International News Coverage


International news coverage has received considerable scholarly and professional attention because it is a unique category of journalism. It not only tends to be processed and prepared by specially trained professionals but involves particular newsgathering and distributional challenges, and it can arguably produce a deeper and wider impact than any other news category.

International news coverage introduces some unique news values to the general journalistic repertoire of news values. That general repertoire draws on values like conflict, magnitude, and surprise to determine the newsworthiness of an event or issue — which must be tweaked in the context of international news. Additionally, journalists will often face greater journalistic restrictions than they otherwise would at home. (Even if they are working in a more open media environment, pressures from home may still influence reporting.) Finally, the influence of international news coverage can be felt in matters from war to peace, from global predicaments to synergistic cooperation, and from ecological collapse to sustainable environments for all global citizens. Put simply, no other news genre can wield such a large-scaled and profound influence on so many aspects of human lives.

Determinants of International News Coverage

According to media scholars Tony Harcup and Deirdre O’Neill, most published news stories tend to draw upon a set of journalistic values about what makes something newsworthy. One such value is conflict, where developments that involve controversies, arguments, fights, or insurrections (e.g., a politician breaking with their party) are seen as being particularly newsworthy. A second value is magnitude, where developments that potentially impact a large number of people (e.g., a court ruling over abortion rights), or impact a few people significantly (e.g., a court ruling involving an indigenous tribe’s land rights), are seen as being more newsworthy. A third value is surprise, where developments that deviate from the norm or shows stark contrasts (e.g., the man bites the dog) are seen as being more newsworthy. Harcup and O’Neill identify 15 such news values in all.

However, international news coverage further complicates those general news values. Analyses of international news content have found that events that involve a foreign country that is culturally proximate and geographically close tend to receive greater news coverage than events in non-proximate/close countries. For example, U.S. audiences are often exposed to more stories about the United Kingdom than Japan in part because the U.S. and the U.K. share more of their language, cultural values, and history than the U.S. and Japan.

However, there are important structural factors at play: Countries that are seen as being more economically or militarily important (economic clout and military clout), or are of geopolitical significance, also tend to receive more coverage. Put another way, Japan may receive more coverage in U.S. journalistic media than Brazil because it is a more important economic partner to the U.S. and because it is a significant partner in containing China’s influence in Asia — which is a major U.S. interest. Similarly, Middle Eastern countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen are relatively tiny economic partners with the U.S., have relatively limited cultural proximity, and are certainly not geographically close. However, they have received considerable journalistic attention in the U.S. because of their significance to the U.S.’s geopolitical interests.

It is difficult to say which of these so-called ‘determinants’ of coverage is most important because they vary across subject matter, situation, and timing. However, researchers have found them to be of particular import across countries, meaning that this is not just a U.S. phenomenon. Many countries, for example, devote significant portions of their news hole (the space available for news within a news product) to the U.S. because the U.S. is deemed to be an economic and military superpower that is often entangled with the domestic country through trade deals and international aid.

Representation of Countries and Issues

An important finding from decades of analyses of international news coverage is that there is a great deal of unevenness in the coverage of the world’s countries, and that dramatically different depictions of the same world are often presented to audiences in different parts of the world.

For example, scholars have found that European media tend to focus more on Europe, North America, and the Middle East, while East Asian media are more likely to cover China, Japan, the Koreas, and so forth. There is thus considerable evidence for a geocentric tendency and regionalism in international news coverage across the world’s media.

More broadly, the majority of international coverage has historically centered on world powers. Emerging countries, mostly those in the Global South, are generally far less likely to be covered by the world’s elite media and leading news agencies than those in the developed Global North. Therefore, limited coverage of emerging countries is an issue that has been repeatedly pointed out by scholars — though it remains a thorny concern. Additionally, when emerging countries are covered by foreign media, there is often a good chance that the topics of the stories will focus on something negative or disastrous (e.g., coup d’états, national disasters, or plane crashes).

Scholars have also concluded that the immense variance of international news coverage about identical events is the norm. A number of empirical studies have demonstrated that particular issues and events — for example, the Olympic Games, climate change, or war — are often covered in meaningfully different ways across countries. This is often a reflection of the journalistic cultures of those places, and the ways in which the given issue or event intersects with local interests. The consequence of this is that audiences from different countries may get meaningfully dissimilar stories (and even opposite perspectives) when reading, watching, or listening to news coverage of the same events.

The existence of the aforementioned ‘determinants’ or the variance in coverage should not be taken as evidence of national governments meddling with or dictating journalistic coverage. Instead, it is a particular manifestation of existing news values like relevance, where developments that involve matters that are perceived to be relevant to the organization’s audience tend to be seen as being more newsworthy. Put another way, countries with greater cultural proximity tend to have more familial ties, and countries with more economic clout tend to be important trading partners, which have local impacts by way of things like import and export contracts with regional businesses.

A Declining News Hole

Both academic and professional observers have also witnessed a gradual and steady decline in the amount of international news coverage, relative to other news genres, since the turn of the century. A number of interconnected factors have been identified as contributing to this decline. First, the production of international news is far more expensive than that of domestic news, such as lifestyle news and news commentaries. For example, international news requires obtaining access to other countries, recruiting experienced and specialized reporters or trustworthy local journalists, providing them with local fixers or translators, and budgeting for security and unanticipated costs. Such costs are magnified in the case of television, which often requires additional equipment and personnel.

Second, the audience for international news is typically smaller than that of domestic news (especially relative to genres like politics and sports), which leads to lower ratings and less online traffic. One view of this phenomenon is that the interest for international news needs to be cultivated, and international coverage must therefore be designed to better resonate with audiences. This can be accomplished by domesticating international news, or making those foreign developments more relevant and accessible to local audiences by connecting them to domestic developments. This view thus argues that journalistic outlets must invest more in international news and make it more interesting or relevant, and a larger the audience would follow. This, of course, introduces something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum that dissuades journalistic outlets already facing economic challenges.

Third, the Internet — and social media in particular — has also introduced greater competition since freelance journalists and citizen journalists can now quickly produce and distribute their own news content. This can promote a form of news coverage that is more akin to aggregation, with professional journalists trying to gather and contextualize observations made by non-professionals. However, this is sometimes seen as a ‘lesser’ journalistic product by other professional journalists since there was no first-hand observation by news professionals. Consequently, such work can become marginalized (made less prominent and afforded fewer resources). Moreover, it is now far easier for audiences to go straight to a local source in another country — though language barriers still exist, of course.

Impacts Of International News Coverage

Different theoretical perspectives, such as media dependency theory, underscore that international news can be particularly influential to people’s awareness and understanding of issues, developments, and problems going on around the world. Central to such perspectives is the notion that people generally have little contact with those parts of the world (whether through direct experience by visiting those places or indirect experience by meeting immigrants from those places). They must therefore rely on mediated accounts of those places to shape their understandings. Consequently, there has long been a fundamental concern that the distortions in the way international news gets covered produces important distortions in the way local citizens understand the rest of the world. In particular, it may lead to certain parts of the world being unfairly ignored or misunderstood. This includes stereotypes of ‘backwards’ or ‘technologically illiterate’ people living in ‘third world’ countries.

Conversely, placing the international media spotlight on a particular location can also introduce problems. For example, instantaneous coverage of an unfolding event — like a terror attack, the kidnapping of villagers, or an outbreak in civil conflict — can shape public opinion in dramatic ways, leading to public calls for governmental intervention by world leaders. Such demands can result in hasty and ill-considered decisions and actions that have profound impacts on those places and on broader international relations, as the world has seen in places like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria in recent years.

The concentration of the production of international news among a few global journalistic outlets (e.g., The New York Times and the BBC) and international news agencies (e.g., The Associated Press and Agence France Presse) also introduces some concerns for international news coverage. Such arrangements not only emphasize Western perspectives but tend to result in global news flows that go primarily from the Global North to the Global South, rather than the other way (or horizontally within the Global South). The Internet has helped to balance some of these flows by making local publications more accessible to international audiences. Additionally, some journalistic outlets have been established precisely to serve as counter-flows, such as Qatar-based Al Jazeera English. Moreover, we now see more journalistic cooperation across borders, as with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Ultimately, as different parts of the world become intricately interconnected, it becomes increasingly difficult to truly separate domestic from foreign news. However, work is needed to reverse the trend toward downsizing news holes for international news, and to promote more equitable information flows.

Key Takeaways

  • The amount of international news coverage of a foreign country is affected by the relationship and history between that foreign country and the domestic one. Traditional news values are thus reinterpreted to some extent when it comes to international news.

  • International news coverage typically focuses on superpowers and a subset of countries of geopolitical interest. Much of the Global South is underrepresented in international news coverage (including within the Global South itself).

  • The amount of time and space dedicated to international news has declined considerably among journalistic outlets in many parts of the world, including the United States.