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World news? Americans just yawn

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 3, 2001


As inevitably as the big ball in Times Square ushers in the New Year, media organizations usher out the old by compiling their annual "Top Stories of the Year" lists.

Depending on the size and geographic locale of the organization, these often have a strong local quotient -- here in the Tampa Bay area, for example, both the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune took prominent note of a fatal shark attack.

But it's always interesting to see what a huge, international media organization such as the Associated Press deems as the biggest stories of the year. It's also a bit sobering, for the AP's latest list reflects how self-centered we Americans can be and how little concerned with world affairs many of us are.

Actually, the AP released two lists -- one with the Top 10 stories of 2000 as selected by its member newspapers, TV and radio stations in the United States and one picked by its subscribers elsewhere in the world. The lists are more notable for their differences than for their similarities.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. presidential election topped both lists. While Americans viewed the ballot-counting flap as a fascinating civics lesson (and fodder for comedians), foreigners watched with concern and grudging admiration as the world's superpower proved that its democracy, if sometimes messy, has many positive features.

But from here, the lists differ radically.

For U.S. news organizations, the second-biggest story was the Elian Gonzalez custody dispute. It certainly was the longest-running, dragging on from November 1999 when the little Cuban boy was fished out of the Atlantic to June 28 when he finally boarded a plane for his native land.

But the Elian saga doesn't even appear among the Top 10 stories of 2000 as chosen by AP's foreign subscribers. That's probably because so many people outside of the United States simply couldn't fathom why a child would not be turned over to his surviving parent.

Instead of Elian, No. 2 on the foreign Top 10 list was the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic as Yugoslavia's president. This was a big deal to Europeans, whose entire continent has been affected by a decade of ethnic slaughter in the Balkans and the resulting flood of refugees.

Arguably, Milosevic's downfall also should have been a big deal in the United States, since how we deal with tyrants like him is among the most difficult foreign policy issues facing President-elect Bush. But it came in at only No. 9.

To U.S. news organizations, the Milosevic story was vastly overshadowed by the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen last October (No. 3). Although the bombing happened in foreign waters, it was seen by most Americans as primarily a domestic story. To foreign news organizations, the Cole story didn't even rate among year's biggest stories.

So that's it: Of the Top 10 stories of 2000 as selected by U.S. news organizations only two occurred outside the United States and only one -- Milosevic -- was what most Americans would consider a true "foreign" story.

By comparison, the list compiled by foreign news organizations is rich in items that reflect an ability to look beyond national borders. The latest outbreak of violence in the Middle East, which threatens to kill the peace talks, ranked No. 3. The explosion of the nuclear submarine Kursk, which dramatized the technological and military decline of post-Soviet Russia, was No. 4, followed by the historic summit between the two Koreas and the election of Vladimir Putin as Russia's president. (The latter two stories provoked barely a yawn among most Americans.)

The apathy with which many Americans, and their news sources, regard foreign affairs is peculiar, given that 10 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born and the other 90 percent is increasingly affected by globalization.

A recent survey of 13 U.S. newspapers found that international news coverage was sparse, with one paper, the Indianapolis Star, not putting a foreign story on its front page for seven days running.

"We also surveyed . . . the number of foreign correspondents to see if more newspapers and newspaper chains had stationed reporters abroad. They had not," Charles Layton, an author of the study, wrote in the June issue of the American Journalism Review.

"In general, then, one finds little improvement since a year and half ago, when Peter Arnett wrote that foreign news coverage has "almost reached the vanishing point in many mainstream newspapers.' Arnett reported that in the 1990s, as global forces impinged more and more insistently on our lives, newspapers had responded by closing foreign bureaus and cutting space for foreign news."

Despite the startling differences in the two AP lists, there was one story besides the U.S. presidential election that greatly interested both U.S. and foreign news organizations in 2000 -- completion of the monumental job of mapping the entire human genetic code. (No. 7 on the U.S. list, No. 6 on the foreign list.)

Perhaps we journalists, like voters everywhere, hope for one thing: that genetic engineering will produce more interesting candidates.

- Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

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