President Obama recently chided the press for putting substantive issues on the back burner. "I mentioned that I was in Asia on this trip thinking about the economy, when I sat down for a round of interviews. Not one of them asked me about Asia," he said. "It's an indication of how our political debate doesn't match up with what we need to do and where we need to go." While the President was, actually, asked a couple of questions about U.S./Asia policy during his trip to China, the fundamental calculus is that Americans who want to understand how international issues affect them rarely get a full analysis from domestic news.
I had a chance to visit and report from India for the past two weeks, and get an instructive look through the looking glass at how international coverage can be linked to domestic issues. President Obama has made the headlines constantly ... for his Afghanistan speech; for scheduling a key visit to the Copenhagen climate change summit; and of course for the White House state dinner for the Indian Prime Minister (and its sari-clad gate-crasher). But far more impressive than the number of times U.S. politics were covered was the way Indian news outlets gave their audiences a road map to understanding how their nation's domestic concerns relate to events abroad -- particularly, at this moment, the U.S., China, Dubai, and
India has four times the population of the United States, and unlike in the United States, print media is booming. The Registrar of Newspapers for India tallies 74,000 papers nationwide. English-language dailies are only a fraction -- but an influential one -- of the total. The news here is far from perfect, of course. There's a particularly troubling tendency among papers, which make revenue almost exclusively from advertising, to run ethically dodgy advertorial content, particularly on softer entertainment-focused stories. But suffusing the coverage I read was a sense of India as a nation whose fortunes were inextricably intertwined with others in the world community, as the fate of farmers hit by drought -- some of whom are committing suicide, others of whom are selling their wives or daughters to traffickers to pay off loan sharks -- is linked to the Copenhagen discussions. It's a "global" approach to news we don't see enough of in the United States.
On a bad day, American media is like the oft-spoofed 1980s ad for McDonalds' McDLT sandwich. Domestic issues go in one styrofoam box; international stories in another. In-depth international news, particularly in many local papers and broadcasts, is scarce. What there is often gets compressed to numbers: body counts from bombings, various GDPs, the rise and fall of international stock indexes. So people tune out. We can make simple changes, including providing more geographical and political context ... small but important items you can do in one printed sentence of copy.
We can craft better media, but first we journalists have to believe that Americans want to know about the world. It reminds me of a conversation I had in Chennai, where I visited an enormous IT business park to meet with Ramananda Sengupta, the editor of the news portal Sify.com. His site operates in eight languages and gets as many page views per day as there are people in India.
"A lot of media outlets have started dumbing down to reach the lowest common denominator," Sengupta, a former newspaper reporter, told me. "I feel that that's wrong because you need to reach people, and sometimes they're more educated than we believe." In other words, we journalists have to believe that the audience (or at the least, a significant part of it) wants smart news. Studies from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press shows that in the United States, the public's assessment of press accuracy and fairness is at a two-decade low. In other words, the audience doesn't trust us. I believe the feeling is mutual: we don't trust the audience, either.
It's incumbent on those of us in journalism to start rebuilding that trust and stop underestimating our audience. A laid-off autoworker in Detroit knows his or her fate is linked to international issues; so does anyone who serves or has friends or family in the military. I believe most Americans crave a greater understanding of the world, out of self-interest as well as healthy curiosity. Having a locally-relevant, globally-minded American media is critical to the health of our democracy and economy. We can take the first steps towards building that media by simply believing it's possible, and trusting that our audience wants and deserves more than we're offering now.
Farai Chideya is a multi-media journalist and author of books including "The Color of Our Future" and the novel "Kiss the Sky." She contributes to WNYC's program "The Takeaway" and serves on the Journalism Advisory Committee of the Knight Foundation.