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From AJR,   July/August 2002  issue

Rating Coverage   

Related reading:   Closer to Home

By Stephen Seplow
Stephen Seplow, a longtime editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former news editor in Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, is a Philadelphia writer.      

It's not that the editors most responsible for foreign news at American newspapers believe they are doing a good job, or even an adequate one, in delivering foreign news to their readers. They don't.

And it's not that they believe their readers are disinterested. They don't.

In fact, the editors said by a wide margin that their readers have a deeper interest in foreign news than their newspapers are satisfying. And a majority, 53 percent, said cost is a "major obstacle" to providing more overseas reporting.

These are some of the results of a recently concluded survey of 218 editors conducted by Dwight L. Morris & Associates of Centreville, Virginia, for the Pew International Journalism Program. Of the 218 editors, 72 were from newspapers with less than 50,000 circulation, 65 from papers with circulation between 50,000 and 100,000 and 81 from papers with 100,000 or above.

Morris surveyed wire editors, foreign editors and others directly responsible for the international report in their papers. He did not survey top editors unless, as is the case at some of the smallest papers, they make story-by-story decisions on foreign news.

This almost certainly played a role in the results. I have just finished interviewing wire editors, foreign editors and top editors at a number of papers, and I think it's fair to say that the editors who spend all day worrying about foreign news feel more aggrieved about perceived shortcomings in that area than news executives with broader domains.

While not so pleased with their own area, 88 percent of the editors rated their papers excellent or good in meeting reader interest in sports. I venture to guess from spending a lifetime in newsrooms that sports editors would not have been that satisfied. Morris says that the foreign editors might have a "tendency to be particularly dissatisfied with their own world, frustrated by it. But all we can do is take their answers at face value."

When asked how well their papers satisfied the interest of their readers in foreign news, only 2 percent of the editors interviewed responded "excellent" and 41 percent said "good." Another 44 percent said "fair" and 12 percent said "poor." One percent didn't give an opinion.

Still, the editors interviewed were slightly more upbeat about their own papers than about the media in general, including television. Asked to rate the news media's overall coverage of foreign news, 5 percent said it was "excellent" and 31 percent said "good." A majority, 54 percent, said "fair," and 10 percent said "poor."

Editors at larger papers tended to be harsher about the media as a whole and more satisfied with the performance of their own papers. For example, 74 percent of those at the 100,000-plus papers said the media in general were fair to poor in covering foreign news, while only 58 percent were that negative at the other papers.

But in judging themselves, 64 percent of those at the smallest papers said they were fair to poor as compared with 51 percent in the medium-size papers and 53 percent at the largest.

Despite the poor grades, foreign and wire editors were about evenly divided on whether their papers were making a mistake in not providing more extensive foreign coverage. Some 54 percent thought their papers contained the proper balance of news coverage, while 46 percent said they should run more foreign news.

Virtually everyone (95 percent) agreed that interest in foreign news had grown since September 11. And 78 percent said they have been given more space for it, although most of that has gone for coverage of the war on terrorism. Surprisingly, 19 percent of the editors said they received no additional space for foreign news after September 11 and 3 percent said they got less.

The editors expect both the increased interest and the increased space to erode the further we get from September 11. Sixty-four percent expect interest to decline while 25 percent think it won't.

Morris concludes that editors think the heightened interest will wane because they don't think it was that deep in the first place. When readers were asked if they were "very interested" in five news categories--local, national, foreign, business and sports--only business ranked lower than foreign. Thirty-six percent of the editors thought their readers were "very interested" in foreign news, while another 57 percent said readers were "somewhat interested." There were variations depending on the size of the papers represented. At the largest papers, which tend to be in cities with more diverse ethnic populations, 46 percent of editors said their readers were "very interested," while at the smaller papers 30 percent said so.

As for space, 58 percent of the editors who have received a larger newshole anticipate a gradual shrinkage to pre-September 11 levels while 32 percent expect to maintain their gains. Even with the growth, 50 percent of the editors said their daily allotment for foreign news was 100 inches or less, and 73 percent said the allotments accounted for 10 percent or less of the newshole.

Totals in some categories add up to more than 100 percent due to rounding.