WASHINGTON -- After the Sept. 11 attacks, there was talk that the American public would finally become more interested in foreign news, long treated as a backwater by many media organizations.
But the increase has been minor given the dominant coverage of the war on terrorism, a new Pew Research Center survey shows, with many people saying they simply have trouble understanding foreign events.
According to the poll of 3,002 adults, 21 percent say they are following foreign news very closely, up from 14 percent in 2000. But those who say they are following such news somewhat closely was essentially unchanged, from 45 percent to 44 percent.
"There hasn't been the transformation that the political scientists had hoped for," said Andrew Kohut, the center's director. "The modest increase comes from the ranks of those who are already interested in international news."
When asked about their moderate or low interest in world events, 65 percent said they lacked the background to follow the news; 51 percent said nothing ever changes; 45 percent said the events don't affect them, and 42 percent said there is too much war and violence in the coverage.
The groups showing the sharpest increase in consumption of foreign news are college graduates over 40 -- with interest nearly tripling among female graduates -- and people in general over 65. This widened the age and education gap between those who care and don't care about international events.
Given the avalanche of coverage of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, among other places, the fact that two-thirds say they lack the background to keep up with foreign news is a clear warning sign to news organizations.
"It's tough to put enough background into the story to bring people up to speed and keep the people who are the core audience," Kohut said.
While 46 percent say they are closely following the war on terrorism and 38 percent events in the Middle East, the French presidential election and attempted coup in Venezuela were each closely followed by only 6 percent.
The lack of widespread interest can be measured in other ways as well. Only 48 percent of those questioned by Pew could identify Yassar Arafat as the leader of the Palestinians, and 29 percent knew that Donald Rumsfeld is the defense secretary.
Overall, 55 percent said they watched television news the day before the survey, compared to 72 percent in 1994; 41 percent said they read a newspaper, down from 49 percent; and 23 percent said they read a magazine, down from 33 percent.
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