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How Well Do US Citizens Understand the World? - 2003-05-28

The reach of US influence around the globe is perhaps stronger then ever before in history. But how well do Americans understand global issues? Some critics say Americans are isolated and do not follow world events beyond the crises of the day.

After the terrorist attacks of September eleventh killed over three thousand people in Washington and New York, millions of Americans asked themselves how this could have happened. 'Why do they hate us' was a familiar question heard across the country. Some observers at the time thought Americans' appetite for international news would catapult as so many searched for understanding amid their shock and disbelief.

But a Pew Research Center survey taken after the terrorist attacks shows news habits of Americans are little changed. It indicates that a majority of Americans only follow international news when major developments occur.

John Doolittle, a writer and former reporter and broadcaster at local radio and television stations across the United States, says many Americans have a limited view of the world. "I think we have to somehow overcome our cultural isolationism, which is still prevalent. Even though we are making some inroads, I think Americans are too prone to just look at their own back yard and their own environment and say this is the way that things should be. This is the way that everyone should live. That builds barriers between us and people in other parts of the world."

But Mr. Doolittle points out that geography also has something to do with American's relative isolation. He says for a US citizen to travel to another country compared to a European it takes more than simply jumping on a train. "We've had oceans separating us from other parts of the world. We have a lot of riches here. We have been very fortunate that everything is here. So we have not been that aware on our dependency of other parts of the world."

Even though more Americans are traveling and living abroad, says Mr. Doolittle, less than a quarter of US citizens own a passport today.

The Pew survey also points out that since the September eleventh terrorist attacks, fewer young people in the United States are following any kind of news.

Some observers say that youngsters are getting their news from unusual sources. A video diary of a journalist named Gideon, who captures the lives of Iraqi people and US military forces on the ground in Iraq, became popular with young Americans.

The show is broadcast on the US cable station MTV or Music Television. Matt Catapano, a senior researcher at MTV, says many young people have recently turned to non-traditional new sources. "After September eleventh, there has been a big erosion in the trust of news. Young people have become really aware of the media wars going on out there, including the ratings competitions between news and newspaper outlets. And we see that when people are talking about watching news, they really see that each person or each entity has its own opinion or point of view. Even those that were watching CNN were concerned that what they were watching was propaganda."

Mr. Catapano says that young people also get a lot of their news from television talk shows. These shows contain more opinion than fact, contends Brian Brooks, an associate dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. "So much of what is on television now are talk shows in which the hosts are spouting off their opinions and it is masquerading as news. They are purporting to cover the world's events, but in reality, a lot of it is nothing more than opinion. I don't think the distinction between real news and that pseudo-kind of news is very clear in the public's mind."

Mr. Brooks says these opinion-based television shows are becoming more popular and making it harder for Americans to get accurate news, especially on events overseas. Furthermore, many of the major television networks have substantially cut back many of their international bureaus that provided on-the-ground foreign coverage.

But Joseph Campbell, a journalism professor at American University, disagrees with the perception that US media fail to provide enough international news. "Americans genuinely recognize the importance of keeping up with international news. Whether they do that is open to debate. But there is no doubt that the news is there. The news is being reported. If you look at the largest five circulating newspapers in the country, all five give a fair amount of attention to international news. With the Internet available, the option to access international news is broader and more swift. There is no question that international news is there if people want to access it."

Mr. Campbell says journalists can't force people to follow international news. So the question remains -- what can be done to engage Americans especially the young to learn more about the world? Mr. Brooks of the University of Missouri says one way is to send more Americans to other countries. "Many students take advantage of a semester abroad program. It's just a wonderfully enriching experience and they come back with a whole different view of the world, and we need more of that. We need more Americans to understand what the rest of the world is like. We are certainly on an upward trend on study abroad programs. I would say that close to 40 percent of our student body has an international experience by the time they graduate."

Some observers say another way to broaden Americans view of the world is through new approaches to journalism that humanize world issues.

Louise Lief is deputy director of the Pew International journalism program that sends young journalists abroad to cover events. She says a new movement of broadcast journalists is catching on. They call themselves Video Journalists, or VJs. They work mostly alone with lightweight digital video cameras. They do it all: conceive the story, shoot, write, voice and edit reports. "By working this way, VJs tell international stories in a more intimate way -- sometimes through a video diary. They attempt to overcome some of the obstacles that have prevented Americans and young people from being able to relate to international new events.

Given the recent Iraq war and the ongoing war on terror, Ms. Lief says international news is more important than ever. Some observers point out that for every single 'hot spot' that gets saturation coverage, there are several other important stories that are often ignored. The key, they say, is for the public to understand these situations as well, before they become 'hot spots' of the future.