Columnists, Opinion

BERMAN: Americans are uninformed about global events: that’s the news’ fault, and yours

Television news programs have the uncanny ability to be uninformative, corporatist and melodramatic — all at the same time. Often times, when a worldwide humanitarian disaster occurs, there is a delay to the coverage, and it usually gets no more than a five-minute time slot. The devastation in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the potential Armageddon originating in North Korea and the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar are all perfect current examples.

While the nation was gripped with fear as Irma ravaged through Florida, over 100,000 Americans were deeply affected in the U.S. Virgin Islands — though this devastation was only a fraction as talked about. I would assume that most people don’t even think of this place as “American.” United States territories’ citizens are treated as second-class, both by people in America, and by the news. I wasn’t even aware of the devastation in the U.S. Virgin Islands until an op-ed contributor wrote an article in the New York Times captioned, “In the U.S. Virgin Islands, we are citizens, too — not vacationers trapped on a beach.”

Eventually, this story broke through the relentless news cycle of idiotic Trump tweets (I’m sure they’ll be at least five more by the time I finish this article), and gained a segment on Meet the Press. But like most tragedies that occur outside of our 50 United States (besides terrorist attacks), it will most likely be forgotten in the long run.

As much as I would like to blame some single entity (cable news) for American ignorance, the root of the problem doesn’t lie with the messenger, but the receiver. If you didn’t already know, Americans are generally uninformed about social sciences — from governing to geography. Let’s take North Korea as an example. Take out your globe (everyone should have a globe) and find North Korea. If you guessed wrong, don’t worry, you’re a part of the roughly two-thirds supermajority of Americans who can’t find North Korea on a map.

You might be thinking: why does it matter? According to the Morning Concert poll that obtained this data, “geographic knowledge itself may contribute to an increased appreciation of the complexity of geopolitical events.” Translated to English, this means, “people who know what they are talking about tend to make more sense.” So, before you take a stand on whether you support invading North Korea or continuing to send troops to Afghanistan, ask yourself if you can point to these places on a map.

As Thomas E. Mann said in Brookings, “Most citizens are inadvertent consumers of news about politics and government, limited mostly to local television news dominated by crime, traffic and weather … Their lives are filled with responsibilities and interests that draw their attention away from election campaigns and policy battles. What little they know and learn about politics is often laden with misinformation and provides little basis for coming to public judgment beyond group identities, tribal loyalties and fleeting impressions of candidates and officeholders.”

The average person is not aware of the complexities of the Myanmar government. The Nobel Peace Prize recipient and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi — who has said little about the atrocities done on the Rohingya — has limited to no control over the military. I would venture to guess that the percentage of Americans who know her name and know that she doesn’t hold full executive powers is limited to the low teens at best. But this is simple international news.

Explanatory news programs — from Vox to 60 Minutes to Fareed Zakaria GPS — actually perform a service to people. The age of repetitive cable news should be in the past; the age of fluffy local news belongs in the garbage; I want my detailed information from great news sites and programs and my stupid fluffy news from Buzzfeed when it invades my Facebook feed.

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