The public expresses far more interest in news from global hot spots, including Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea, than in news from many less troubled countries.
And while most Americans express interest in what happens in Canada and Great Britain, far fewer are interested in developments from other traditional U.S. allies – notably France.
These are the findings from surveys conducted over the past few months by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The surveys asked people to gauge their general level of interest – not tied to any particular event – in what happens in 40 different countries.
Recent events in Egypt demonstrate that public interest in news from a country can rise quickly. In mid-December, prior to the wave of popular protests in Egypt, just 36% said they were very (10%) or somewhat (26%) interested in news about that country.
In mid-February, following the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, twice as many (72%) said they were either very (34%) or somewhat (38%) interested in news about what happens in Egypt.
In general, the public expresses the most interest in news from Iraq and Afghanistan, where thousands of U.S. forces have been stationed for years. Nearly eight-in-ten say they are very or somewhat interested in what happens in Iraq (78%) and Afghanistan (77%).
However, there also is considerable public interest in news from North Korea (70% very/somewhat interested) and Iran (70%). And, reflecting the public’s growing focus on Asia, nearly as many say they are interested in news from China (69%) and South Korea (69%).
In a Pew Research survey last month, 47% said that Asia is most important to the United States, while 37% considered Europe to be the most important region. In 1993, the balance of public opinion was reversed: 50% considered Europe most important, 31% Asia. (See “Strengthen Ties with China, But Get Tough on Trade,” Jan. 12, 2011.)
East Asia Top Region
Most of the nations near the top of the list are in Asia, particularly East Asia, or the Middle East. One notable exception is Mexico, a U.S. neighbor plagued by drug violence and a focal point for the domestic debate over immigration policy. Six-in-ten (62%) say they are very or somewhat interested in news out of Mexico.
Among the nine countries in the Americas included in the surveys, Mexico, Canada (55% very/somewhat interested) and Cuba (51%) are the only ones in which half or more express at least some interest. There is less interest in news from other countries in the Americas, including Colombia (43%), Brazil (42%) and Argentina (33%).
Looking at East Asia, majorities are very or somewhat interested in what happens in North Korea, China, South Korea and Japan (59%). About half express that level of interest in news about Vietnam (48%) or Australia (46%). Slightly more than a third (36%) say they are very or somewhat interested in news about what is happening in Indonesia.
Aside from Iraq and Iran, majorities show strong interest in news from two other nations in the Middle East critical to U.S. foreign policy: Saudi Arabia (62% very/somewhat interested) and Israel (59%). The public shows somewhat less interest in news out of two other nations that also play important roles in the region: Lebanon (49% very/somewhat interested) and Turkey (34%). And there was only modest interest in Egypt (36% very/somewhat closely) before the weeks of protests and change in power.
In Central/South Asia, the public expresses strong interest in news from Pakistan, a key player in the troubled region (60% very/somewhat interested), but less in news about India, a growing economic power (44%).
Americans express more interest in news from Great Britain (59% very/somewhat interested) than other Western European nations included in the surveys. Just 33% say they are very or somewhat interested in news about what is happening in France or Sweden. Interest in news from Germany (43%), Italy (42%) and Spain (40%) falls somewhere in between.
Nearly half (49%) say they are very or somewhat interested in news out of Russia. There is less interest in news about other former Soviet states that are less consistent players on the global stage. About a third say they are very or somewhat interested in news from Ukraine (36%) or Poland (34%). And among African countries, about half (52%) say they are very or somewhat interested in what happens in Sudan, while about four-in-ten say they are this interested in news out of South Africa (44%), Kenya (41%), Nigeria (40%) and Somalia (39%).
Modest Partisan Differences
Republicans and Democrats show similar levels of interest in news about most of the countries included in the surveys. Republicans, though, show somewhat greater interest in several of the world’s top trouble spots, while Democrats show greater interest in news about several developing nations.
About nine-in-ten Republicans say they are very or somewhat interested in news about what happens in Iraq (90%) or Afghanistan (88%). Three-quarters of Democrats say the same (74% for Iraq; 75% for Afghanistan). On the other hand, Republicans and Democrats are equally interested in news about Iran (71% very/somewhat interested).
Democrats, though, are more likely than Republicans to express interest in news from South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Nicaragua. Half of Democrats (50%) say they are very or somewhat interested in news out of South Africa, compared with 38% of Republicans.
Republicans, especially conservative Republicans, are more likely than Democrats to say they are very or somewhat interested in news about Israel. Nearly seven-in-ten Republicans (68%) say this, compared with 58% of Democrats.
Three quarters of conservative Republicans (75%) say they are very or somewhat interested in news about Israel. About four-in-ten (41%) say they are very interested, almost double the 22% of the public that says this. Among Democrats, only 16% say they are very interested in news about Israel.
There are no partisan differences in interest in news from Egypt. Before the recent uprising, 40% of Republicans and 39% of Democrats said they were very or somewhat interested in what is happening there. Shortly after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, that rose to 76% for Republicans and 73% for Democrats.
Neighbors Draw Strong Interest Along the Borders
More than eight-in-ten (82%) of those living in states that border Mexico say they are very or somewhat interested in news about what is happening in that country. And that interest is strong: 45% say they are very interested in news out of Mexico. Among the rest of the country, 57% say they are very or somewhat interested in this news; 24% say they are very interested.
People along the northern border of the U.S. take a stronger interest than most Americans in news out of Canada. Seven-in-ten (71%) of those living in states along the Canadian border say they are very or somewhat interested in news about what is happening in Canada. That drops to 51% for the rest of the nation.
Country Favorability vs. News Interest
Many of the countries that draw the highest interest – such as Iran and Pakistan – are viewed very unfavorably by the public.
For example, seven-in-ten (70%) say they are very or somewhat interested in news about Iran. A 2010 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that 67% have an unfavorable opinion of Iran.
A similar pattern holds true for Pakistan: 60% say they are at least somewhat interested in news from there, but 68% view the country unfavorably.
By contrast, the public is generally interested in news about Great Britain and has a favorable opinion of that country. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) say they are very or somewhat interested in news about Great Britain; in a 2009 Global Attitudes survey, 77% said they had a favorable view of Great Britain. Similarly, 55% express interest in news from Canada, while 84% have a favorable opinion of Canada.
But there is far less interest in some other positively viewed countries. The 2009 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey found that 62% of Americans have a favorable opinion of France, up from just 29% in 2003, amid tensions between the U.S. and France over the Iraq war. Just a third (33%) say they are very or somewhat interested in what happens in France; that ranked France last in overall interest, along with Sweden, Argentina and Chile, among the 40 nations included.