Foreign news on television
How Globally Aware Are the Germans?

More than half of the Germans are interested in news from the USA.
More than half of the Germans are interested in news from the USA. | Photo (detail): andipantz © iStockphoto

Researchers have examined television news programmes from all around the world in a major international research project. It focussed on the question of the countries and regions that interested the viewers and what is actually reported.

It is well known fact that Germans like to travel to all corners of the earth. But did you know that the average German also excels in taking an interest in global affairs from the comfort of his or her armchair? This good news is one of the findings of an international research project that communications researchers at the Universities of Hohenheim and Mainz carried out with partners from seventeen countries over two years. In a study entitled Foreign news on television: An international comparison of its contents, production and reception the researchers aimed to find out how news programmes differ from country to country, what images of other countries they engender among the population and how journalists select their news.

Not Africa, but South America is the “forgotten continent”

“In a telephone poll, nearly half of the Germans interviewed said that they had a great or very great interest in foreign news. And only eleven per cent said that they had little or no interest,” reports Thilo von Pape, a member of staff at the Institute of Communication Studies at the University of Hohenheim. According to Jürgen Wilke, Professor of Communication Research in Mainz, the Germans’ interest in global affairs is not only reflected in this great interest in foreign news, however. An analysis of the main news programmes from four weeks of the Tagesschau and RTL Aktuell shows that in comparison with other countries, the German programmes have a relatively high proportion of foreign news and that coverage also includes a comparatively large number of countries.

“The German news programmes’ global awareness has a long tradition. In press history, this trend can be traced back to the early days of newspapers,” explains Wilke. And what are the reasons for it? On the one hand, Germany simply has a comparatively large number of neighbours in which to take an interest. On the other hand, however, the fact that people in Germany have always been interested in international coverage is also definitely a political and cultural phenomenon.

Just a few countries are of interest

In the telephone poll, interviewees could name up to five countries about which they would like to hear something in the television news. The 999 people polled named a total of eighty countries. It comes as little surprise that the interviewees’ interest focuses largely on just a few countries, however. The USA, named by more than half of the interviewees, takes first place on the list of countries of particular interest to Germans. It is followed by France, which was mentioned much less frequently - by one in three people. Then come Great Britain, Russia, China and Italy. All the other countries were mentioned by less than ten per cent of the interviewees, and many by just one per cent.

Even countries such as Indonesia and Nigeria, which are among the world’s top ten by population, were hardly mentioned. The Germans show the least interest in countries in South America. They were mentioned even less frequently than countries in Africa, which is commonly referred to as the “forgotten continent”. “The interest in many countries clearly cannot be explained by the size of their population,” says Thilo von Pape, “but by their geographical and cultural proximity, business ties and current crises. It is a fact that there are currently fewer conflicts or major events in South America than in Africa.”

USA takes first place around the world

While the results of the telephone poll have not yet been tallied, the results of the news analysis have already been compared with the international partners’ findings. The result was that regardless of whether the news examined was German, Polish, Taiwanese or Israeli, the USA is the country most frequently reported on in the world’s news programmes, while the USA, according to Wilke, shows the least interest in other countries in its news programmes

And although there are major differences between the programmes, for example with regard to their length and the means of visual presentation deployed, Wilke says that all the countries have a similar pattern with regard to the selection of countries covered in foreign news reports: “The focus is always on the country’s own region. Then comes the superpower, the USA, which is taking political action on the ground in various parts of the world. The world’s crisis regions are in third place. The Middle East in particular has been given a great deal of attention for many years. And other countries, particularly Third World countries, take fourth place.”