International news knowledge: What leads to Americans' low scores?

US news consumers are less knowledgeable than their European counterparts on international affairs -- and this may stem from the for-profit news model in the United States, say researchers who investigated news knowledge in four countries. 

The US model is known to be commercial with little government interference, where most media organs must chase the wants of news consumers. The three other countries -- the United Kingdom, Finland and Denmark -- offer viewers a much less commercial media model along with rules regarding citizen education, the researchers say.

Finland and Denmark employ strong public service models, where public (and private) media organs have government-mandated responsibilities to educate news consumers. As the researchers point out, the guiding philosophy behind this model is that citizens cannot be  counted on to seek out important news information and need solid public affairs reporting to be an informed voter. 

The UK, which has been transitioning from a strong public service model to a more commercial model, today employes what the researchers call a 'hybrid.' 

The researchers argue it is the aspects of the commercial model that keep the US audience -- especially those people uninterested in politics and news -- less knowledgeable the average person who lives in a country with a more public-service model. Not only must US mass media follow the dictates of the market, but news organs must be financially responsible for reporting and publishing news.

For example, the closing of foreign news bureaus -- especially by television networks -- has been blamed on financials and the organization's bottom line. 

The researchers calculated the amount of hard and soft news the media in four countries. They also gauged the amount of local and international news published. Through surveys, the researchers determined individuals' interest in news and knowledge of national and international current events.  

Researchers found that on average, US media has a stronger proportion of hard news - with 64 percent of stories dedicated with a newsy quality. However, US media only publishes about 22 percent of its stories about foreign countries, where the European countries nearly reach 30 percent. 

Interestingly, the US audience does worse than their European counterparts in hard news questionnaires, scoring a 50 percent mark. The UK is 63 and the Scandinavian countries score in the 70s. 

It is international news questionnaires where Americans trail by a long shot. People tested scored a 40 percent mark while the UK, Finland and Denmark residents scored in the 60s. 

From the researchers: 

Our argument is that public awareness of highly newsworthy issues is likely to diffuse across levels of interest. But when the same issue is ignored by the media, knowledge of the issue will be limited to the most attentive. In short, the volume of news coverage conditions the impact of political interest on knowledge.

There's a lot of caveats here. For one, what does constitute international news? Does news from Norway count for those living close by in Denmark? As the researchers point out, those in the US must navigate news and politics from many levels: local, state, regional and national. Americans generally score low in current events and geography quizzes. What are the other factors involved?  

Here's a link to the study: 

Cross-National versus Individual-Level Differences in Political Information: A Media Systems Perspective
By: Shanto Iyengar, James Curran, Anker Brink Lund, Inka Salovaara-Moring, Kyu S. Hahn & Sharon Coen
Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties
Vol. 20, No. 3, 291–309, August 2010

Photo: The World Map of Small Towns by Cea