What America looks like in the media abroad

One organization is aggregating and translating foreign news about the US trying to make Americans care what the rest of the world thinks

During the crisis in Ferguson, Vox wondered how the US media would cover the events if they were happening in another country, offering its own satirical answer to the question, inspired by a recurring Slate feature.

The premise behind the satire seemed to be an impression that US news coverage of international events simplify complex issues (“Ferguson…is ruled overwhelmingly by members of America’s majority ‘white people’ sect.’”), put a bit of orientalist gloss on local life (“The glistening capital city of Washington”), and are more focused on consequences to financial rather than human interests (“Analysts warn the violence could spread toward oil-producing regions”).

That may or may not be how the US media would have covered the events if they happened abroad, but how were foreign media covering the actual American events?

The answer “can offer a refreshing viewpoint on America’s many problems. They can also reveal a lot about how such disturbances are viewed at home,” noted the Washington Post. Accordingly, numerous US outlets asked that question, trying to decipher how the rest of the global media landscape was covering the story.

The simplest answer was of course that the coverage varied widely between countries and outlets: Some paid particular attention to the militarization of the police, many tried to explain to readers why the legacy of the civil rights movements and the election of president Obama have not brought about a post-racial society, and then there were those who were mostly concerned with what American problems say about their own.

Particular scrutiny was given to the Ferguson coverage in countries like Russia, China, Iran, and Egypt, where the crisis provided a welcome excuse to dust off the argument that America shouldn’t point fingers at other countries’ human rights issues. From countries that are not exactly known for their enthusiasm about all things Americana, that should come as no surprise, and some here disregarded the coverage as simple propaganda. Even so, it still provided an opportunity to reflect on how America is perceived by its non-allies.

The idea of using foreign news as a means of national self-reflection is nothing new to Watching America, a US-based site that has been trying to get Americans to read foreign opinion about the US for nine years. Nonprofit and volunteer-run, Watching America aggregates foreign English-language news and translates news in other languages about the US through a network of over 300 volunteer translators and hundreds of volunteer editors. The translators, whose abilities are tested before they’re given assignments, find stories by scanning lists of publications for search words, and after being translated, the articles are edited twice. This process means there is some lag time, and Watching America is not about breaking news.

Though articles present a broad range of opinions about the United States, Watching America is non-political, says co-founder Robin Koerner:

We look for articles that take a position or have an opinion, not just reportage or foreign-language versions of stories from English papers. So we don’t avoid propaganda. We’re not judging what we’re posting but saying that even if the information is wrong, it affects us as Americans and we should know.

Unsurprisingly, Ferguson has been a big story on Watching America lately, with headlines reading everything from “It’s Not Easy Being White” (Die Tageszeitung, Germany), to “Obama Can’t Continue to Downplay Racial Issues” (Huanqiu, China), to, simply, “The Problem in Ferguson” (Ahora, Cuba).

To Gillian Palmer, a volunteer editor with the site for over four years, Ferguson was just one example of how Watching America brings together a range of opinions and viewpoints. She especially noticed that the European coverage of Ferguson was very focused on the military equipment used by the police force.

“It’s interesting to see what different regions pull out,” Palmer says, “It can be an excellent addition or counterpoint to what American media puts out there; sometimes it draws your attention to something you wouldn’t otherwise consider.”

And, Palmer says, even stories that are hostile to America can serve as “a reminder that we’re not acting in a vacuum, that actions have consequences.”

When the website launched in 2005, it attracted attention from outlets such as the Christian Science MonitorSpiegel Onlinethe BBC, and NPR but has since dropped off the media radar. The site gets around 1,000 unique pageviews a day on average according to Google Analytics, Koerner says, while it has just about 1,000 followers on Twitter and 1,500 likes on Facebook. Still, Koerner says that he hopes to grow his metrics with the likes of a new website design, launched one week ago, that allows readers to better share stories, and a new social media strategy of actively pushing stories in front of people and to other platforms, not just sharing them. In the meantime, he says, donations and ads on the site cover expenses but generate far from enough to pay everyone involved in the sizable operation.

At the time of the launch in 2005, the Christian Science Monitor asked if Americans were ready to read foreign news about themselves, and, through an expert from the Poynter Institute, concluded: probably not.

At a glance, that prediction seems to hold true, though Koerner maintains that Americans should, and will be, interested in reading foreign news coverage about the US—they just need to know that it’s out there.

A 2014 study of personal news cycles by the Media Insight Project shows that most Americans are interested in foreign news. While the study doesn’t specifically address foreign opinion about the US, it does show that two thirds of Americans try to keep up with foreign news, and that 25 percent of them find their news online, according to Jennifer Benz, senior research scientist with NORC at the University of Chicago.

While that may look like an indication of a sizable, potential audience for Watching America, Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, believes a broad, general audience for this type of website sounds unrealistic. There’s already an abundance of domestic and international news out there, he says. And besides, “most Americans don’t even care what other Americans think.” However, Rosenstiel adds, “it could have a deep interest for a narrow audience of loyal, dedicated readers.”

The majority of news readers may not look to foreign news about America again until dramatic events create an immediate need for self-reflection. But even if foreign voices receive less attention, they’re still out there, talking about us. The recent interest in the international coverage of Ferguson might suggest, it could be worth tuning in more regularly. 

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Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.