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News Break

Tuning out the world.

The summer of 2002 didn't feel all that different from the summer of 2001. Last summer we worried about shark attacks; this summer we wrung our hands over kidnappings. In 2001 the media waited outside Gary Condit's Adams Morgan apartment; in 2002 it camped out in a Los Angeles hospital waiting room to see if conjoined twins from Guatemala would be successfully separated.

The difference is that this year these weren't the things we were supposed to be focusing on. In the first blurry weeks following September 11, Americans seemed hungry to learn about events beyond our shores. "ONCE-INSULAR AMERICANS STUDYING UP ON THE WORLD," announced the Los Angeles Times in October. Polls showed unprecedented levels of international-news consumption. Bookstores reported that they couldn't keep books on Islam, the Middle East, and Afghanistan in stock. Ahmed Rashid's Taliban was published in 2000 with a print run of 8,000 copies; by the end of October 2001, Yale University Press had printed 245,000 more to meet a sudden, urgent demand. From September 11 through October, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, an impressive 78 percent of Americans followed news of the attacks closely. Students, a Boston-area professor told The Boston Globe, were playing catch-up, "trying to learn history as fast as they can," anxious to learn about "refugees, Islam, fundamentalist beliefs and how they feed into political movements, and of course, terrorism." Their parents were no different, filling churches, town halls, and mosques from Boston to Seattle to learn more about Islam and the Middle East. "Booksellers and librarians report throngs of patrons hungry for an in-depth understanding of places, politics and theologies to which they paid scant attention before September 11," marveled The Oregonian one month after the attacks. The Dallas Morning News found Texas radio stations and churches leading classes on Islam. The United States had seen a steady decline in hard- news consumption generally, and international news specifically, throughout the 1990s; but the extraordinary level of interest led experts to hypothesize that a radical shift was in the works.

But it quickly became clear that any shift had been temporary. In May, eight months after the attacks, the Pew Research Center began releasing new data on news consumption. In a paper titled "A More Attentive Union? News Interest and Civic Learning in the wake of September 11th," Peyton Craighill and Michael Dimock wrote, "Unlike many of the disasters the Center has tracked, the terrorist attacks were thought by many to have the potential to fundamentally change the relationship Americans have with the news." But, though the Center found--in a dozen national opinion surveys--interest in terrorism had been largely sustained, that had "not necessarily translated into broader public interest in news about local, national, or international events." And campus teach-ins notwithstanding, there was "no evidence that 9/11 sparked a surge in youth engagement in the news." (Indeed, at the end of September, hoping to help freshmen cope with the aftermath, a series of seminars was introduced by UCLA, each related to the events of September 11; this fall the seminars are offered again, but this time students can choose to avoid terrorism and take classes like "Staging Race in the American Musical" or "The Hobbit: Tolkien's View of Good %amp% Evil in the Community.") At the May meeting of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, where Craighill and Dimock presented their paper, pollsters talked mostly about how little public attitudes had changed.

More specifically, Americans' interest in foreign affairs is as low as ever. In June, Pew released a study of 3,002 Americans that showed only 6 percent had noticed the coup in Venezuela or the rise of right-wing French presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. Only 5 percent had paid attention to the economic and political upheaval in Argentina. Even the nuclear tension between India and Pakistan drew only 23 percent. And 49 percent said they occasionally follow international news--the same percentage documented in 2000. "Reported levels of reading, watching and listening to the news are not markedly different than in the spring of 2000," the report found. "At best, a slightly larger percentage of the public is expressing general interest in international and national news, but there is no evidence its appetite for international news extends much beyond terrorism and the Middle East." Any increased interest in international news came from "a narrow, highly-educated segment of the public [consisting of] affluent Americans, college graduates and older people." In fact, 61 percent of Americans admitted to tuning out foreign news unless a "major development" occurs. And even among the group Pew calls the "core international news audience"--16 percent of Americans, who are mostly white men over age 50 with college degrees--interest in issues unrelated to terrorism was relatively low; only one-quarter of this group followed Le Pen's candidacy, for example.

One thing that hasn't changed, however, is Americans' belief that they should care about the rest of the world. "People understand the value, the need to pay more attention to politics, to government, to foreign affairs," says Scott Keeter, associate director at the Pew Research Center. "But what's less clear is that even though people continue to say it's important, they are not actually doing it. ... It's harder to change actual behavior than attitude." Do we get credit for trying?

This article originally appeared in the September 9, 2002 issue of the magazine.