 65 percent; Italy, 49 percent vs. 48 percent), while the amount of soft foreign news is also nearly the same for both channels in both countries (Norway, 11 vs. 12 percent; Italy, 24 vs. 21 percent).
Nevertheless the results of the study reveal that commercial TV markets generally provide their audiences with less foreign news coverage of topics concerning politics, economics, and society.

TV viewers in Greece, the U.S., and Australia are provided with the smallest amount of international coverage by their respective TV programs, despite the fact that they are more interested in foreign news than the viewers in the other nine countries analyzed, according to the study’s survey.

In Greece, 59 percent of respondents said they were interested in foreign affairs, while 52 percent of U.S. respondents and 49 percent of Australia respondents said the same.

It is often assumed that the low frequency of international news content is a result of market mechanisms, i.e. international news is expensive to produce and the audience is not particularly interested.

However, the results of the international study show that in some countries there is a significant discrepancy between the supply and demand for international news. According to the study’s authors, the relatively high interest in foreign affairs from respondents in the U.S. and Australia indicates that journalists do not always give their audiences what they want.

The study also shows that coverage of international news influences the population’s level of knowledge concerning foreign affairs. Meaning the better TV channels are at informing their audiences about politics, economics and society abroad – the more their audience will know about these topics.

This article was translated by the author from the original German Zuschauer wollen mehr übers Ausland wissen

Photo credit: Thorsten Freyer  /

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