The American Media Diet

Our knowledge of foreign affairs is dismal compared to other countries, but if we are going to remain leaders of an interconnected world, we can’t continue to lag behind.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about his trip to the Middle East during a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sunday, June 30, 2013. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about his trip to the Middle East during a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sunday, June 30, 2013. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

My cyber-friend Eric Garland, whom I wrote about late last year, recently undertook an intriguing experiment. He eschewed U.S.-based English-language mass media for a week and replaced it with news from around the globe that was written, produced, and/or broadcast in languages that are foreign to most Americans and targeted to a public beyond our shores.

Garland, a writer who focuses on future trends, is one of the smartest people I’ve come across. He’s something of a Renaissance man: the author of three books, an in-demand orator, and a groovy bass player. He also travels the world and studies global cultures and languages, including French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Japanese.

For his American media fast, he focused on reading and watching news reports only produced in French, Spanish, and Portuguese for native consumption and concentrated in Western Europe, where many of the media outlets for those languages are based. His findings, posted last week on his eponymous blog, were as unsettling as they were brutally honest:

The United States is the only country in the world that treats other nations as completely optional. … culturally, America acts as if Other Countries are places that exist only in text books or vacation brochures. This is most acutely evident in the narrative projected by our media outlets: America remains the center of the world and Other Places are only worth describing if 1) something is on fire or 2) we have declared war on the people there. So if you live in the United States, your view of global events is myopic at best and completely distorted at worst.

That’s a damning indictment of both the American public and the sources of information that Americans consume. Sadly enough, I think he’s spot on.

It’s an old story that’s worth retelling: Most Americans can’t pass a global geography or current events test that citizens of other developed nations can recite from a dead sleep. One of the first to observe and document our lack of knowledge was scholar Martin Kreisberg, who characterized the U.S. public’s misunderstanding of international relations as “dark areas of ignorance” in his seminal 1949 article for Public Opinion and Foreign Policy.

More than a half-century later, the situation remains deficient. A study conducted in 2009 by an international team of university researchers notes that Americans still lag behind Europeans in their understanding of international events. Authors Shanto Iyengar at Stanford University, Kyu S. Hahn of the University of California at Los Angeles and Yonsei University, and Heinz Bonfadelli and Mirko Marr at the University of Zurich wrote:

In the post-cold war era, notwithstanding their massive advantages in education, Americans continue to lag behind citizens of other industrialized democracies on measures of foreign affairs information. In 1994, for example, citizens of Spain, Italy, Canada, Germany, Britain, and France were generally more likely to provide correct answers to a series of questions tapping international affairs. Using the percentage of the sample unable to provide the correct answer to a single question as the indicator of public ignorance, the United States trailed other nations by 50 percentage points: 37 percent of the American sample was classified as ignorant compared with an average of 19 percent for Italy, France, Britain, Germany, and Canada.

In 2011 Newsweek magazine reported that the European Journal of Communications asked citizens of Britain, Denmark, Finland, and the United States to answer questions on international affairs. In the results of that 2009 study, “[t]he Europeans clobbered us. Sixty-eight percent of Danes, 75 percent of Brits, and 76 percent of Finns could, for example, identify the Taliban, but only 58 percent of Americans managed to do the same—even though we’ve led the charge in Afghanistan,” Newsweek reported.

Garland’s one-man observations offer an unscientific yet insightful demonstration of why Americans are so lacking in global understanding. We could, he suggests, blame it on the news we consume:

To sum up, your choice of media very much shapes your perception of the world; my experiment reminded me that it shapes mine. This week showed me how much American media is focused on propping up authority figures, reinflating unsustainable financial bubbles, and maintaining the lowest possible cultural and intellectual standards. … If you live in the U.S. and want a global perspective, getting away from the US-American media bubble is going to require effort on your part.

That effort is precisely the reason why most Americans don’t know much about current events, aside, of course, from last week’s winner of American Idol or the plotlines of “Scandal.” But it is now a civic necessity to be an informed global citizen in an increasingly interconnected world.

The ignorance, however, isn’t limited to international news. It’s homegrown, too.

Michael Schudson, author of The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life, notes that our political system, compared to the politics in many European nations, keeps a lot of Americans in the dark. Voters have to figure out the complexities of municipal, state, and federal elections as they vote for all sorts of offices—from judges and sheriffs to school boards and from mayors to congressional leaders and the president. That’s often just too much for any citizen to fully comprehend.

“Nobody is competent to understand it all, which you realize every time you vote,” Schudson said in a 2011 interview with Newsweek. “You know you’re going to come up short, and that discourages you from learning more.”

As someone who spent the bulk of his professional life in U.S. newsrooms, I can add with authority that editors and publishers are in lockstep with consumer demands. If valued readers and viewers aren’t interested in learning more about international affairs—or even parts of their own communities—then the purveyors aren’t going to spend dwindling resources serving unwanted fare.

As Garland accurately notes, the sorry state of U.S. media and the absence of public awareness of the world is a national information-health concern.

“You wouldn’t be very healthy if your food diet was both limited in diversity and low in quality,” Garland writes. “Sadly, America’s intellectual diet is increasingly resembling its food choices—heavily processed, weighted towards a juvenile palate, providing little value for a balanced life.”

As leaders in an increasingly global world, Americans ought to be setting an example, or at least striving to set one. Instead, we’re letting ourselves fall behind. The question is, are we going to start changing up our media diet, or are we going to keep gorging on the same old nonsense.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)