America's Narrow Window to the World:
How US television networks covered the world in 1999.
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* Submitted to the Radio-Television Journalism Division of AEJMC for
consideration of presentation in the 2003 convention.
**Guy Golan is an assistant professor at the Manship School of Mass
Communication, Louisiana State University.
The current study analyzes how evening news programs from the CNN, ABC,
CBS and NBC television networks covered the world in 1999. Through a
content analysis of every evening news program from the year 1999, the
study measures and analyzes the nature of international news coverage on
the four networks. The results reveal substantial differences in the
nature of coverage between the networks. In addition, the results indicate
that nearly 20 nations around the world receive more than 80% of the
overall amount of international news coverage, while the vast majority of
the world's nations receive limited or no coverage at all.
Television news programs serve as an important source of information for
most Americans about events that occur around the world. Limited by time
and space, news editors often have to select less than a handful of
international stories, while leaving dozens of news stories off the
air. Following the end of the Cold War in the early 1990's, the world
entered an era of global economics that would make international events
more salient then ever before. Suddenly, events that took place in Asia had
a direct and immediate impact on financial markets in Europe, South America
and the United States (Friedman, 1998). In this new era of globalization,
knowledge about events from around the world was no longer supplemental but
In addition to presenting new opportunities, globalization has also created
new threats. The tragedy of September 11th, 2001, revealed a web of terror
that spun across many different nations of the world. What once seemed to
be isolated events from past years emerged as building blocks of an
international terror apparatus. The emergence of the Al-Quida terror
organization in such countries as Sudan, Afghanistan, the Philippines and
Yemen demonstrated to policy makers, the mass media and the public the need
for a more global perspective in coverage of international news.
Yet despite the events of the past two decades, recent studies indicate
that U.S. television news media continue to focus their coverage of
international news events on a limited number of nations and regions (Golan
and Wanta, 2003; Wu, 1998). This lack of balance in coverage provides
strong support for the new world information order perspective (Masmoudi,
1979) and is likely to impact Americans' view of the saliency of
international events Wanta and Hu (1993).
The purpose of the current study is to provide an up to date analysis of
international news coverage on U.S. television news networks. Through a
content analysis of every evening news broadcast of the ABC, CBS, NBC and
CNN networks from the year 1999, the current study will analyze how U.S.
network evening news programs cover the world we live in and will compare
these results to those from previous studies.
Since the early days of television news, communication researchers have
investigated the role of international news in network television news
programs. The emphasis on the television medium is of particular
importance due to television's role as the key source of news in the United
States (Larson, 1982). The role of international news on overall network
television news content has been an important area of study for mass
Television networks and foreign news
Research findings consistently indicate that international news stories
account for a significant percentage of broadcast news content. Larson and
Hardy's (1977) content analysis of news content from three network news
programs revealed that international news accounted for 35-39% of news
content. Larson's (1982) content analysis of more than 1,000 television
news stories from 1972-1981 revealed that about 40% of the content dealt
with international news. Whitney, Fritzler, Jones, Mazzarella and Rakow
(1989) found that nearly 34% of all network television news content
(between 1982 and 1984) was composed of international news. In a more
recent study, Riffe and Budianto (2001) identified a decrease in the
proportion between international and domestic news. Their content analysis
revealed a decrease in coverage of international news across all three
networks. Despite the differences in findings, most studies of
international news content in network television news programs point to the
importance of international news in network television news content.
Lack of balance in coverage
As argued by Chang (1998), not all countries in the world are create equal
to be news. While most powerful core nations consistently receive coverage
from U.S. news media, small peripheral nations remain largely
uncovered. As noted by Wu (1998), research on international news coverage
by U.S. network television news programs reveals a lack of balance in the
coverage of the world's different geographic regions.
A content analysis by Larson (1982) reveals that from 1972-1981, coverage
of Western Europe accounted for 23.8% of international news
references. The Middle East came in second at 22.7%, while Asia came in
third with 21.8%. Latin America and Africa trailed far behind with 8.6%
and 5.6%. His study also indicated that some nations received much more
coverage than other nations. Larson's study reveals that between 1972 and
1981 stories about the USSR, Israel, Britain and South Vietnam dominated
international news coverage on U.S. network television news.
A ten-year analysis of foreign news coverage on network television news by
Weaver, Porter and Evans (1984) indicate that the ABC, CBS and NBC networks
covered the world in an unbalance manner. Their results show that from
1972-1981, the three networks focused 32.4% of their coverage on the Middle
East, 21.1% on Western Europe, 10.8% on Eastern Europe, 9.5% on Asia, 6.7%
on Africa and only 6.2% on Latin America.
In a more recent study, Golan and Wanta (2003) examined how 138 elections
held between January 1, 1998, and May 1, 2000, were covered by US network
television news programs (ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN). They found that of the
138 elections, only eight received coverage on all four newscasts, ten
received coverage on more than one newscast, 18 received coverage on one
newscast and 102 received no news coverage. The study indicated that the
majority of elections that received substantial coverage from U.S.
television networks occurred in either Europe, Asia or the Middle
East. Only one election that took place in Latin America was covered by
more than one network and none of the elections in Africa were covered by
more than one network.
Research objectives and questions
The purpose of the current study is to analyze the nature of international
news coverage by four US television evening news programs during 1999. The
study will explore the similarities and differences in the nature of
coverage between the four networks and will assess which foreign countries
and geographical regions are considered most salient by the network
Understanding the nature of international news coverage by the news media
is of great importance when considering its possible implications. As
suggested by previous studies, the nature of international news coverage
has a direct influence on U.S. public opinion. For example, a study by
Salwen and Matera (1992) found correlations between foreign news coverage
and public opinion that suggested that international news coverage does
indeed have an agenda setting effect. Wanta and Hu (1993) examined the
agenda setting influence of international news and found strong agenda
setting impact of international news stories on American public opinion,
especially on conflict related stories and concrete presentations. McNelly
and Izcaray (1986) found that news exposure significantly related to
positive feelings towards countries and to perceptions of those countries
as successful. Semetko, Brzinski, Weaver & Willnat (1992) found that
attention to foreign affairs news was a better predictor of positive
perceptions of nations than simple exposure to newspapers.
The implications of international news coverage by the news media are
further highlighted when considering the possible impact of coverage on
U.S. foreign policy. As noted by Bennett (1990), the nature of
international news coverage by news media is often consistent with the
foreign policy of the nation. The potential agenda setting effect of
television programming on audiences was recognized by Theodore White (1973,
p. 27): "No major act of the American congress, no foreign adventure, no
act of diplomacy, no great social reform, can succeed in the United States
unless the press prepares the public mind." Cohen (1963) identified three
major roles of the press in the field of foreign policy. These included:
role of observer of foreign policy news, role of participant in the foreign
policy process (along with policy makers), and the role of catalyst of
foreign news. This final role might perhaps be the most central to the
press and its agenda setting influence over the public agenda.
The current study analyzed coverage of international events on U.S. evening
news programs through a content analysis. The sample for the current study
includes evening news programs from the NBC, ABC and CBS television
networks. These three television networks have been the focus of similar
content analysis and are considered by many scholars to be the leading news
source for many Americans (see Shoemaker, Danielian and Brendlinger, 1991;
Chang and Lee, 2001; Chang, Shoemaker and Brendlinger, 1987). In addition,
the sample includes the CNN network, which over the past two decades has
grown as a key media outlet for the coverage of international news
(Flournoy and Stewart, 1997).
The sample includes every evening news program aired on CNN, ABC, CBS and
NBC during the year of 1999 (source, Vanderbilt News Archives). The sample
included 1,300 evening news broadcasts from the four networks: ABC 329, CBS
308, NBC 318 and CNN 345. The year 1999 represented the most recent
non-election year. The year 2001 was not selected because of the mega
story of September the 11th which dominated all coverage and therefore was
not representative of most typical coverage periods.
The unit of analysis in the study was the individual evening news
broadcast on each network. Each broadcast was coded for the identity of
the nations that were the main subjects of each news story in it. So for
example, a story about a car bombing in Jerusalem will be coded with the
number that is assigned to Israel. If a story focused on more than one
nation, it was double coded. For example, a story about peace talks
between India and Pakistan was coded for both India and Pakistan. It ought
to be noted that a nation was not coded unless it was the main subject of
the news story. For example, a story that mentioned U.S. Air Force strikes
on Iraq might mention that the planes flew out of a base in Turkey. Since
Iraq was the main news object in the story and the mention of Turkey was
just incidental, only the prior country was coded.
Naturally, most broadcasts produced a multi-response code since most
included more than one international news story or dealt with more than one
nation. When aggregated, the analysis produced a frequency count that
represented the total number of mentions of each UN member nation during
1999 by each of the four television network evening news programs.
Subsequent to the completion of the content analysis, a second coder coded
10% of the stories in order to measure the reliability of the
measurement. The following inter-coder reliability scores were derived
using the Holsti (1969) method: ABC .91, CBS .89, NBC .93, CNN .86.
The results of the content analysis suggest that the nature of
international news coverage differs significantly between the four networks
(Table 1). The content analysis reveals that ABC had 769 country mentions
(coverage of a country as the main subject of a news story), CBS had 753
country mentions, NBC had 539 country mentions and CNN had 1,751. When
dividing these numbers into the overall number of broadcasts included in
the sample the analysis reveals that on an average night ABC had 2.33
country mentions (769/329), CBS had 2.44 country mentions per broadcast
(753/308), NBC had 1.69 country mentions per broadcast (539/318) and CNN
5.07 country mentions per broadcast (1751/345). These results indicate
that the amount of international news coverage is very different between
the four networks. For example, viewers of CNN are more likely to be
exposed to international news stories than viewers of the NBC network.
Table 1: Country Coverage: Top 20 countries
ABC 636/769 0.83
CBS 638/753 0.85
NBC 465/539 0.86
3 Network total 1739/2061 0.84
CNN 1432/1751 0.82
4 network total 3183/3812 0.83
Table 2 shows the chi-square test for the comparison of country coverage
between the four networks. The results indicate statistically significant
differences in the nature of foreign coverage between all four networks
with the exception of ABC and CBS. The results of the chi-square test
further indicate that there are significant differences in the nature of
foreign coverage between CNN and the three traditional networks (ABC, CBS,
Comparison of foreign coverage by network
While the amount of coverage greatly differed between the four networks,
the nature of the coverage was somewhat similar (Table 1). The results of
the content analysis suggest that 20 countries out of 190 dominated the
majority of international news coverage from the four networks representing
83% of foreign country mentions on ABC, 85% on CBS, 86% on NBC, 82% on CNN,
84% of the three traditional network total (not including CNN) and 83% of
the total coverage of all four networks. The results clearly indicate that
all four networks perceive these 20 countries as more newsworthy than the
other 170 countries that were included in the analysis.
The results of the content analysis indicate that newsworthiness is not
limited only to countries but also to geographic regions. Amongst the top
twenty countries of coverage (which account for over 80% of the total
coverage), certain regions received more coverage than others (Table
3). The results indicate that Eastern Europe (Yugoslavia, Russia and
Albania) received nearly 38% of the total coverage among the four
television networks. Asia (China, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Japan)
received 21%, the Middle East (Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Iran and the
Palestinian Authority) received 18%, Western Europe (Italy, France, UK,
Turkey) received 12%, Latin America (Cuba, Colombia, Mexico) received 8%,
North America (Canada), Oceania (Australia) and Africa (South Africa) were
limited to one percentage each.
Table 3: Coverage by region (top 20 countries)
Compared to previous studies
When compared to the results of Larson (1982) and Weaver, Porter and Evans
(1984), the results of the current study indicate a shift in the focus of
the networks international news coverage but a consistency in their pattern.
Table 4. Television network news coverage by geographic distribution
Weaver et al. (1984)
As Table 4 indicates, U.S. television news programs continue to demonstrate
a consistent pattern of coverage as they focus the majority of their
coverage on Europe, the Middle East and Asia while providing very limited
coverage to Africa, Latin America and the rest of the world.
The purpose of the current study was to analyze the nature of foreign
coverage by four U.S. television networks during 1999.
The results indicate that during 1999 CNN led international news coverage
with more than five foreign country mentions per broadcast while the NBC
ranked last with less than two foreign country mentions per broadcast. The
ABC and CBS networks ranked in the middle of coverage as both average
nearly two and a half foreign country mentions per broadcast.
As demonstrated by the Chi-square tests, there are significant differences
in the nature of coverage between all four networks with the exception of
ABC and CBS. Such findings are consistent with previous studies that
recognized differences in international news coverage between the three
traditional networks and the Cable News Network (for example, Golan and
Wanta, 2003). Since CNN coverage was much more extensive than that of the
other three networks, it would be prudent of future researchers not treat
this cable network as similar in coverage to the traditional three when
examining international news coverage.
Coverage of nations
The results of the content analysis suggest that the NBC, CBS, NBC and CNN
television news networks focused the majority of international news stories
on less than 25 nations. Such findings are consistent with previous
studies (Larson, 1982) that found that from 1972-1981, U.S. television
network news focused the majority of their international coverage on a
limited number of countries and geographic regions. Such results provide
strong support for the New World Information Order argument that argues
that there is an imbalance in the coverage and flow of international news
around the world (Masmoudi, 1979).
A closer examination of the top ten most covered nations during 1999 points
to some intuitive findings about what made nations newsworthy to the
networks during that year. The analysis reveals that five out of the ten
nations were engaged in either current or past conflict with the United
States. During 1999, the United States led NATO in a war against
Yugoslavia, bombed Iraq in its no fly zone and held sanctions against
Cuba. Russia and China were both considered adversaries of the USA during
the Cold War. These findings are consistent with previous studies that
found deviance (Chang, Shoemaker and Brendlinger, 1986) and relevance to
the U.S. (Shoemaker, Danielian and Brendlinger, 1991) to be key
determinants of international news coverage
In addition, the results suggest an additional intuitive finding as to
what made a nation newsworthy as five out of the ten nations had large
populations, powerful economies and large militaries (China, India,
Indonesia, Russia and the United Kingdom). This pattern is consistent with
Chang's (1998) claim that large powerful nations are more likely to receive
coverage than small peripheral nations.
The main contribution of the current study is found in its examination of
the nature of international news coverage on US television networks. The
study provides empirical evidence of substantial differences in the
magnitude of international news coverage among the four television
networks. In addition, the study found that all four networks dedicate
more than 80% of their international news coverage to 20 countries while
providing limited or no coverage to most countries in the
world. Furthermore, the study's findings are consistent with previous
studies which show that Europe, the Middle East and Asia are the most
salient world regions to the US television networks while Africa, Latin
America and Oceania tend to receive limited coverage.
The current study has several limitations. First, the study only examines
coverage from 1999. What might have been true of 1999 might not have been
true of 2000 or 20001. The war in the Balkans, which faced NATO forces
against Yugoslavia during 1999, likely skewed coverage of international
events towards Eastern Europe and away from the rest of the world. An
additional limitation of the sample of the content analysis was the fact
that it only included four television network news programs. The study did
not include any other cable news network besides CNN. The sample was also
limited to television network news and did not include print, radio, the
Internet or any other media outlets.
Suggestions for future studies
As argued by Shoemaker, Chang and Brendlinger (1986) research into
international news coverage should move beyond its documentation and
proceed to analyze its implications on the world. Future studies might
measure how international news coverage, whether on television, print or
radio influences the manner in which the public perceives the saliency of
the different nations of the world. Future studies might also chose to
incorporate such cable news networks as Fox news or CNBC news in their
samples in order to provide a more accurate analysis of the overall nature
in which U.S. television networks cover the world.
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