In recent decades, Americans have not been all that interested in news of foreign affairs. Compiling data from 1986 to 2006, the Pew Research Center ranked "foreign news" at the bottom of a list of what American's follow "very closely," at just 17 percent. Disasters, money, conflict, politics, and tabloid fodder all ranked higher. "Foreign news has consistently been at, or near, the bottom of the index for 21 years," the 2007 report finds.
So it's not that surprising to learn that Americans are not paying much attention to the momentous occurrences in Egypt of the last few weeks. In a report released Wednesday, Pew finds that just 36 percent of people indicated they believe what happens in Egypt is "very important" to U.S. interests. When the Arab Spring began in 2011, that number was 46 percent. (Find information on Pew's survey and methodology here.)
But the more striking finding is how few people are following the developing story at all.
Here, it would be easy to get all high-and-mighty and say that Americans should care more about the stability of Egypt. But, truthfully, it is a hard news story to follow — involving political groups and pressures that have no United States proxy. Most of the people (55 percent) that Pew surveyed said they "lack the background to understand," and 46 percent said "they can't keep up with the changing news." A similar number, 48 percent, said it's "hard to know which group best to lead."
But it's not true to say that Americans never tune in to international affairs. 2011 was actually a big year for international-news interest in the United States. The top story for the whole year, in terms of interest, was the Japan tsuamni disaster (55 percent followed it closely); No. 3 was the bin Laden raid (50 percent followed closely). The Arab Spring protests in 2011 and the Libya conflict also garnered a lot of attention (39 percent and 37 percent respectively).
It's clear that in the last few weeks, American media has been focused within our borders (the Zimmerman trial enjoyed near 24/7 coverage). And we can assume it's hard to get into a story without knowing what events preceeded it.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.