Foreign news. (Hey, get back here!)

July 3, 2009

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During the recent, post-election unrest in Iran, I noticed that several of my friends’ status updates on Facebook addressed the situation – certainly not with the frequency of, say, complaints about the abysmal weather in New England or cute things said by kids (for the record, I’m guilty on both fronts), but frequently enough for me to take notice.

It brought back to mind a question that I have pondered (yes, I do ponder from time to time) in the past:

Why do Americans seem, overall, disinterested in what’s going on in the rest of the world?

Before you think I’m up on my high horse with this one let me ‘fess up: Like most Americans, I do not spend much time seeking out foreign news coverage. I rely mostly on what makes it to the front page of the New York Times, or into The Week magazine’s international section.

So…what is the deal here? I am smart, my husband is smart – we listen to NPR and read The New Yorker, like good smart people are supposed to do. (Okay, I also watch Weeds, which isn’t even a good show any more, never mind smart, and David sometimes watches these sketchy extreme fighting shows that annoy the hell out of me and then I go drink wine and cruise Facebook. But we’re still smart. We are. NPR: Woo-hoo!)

At any rate, I have some theories.

Theory #1: We are all trashy, loathesome swine. Certainly some light has been shed of late on Americans’ disgusting habits of consumption – the McMansions, the SUVs, the brand new giant-screen TVs in houses where no one is employed, and so on. Is it possible that we honestly just want to amass a boatload of crap, and we don’t give a flying turd about things like people living in extreme poverty, or in refugee camps? As long as we don’t have to see it, we honestly just don’t care?

Wow, that is so, so depressing.

Theory #2: It’s a failure of the education system that we are not taught, as young children, about the rest of the world and our connection to it. As we get older, events in places with weird names – Yemen and Bolivia and Congo – just seem so far away, so removed, that none of it has anything to do with us anyway. What are you talking about, some people don’t have a toilet?! Ewww!

I can honestly say, sadly, that I never felt part of anything “global” when I was growing up. Even in high school, when I took a History of the Middle East class, I don’t recall it being made clear to me how any of it could possibly have any impact on “my world.”

Theory #3: Most of the news is difficult so we become overwhelmed and shut down. Obviously, there isn’t some big news story saying, “This just in: Everyone in Ecuador is generally satisfied!” That’s not what news is. But I’m recalling a theory that talks about how it is easy to process a story that involves, say, under twenty people, but after that we start to shut down and just think of “them” as a number instead of individuals like ourselves.

So, if, for example, six children are in danger we will do anything in our power to rescue them; meanwhile, there are untold numbers of children living in camps, malnourished and sick, being beaten and raped…but they have become numbers to us, not individual people. And anyway, there’s nothing we can do about it, right? It’s too enormous, and way out of our control. We can barely handle getting the kids to school and paying the bills.

Theory #4: We would care, if we had the information. This is the “chicken and egg” theory. Is there a lack of foreign news because of a lack of desire, or is there a lack of desire because of the lack of coverage?

Due to cutbacks in funding so many news organizations have simply given up on the coverage of world events. And we’re busy people – we don’t have time to go searching for information. So, if the news is pushing a story about a kitten that was abandoned in a mailbox (Cambridge, MA, last week), then that’s what we’re going to absorb. (Don’t worry, someone adopted the kitten the very next day. That also made headlines.)

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I’m going to briefly pause the theories to confess that another reason this whole issue has been on my mind is because of two friends I saw recently, Jason Maloney and Kira Kay, and their non profit international news organization, the Bureau for International Reporting (check them out at Along with being friends of mine, they are also award-winning, international journalists who have reported from over 25 countries. I knew they would have some thoughts on the topic. So, I bring you Theory #5, which takes into account some of Jason’s opinions.

Theory #5: – In order to engage people, stories need to be well told, and they’re not.

A recent example of what can go wrong? The Nightline report of Salma Hayek visiting Sierra Leone. Now, I did not watch this show and I did not read specific coverage of this show. But somehow, somewhere, I heard that Hayek had nursed someone else’s baby. I didn’t even hear where she was or what she was doing there! For all I knew she could have been in a mall in Dallas. So, issues of health in Africa be damned – the story became about a Hollywood star’s (sizable) breast in not-her-own-baby’s mouth. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is our news from oversees.

On the other hand, would the story even have been possible without her participation? Would we have watched it? How can we get the stories that are somewhere between “celebrity do-gooder takes a trip” and “amateur reporter makes a YouTube video?”

I could go on and on and on – there are so many questions. As for answers…yeah, I don’t have any. I think it’s a combination of all of the theories, actually. I do know that I am going to make it a point to pay more attention to what is happening world-wide, and to talk to my four-year-old about other countries and cultures on a more regular basis.

See? I am working on Theory #2 so as to never be the person in Theory #1.

  • I'll just prove your whole post to be completely true by the mere fact that I'm only going to comment to agree with you that Weeds has become completely absurd. I miss the old suburban drug running, wine swilling Nancy and all of those “little boxes on a hillside made out of ticky tacky.”

  • lcarrigg

    Ha! So funny, Erin. Whenever I watch Weeds now I think about the show's writers and what the hell they could possibly be thinking. Maybe they just assumed no one would watch the show for more than a season so they didn't think it through after that. It is like an 18-wheeler with no brakes, careening out of control. It's a testament to how bad the rest of tv is that I still watch it!

    As for the foreign news issue, with which I am currently obsessed, I had an epiphany last night: The reason that I personally do not stay up-to-date on a daily basis is that I lack the foundation and the history to understand so many of the current issues, so I am always feeling behind and lost and I can't imagine where I would begin to feel caught up. I'm considering picking one country and trying to understand the history and goings on in just that one country.

  • Reb

    I was just thinking about this topic the other day when I was looking at huffpo and realized that the World section of the blog was as big as New York and Chicago. What? The whole world just gets one tab?

    I like your idea of picking a country though and trying to understand it more deeply. Maybe we can do it together like a book club? Pass around some articles? I don't know…

  • OK, here's what I think, which coincidentally helps me feel better about whichever theory # I am.

    We live in this massive country isolated by giant bodies of water. We don't live by other countries, other peoples. So for us to be engaged in their stories, it has to be a completely intellectual act. We have to seek out the sources, and then absorb them, over time, while we do all the other things our lives demand. There's no direct contact with those other places.

    Also, our media tend to spread outward, with little getting back in. We don't hear the voices and sounds of other people (except maybe if we catch The World on NPR). So I think to a certain degree we need to let ourselves off the hook. And then maybe try to do something about it.

    If you have some idea what is going on in the next state, that's kind of like knowing what's happening in the next country in Europe, geography-wise. We really live in a unique circumstance that isolates us. So I say, pick some other little part of the world, and learn a little bit about that (Have you heard what's going on in Honduras? Crazy…). Otherwise, your brain will be so addled you won't be able to tell the good episodes of Weeds from the bad ones, and well, confession – I hadn't noticed how the show had slipped 'til you mentioned it…

  • lcarrigg

    I think for me, personally, I need to fall somewhere in the middle – yes, let myself off the hook a bit – we're all busy people, we all try, blah blah blah – but not so much that I totally forget and just stick with the Style section. I think that if I knew more about ONE country/region, I would feel much more comfortable saying “I don't know much about that situation” when someone brought up a different geopolitical issue from another country.

    Jim, I think your point about the geography of the situation is an interesting one – but then I find it odd that just when the world is getting “smaller” (so much easier and faster to travel, email/video/Skype/YouTube all make is so much easier to send and receive info around the world), we seem to be paying less attention to world events instead of more. Or is that not true?

    Here's a question: Does not having a military draft make us less aware, as a country, of world events because we're not on pins and needles thinking that our loved ones may be sent to a far away war?

    I also think that part of it is the shift from everyone watching the Evening News with Walter Cronkite (or whatever they watched) to people getting their news from so many different sources. I think it's a positive change, overall, but it is more work for us, and we're not all on the same page with the same info anymore.

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