Unlocking the silent demand for international journalism

Readers in the United States are bombarded with international news stories, of varying quality. Too often, they’re are reported by parachute journalists with minimal familiarity or cultural context about the places to which they are deployed for just a few days. Stories can also be entirely based on secondhand research, products of “laptop journalism” from afar. As a result, U.S.-based audiences are fed a steady drip of stereotypical reporting that can perpetuate rote narratives of conflict, poverty, and disaster about communities around the world.

At Global Press, we invest in producing high-quality international coverage, employing local reporters across nearly forty news bureaus, from Mongolia to Zimbabwe. And now we can prove that readers of international news in the United States demand a higher standard of international journalism. In the new year, we’ll publish the results of our yearlong U.S. audience research study, conducted with our partners Goodwin Simon Strategic Research, an independent public opinion research firm, and Wonder: Strategies for Good, experts in analyzing public opinion research. But the results are so important that I’m going to share a sneak preview here before 2022 is out.

Our study demonstrates that there is a deep reservoir of untapped demand from readers in the United States, across a wide range of demographics, for international journalism that is local, precise, and representative. But U.S.-based readers aren’t typically aware that such journalism could exist. After just a small dose of exposure to media literacy materials, the preferences of the study’s participants shift dramatically.

For example, of the more than 1,200 adults that we surveyed, twice as many initially reported that they preferred to read global coverage written by reporters based in the United States rather than by local reporters who are from the communities they cover. But the result flips after participants are presented with media literacy materials describing the benefits of local reporting and limitations of parachute journalism. At that point, three times as many respondents express a preference for stories written by local reporters. This striking result is robust across reader demographics, spanning age, gender, ethnicity, political affiliation, and geography.

Not only do readers prefer local reporters, but they also strongly prefer when international reporting uses dignified and precise vocabulary to describe global events. Study participants overwhelmingly preferred more thorough descriptions to explain complex subjects without resorting to sloppy shorthand phrases such as “developing world” or “ethnic tensions.” At best, such phrases are imprecise, and at worst, they are used as sanitized synonyms for poverty or to emphasize the differences between readers in the United States and subjects of international stories. In addition, our study’s participants strongly preferred to read stories that avoid hewing to negative stereotypes about other nations. For example, most expressed a desire to read stories that focus on solutions to local challenges rather than underscore problems.

Beyond the quantitative survey across 1,200-plus respondents, we also conducted in-depth interviews and focus groups with a curated set of diverse participants. The qualitative feedback enriched the quantitative findings. For example, one participant shared that “reducing humans to labels such as immigrants, third-world people, refugees, and victims strips part of their humanity away from them in order to make them more palatable for readers. Forcing readers to stop and empathize with others’ situations, I think, would lead to more action and less complacency.” Moreover, the qualitative feedback revealed that many readers are from diaspora communities and are eager to read high-quality coverage about their ancestral communities, but aren’t satisfied with the choices on offer. Such audiences are underserved today and present important opportunities to boost readership and engagement.

The clear implication of our findings is that readers in the United States demand a higher standard of international journalism — and that demand is waiting to be unlocked. This presents a remarkable opportunity in 2023 for the media industry and media funders. It is critical to educate U.S.-based audiences about what is possible, such as through media literacy campaigns. And to deliver quality international journalism, media organizations can partner with outlets already operating in communities around the world and invest in an industry culture of valuing local contributions, precise and dignified language, and new narratives that move past stereotypes.

We’ll publish our full results in the coming weeks and delve deeply into the data. But there’s no time to waste. Readers in the United States demand better international journalism now. And it’s time for the industry to deliver.

Laxmi Parthasarathy is chief operating officer of Global Press.

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