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Communication Research

Foreign Nation Visibility 40(3) 417436


The Author(s) 2011
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DOI: 10.1177/0093650211415845
A Longitudinal Analysis crx.sagepub.com

(1950-2006)

Timothy M. Jones1, Peter Van Aelst2,


and Rens Vliegenthart3

Abstract
Previous scholarship has neglected to fully explore the dynamic nature of international
news flow over time. This study uses content analysis to track foreign nation visibility
on a yearly basis in two major U.S. news outlets: the New York Times (1950-2006) and
NBC Nightly News (1968-2006). Time-series analysis is used to evaluate the influence
of five contextual factors on foreign nation visibility in the news: (a) geographic
proximity, (b) bilateral trade flow, (c) U.S. troop deployment, (d) GDP per capita, and
(e) population. The research findings build on earlier news flow studies by adding a
longitudinal dimension that has been absent from previous news flow scholarship.

Keywords
foreign nation visibility, international news flow, time series, agenda setting, content analysis

Communication scholars have long been interested in identifying the key determinants of
what makes foreign countries newsworthy and why some countries are considered more
newsworthy than others. Research on international news flow has identified dozens of
variables that correlate with foreign nation visibility in the news, but most of this research
has been cross-sectional in nature, focusing on the visibility of foreign nations at a particular
point in time. Given the difficulty of gathering longitudinal data, relatively little news flow
research has systematically examined whether and to what extent foreign nation visibility

1
Bellevue College, Bellevue, WA, USA
2
Leiden University, Leiden, Netherlands
3
University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Corresponding Author:
Timothy M. Jones, Department of Political Science and International Studies (D110),
Bellevue College, 3000 Landerholm Circle SE, Bellevue, WA 98007-6484, USA.
Email: tim.jones@bellevuecollege.edu
418 Communication Research 40(3)

and the factors that influence it have changed over time.1 Specifically, scholarship has typi-
cally only addressed why some countries get more news coverage than others at a specific
point in time, not how and why the focus shifts over time from one country to another.
This study seeks to build on previous international news flow scholarship by adding a
longitudinal perspective to the study of foreign nation visibility. Using time-series analysis,
we examine foreign nation visibility in two major U.S. news outletsThe New York Times
(NYT) and NBC Nightly News (NBC)over the course of several decades in the postWorld
War II era (1950-2006). Our analysis focuses on five variables, which we derived from schol-
arship and which we expect to contribute to foreign nation visibility in the news: (a) a foreign
nations geographic distance from the United States, (b) its trade flow with the United States,
(c) the number of U.S. soldiers present in the country, (d) the gross domestic product (GDP)
of the country, and (e) its population size. The first variable relates to the geographic proxim-
ity of a foreign nation to the United States; the second and third variables relate to the sig-
nificance of a foreign nation in its relationship to the United States; and the fourth and
fifth variables relate to the prominence of a foreign nation in what Golan (2006) calls the
hierarchy of nations. Our primary interest in this study is to determine the extent to
which these factorsand changes in them over timehave affected foreign nation visi-
bility in U.S. news coverage in the postWorld War II era.
The rest of this article proceeds as follows: First, we provide a theoretical framework
for understanding foreign nation visibility on the U.S. news agenda, paying particular atten-
tion to the five explanatory variables listed above. We then explain our research design and
methodology, emphasizing its longitudinal nature and highlighting the added value of time-
series analysis. Finally, we present our results and discuss the major implications of our
findings.

Theoretical Framework
Communication scholars interested in which foreign nations receive news coverage and
why typically employ the terminology of international news flow, or simply news flow,
to refer to what we are describing as foreign nation visibility. Most news flow studies
focus on either event-oriented factors or context-oriented factors to account for variations
in foreign nation visibility (Chang & Lee, 1992). Event-oriented factors are those that are
intrinsic to events, and they pertain directly to what happened, when, and how. Context-
oriented factors are extrinsic to events: they provide the backdrop against which individual
events occur, and they pertain to where the event took place and who was involved. Of
particular interest to us in this study are the context-oriented factors that contribute to some
countries getting into the news more often than othersregardless of the events that happen
there.
Previous news flow scholarship has identified dozens of variables associated with
foreign nation visibility in the news, including a foreign nations gross domestic product
(e.g., Robinson & Sparkes, 1976), its military expenditure (e.g., Golan & Wanta, 2003),
its population size (e.g., Dupree, 1971), its geographic proximity to the United States
Jones et al. 419

(e.g., Wu, 1998), and its level of trade with the United States (e.g., Golan, 2006). As mentioned,
however, there has been relatively little longitudinal research in this area. This gap in the
literature is ironic given that international news flow connotes a dynamic processand yet
most studies have measured the flow at one point in time. This gap is also problematic
because it can spur incorrect inferences concerning the level and nature of foreign nation
visibility, and it makes it difficult to compare the results of news flow studies conducted at
different points in time. With this in mind, in this research we employ a longitudinal design
to explore how foreign nation visibility and the contextual factors that influence it have
changed in the postWorld War II era.
Specifically, our study focuses on three contextual factors that we expect to influence
foreign nation visibility in U.S. news coverage: (a) a countrys geographic proximity to the
United States, (b) two measures of a countrys significance in its relationship to the United
States, and (c) two measures of a countrys prominence in the hierarchy of nations. The first
factorgeographic proximityrefers to the physical distance between a foreign nation and
the United States. Scholarship has found that geographic proximity affects news coverage in
both domestic (Martin, 1988; Morton & Warren, 1992) and international news stories (Chang,
Shoemaker, & Brendlinger, 1987; Galtung & Ruge, 1965). Indeed, Stevenson and Cole
(1984) have gone so far as to suggest that proximity is a universal news value. This conten-
tion makes intuitive sense: journalists are more likely to cover and audiences are more
likely to follow events that arise closer to homeboth because they are easier for jour-
nalists to cover and more interesting for news audiences to follow. Following this logic,
our first theoretical expectation is as follows:

Hypothesis 1 (H1): The closer foreign nations are to the United States geographi-
cally, the more visible they will be in U.S. news coverage.

There is reason to believe that the explanatory power of geographic proximity has
decreased in importance over time. According to Livingston and Bennett (2003), for
example, the rise and spread of new media technologies like broadband cable, satellite, and
Internet have fundamentally reshaped the information environment so that it is easier today
for journalists to travel to and report from faraway places. Livingston and Van Belles
(2005) study of the effects of satellite technology in news coverage of foreign natural disas-
ters seems to support this hypothesisspecifically, they found that distance was less of an
impediment to news attention in the 1980s and 1990s than it was in the 1960s and 1970s.
More recently, in an analysis of American, British, and Dutch news coverage of foreign
earthquakes, Koopmans and Vliegenthart (2010) found that in spite of the new media tech-
nologies available to them, journalists still tend to ignore disasters in remote and faraway
places. In light of these diverging findings, we pose the following research question:

Research Question 1 (RQ1): Has geographic proximity as a predictor of foreign nation


visibility in U.S. news coverage increased, remained the same, or decreased in
importance over time?
420 Communication Research 40(3)

The second contextual factor that we expect to influence foreign nation visibility in U.S.
news coverage relates to the extent to which a foreign nation is perceived to be significant
(i.e., important) in its relationship to the United States. There are many dimensions in which
foreign nations may be significant to other nations (see Shoemaker & Cohen, 2006), but, in
this study, we focus our attention on economic and political significance, as both have been
found to be highly predictive of foreign nation visibility in the United States. For example, in
an analysis of U.S. news coverage of foreign events, Shoemaker, Danielian, and Brendlinger
(1991) found both economic and political significance to be predictive of foreign nation
visibility on the U.S. news agenda. In the authors words, when deviant events occur in
tandem with important indicators of the political or economic significance of a country
to the United States, the U.S. media give such events accentuated coverage (p. 795).
Corroborating this finding, in a more recent analysis of the attitudinal profile of U.S.
television journalists, Kim (2002) found that most international news in the United States
comes from areas where American political or economic interests are at stake (p. 431).
Because several potential indicators of economic and political significance were not avail-
able for much of the more-than-50-year period under study, we relied on a single indicator for
each type of significance. Specifically, we measured economic significance as the total trade
flow (imports plus exports) between a foreign nation and the United States (see Wu, 1998),
and we measured political significance as the total number of U.S. troops in each foreign
nation.2 Previous scholarship suggests that both types of significance are likely to influence
foreign nation visibility in U.S. news coverage. For example, in a survey of 279 U.S. news-
paper editors Chang and Lee (1992) found that U.S. military involvement increased the
likelihood that foreign countries would be covered in the U.S. news media. Likewise, sev-
eral studies have found a strong positive relationship between bilateral trade flow and bilat-
eral news flow (e.g., Ahern, 1984; Golan, 2008). Taken together, these studies suggest that
U.S. news stories about foreign affairs tend to be about uswhat is happening, or what
could happen, to us economically and politically. With this in mind, our theoretical expec-
tations are as follows:

Hypothesis 2 (H2): The more trade flow there is between a foreign nation and the
United States, the more visible that foreign nation will be in U.S. news coverage.
Hypothesis 3 (H3): The more U.S. troops are stationed in a foreign nation, the more
visible that foreign nation will be in U.S. news coverage.

As discussed above, the evolution of foreign nation visibility over time is largely ignored
in earlier news flow studiestherefore, we can only speculate about over time changes. Still,
it is clear that the relationship of the United States to the rest of the world has changed sig-
nificantly in the last half century as U.S. foreign policy has become less isolationist and more
internationalist (Hook & Spanier, 2000). This is true from both an economic perspective and
a military perspective. Economically, the United States has become much more dependent
on trade over time. At the same time, the United States has become much more active militar-
ily, deploying more troops to more foreign nations than any other country in world history
Jones et al. 421

(Kane, 2004). As it remains unclear whether these changes have had a measurable impact on
U.S. news coverage of the rest of the world, we offer the following research questions:

Research Question 2 (RQ2): Has trade flow as a predictor of foreign nation visibility
in U.S. news coverage increased, remained the same, or decreased in importance
over time?
Research Question 3 (RQ3): Has U.S. military presence as a predictor of foreign
nation visibility in U.S. news coverage increased, remained the same, or decreased
in importance over time?

The fourth and fifth contextual factors that we expect to affect foreign nation visibility
in U.S. news coverage relate to the power that foreign nations have to effect change in the
international system. Unlike geographic proximity or economic and military significance,
which are defined in terms of the relationship between the United States and another country,
these variables relate to a countrys prominence in what Golan (2006) calls the hierarchy of
nations (see also Chang, 1998; Kim & Barnett, 1996). Just as there is a tendency for domestic
news stories to focus on prominent peoplefor example, powerful politicians, wealthy business
leaders, and popular celebrities (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009)we expect international news
stories to focus on prominent foreign nations. In this study, we focused on two measures
of a foreign nations prominence. First, we measured prominence in economic terms by
using a foreign nations GDP per capita as an indicator of that countrys resources and
capabilitiesseveral studies have shown that GDP is among the most important predic-
tors of foreign nation visibility in the news (Ahern, 1984; Gunaratne, 2001). As a second
measure of a countrys prominence, we also considered the size of a nations population
since previous scholarship has found this variable to be a good predictor of visibility as well
(Kim & Barnett, 1996; Nnaemeka & Richstad, 1981). Phrased in the form of hypotheses, we
expect the following:

Hypothesis 4 (H4): The wealthier a foreign nation, the more visible it will be in U.S.
news coverage.
Hypothesis 5 (H5): The more populous a foreign nation, the more visible it will be
in U.S. news coverage.

Although longitudinal research in this area is lacking, it is important to note that wealth and
population have been found to be predictive of news flow in different time periods (Dupree,
1971; Gunaratne, 2001). As such, it is logical to expect that population and wealth would
remain stable as predictors of foreign nation visibility in U.S. news coverage. Given the
lack of a solid empirical or theoretical basis for this expectation, however, we again pose
research questions:

Research Question 4 (RQ4): Has economic wealth as a predictor of foreign nation


visibility in U.S. news coverage increased, remained the same, or decreased in
importance over time?
422 Communication Research 40(3)

Research Question 5 (RQ5): Has population size as a predictor of foreign nation


visibility in U.S. news coverage increased, remained the same, or decreased in
importance over time?

Method
To address the above hypotheses and research questions, we conducted longitudinal content
analyses of two major U.S. news sources: The NYT and NBC. We chose to analyze the NYT
because it is generally considered the U.S. newspaper of record (Chang et al., 1987) and
scholarship has shown that it is an important intermedia agenda-setter (Golan, 2006). In
recognition of the elite and potentially unique character of this medium, however, we supple-
mented our analysis of the NYT with an examination of NBCthe most watched U.S. net-
work television news program (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2009). Including both
news sources gives us more confidence that we can generalize our results to the broader U.S.
news media. The NYT content was gathered from the Historical New York Times Index, and
the NBC content was gathered from the Vanderbilt Television News Index.
The content analysis itself consisted of a single coding itema yearly count of the total
number of news stories in each index in which a foreign country was a significant focus.
The unit of analysis was the news story. The specific keywords that we searched for were
the namesand variations on those namesof each foreign country that existed in the
international system during the 57-year period analyzed (1950-2006). As we were only inter-
ested in salient country mentions, we limited our keyword searches to the citation or abstract
of the news stories in our sample. This technique has limitations, of coursefor example, it
likely does not capture the true breadth and depth of foreign countries mentioned in all news
storiesbut it is important to note that there is a long tradition of scholars relying on news
abstracts in general, and these two indexes of news abstracts in particular, as proxy mea-
sures of news content (e.g., Baumgartner & Jones, 1993; Norris, 1995). More importantly,
although news abstracts are by no means perfect representations of the news stories they are
meant to symbolize, they have been shown to be reliable representations of news content
(Althaus, Edy, & Phalen, 2001; Edy, Althaus, & Phalen, 2005).
To examine the dynamics of change over time, we examined nearly six decades of NYT
coverage, beginning in 1950 with the start of the Korean War and ending in 2006, the last
year for which data were available. We also examined more than three decades of NBC news
coverage, beginning in 1968the 1st year that data were availableand ending in 2006.
To facilitate analysis of these data, we subdivided the broader postWorld War II era into
four more manageable time periodseach of which represents a distinct geopolitical era.
Specifically, we treated 1950 to 1973 as the early Cold War era, 1974 to 1991 as the late
Cold War era, 1992 to 2001 as the postCold War era, and 2002 to 2006 as the post-9/11
era. These time periods were chosen because scholarship suggests that U.S. foreign affairs
discourse changed considerably after major combat operations ended in Vietnam in 1973
(Mermin, 1999; Norris, 1995), again after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 (Entman,
2004; Norris, 1995), and again after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (Burney, 2002;
Hutcheson, Domke, Billeaudeaux, & Garland, 2004).
Jones et al. 423

In addition, we collected data on the geographic distance in kilometers between


Washington, D.C. and the capital city of every country in our sample (H1). These data come
from the Centre DEtudes Prospectives et DInformations Internationales (CEPII) database,
Frances leading institute for research on international relationships. We also collected data
on the total volume of annual trade in dollars (exports plus imports) between the United
States and every country in our sample (H2). These data come from the Direction of Trade
Statistics (DOTS) database, which is maintained by the International Monetary Fund.
Likewise, we gathered data on the total number of U.S. troops officially deployed to each
country in the world (H3). These data come from the Global U.S. Troop Deployment data-
base maintained by the Center for Data Analysis, a research arm of the Heritage Foundation,
a conservative think tank in the United States. Finally, we gathered data on the total popula-
tion of each country (H4) and the per capita GDP of every country in our sample (H5), and
these data come from the Expanded Trade and GDP database.
Regarding the analyses themselves, because of the strong nonnormal distribution of
some of our data, we log-transformed our dependent variable (number of country mentions)
and all of our independent variables. We also added a trend variable to account for changes
over time.3 The pooled time-series structure of our data file had enough cross-sectional (by
country) and overtime (by year) observations to allow us to assess the impact of those
variables that varied primarily across space (distance and population size) as well as those
variables that varied both across space and over time (GDP, troops, and trade). Particular
attention was paid to autocorrelation (dependency of observations across time) and corre-
lation across panels. To identify the most appropriate technique for data analysis, we
conducted several diagnostic tests.4
First, we checked whether the dependent variable was stationarythat is, whether the
mean of each country-level series was unaffected by a change of time origin. Specifically,
we used the Fisher test to assess the stationarity of the data in our pooled design. The results
of this test allowed us to reject the null hypothesis of nonstationarity (2[384] = 2354.03;
p < .001 for NYT, 2[384] = 2918.90; p < .001 for NBC), which meant that we did not have
to differentiate the series.
Second, we used the Wooldridge test to test for autocorrelation in our panel data. Not
surprisingly, it showed that our observations were correlated across time: F(1, 191) = 101.77;
p < .001 for NYT, F(1, 191) = 100.75, p < .001 for NBC.
Third, we conducted a fixed-effects analysis including a lagged dependent variable and
all dependent variables that differ not only across countries but also over time. A fixed-
effects analysis resembles an ordinary regression with dummies for all countries as inde-
pendent variables. The error structure resulting from the fixed-effects analysis indicated
panel level heteroscedastisticitythat is, the level of explained variance differs across
countries (Wald 2[133] = 11777.2, p < .001 for NYT; Wald 2[133] = 3.1e + .05, p < .001
for NBC).
Finally, the results from the fixed-effects analysis and a random-effects analysiswhere
country dummies are replaced by a random interceptdemonstrated contemporaneous cor-
relation of the residuals across panels (Peseran LM-test = 23.01, p < .001 for fixed-effects
model NYT, Peseran LM-test = 30.72, p < .001 for random-effects model NYT, Peseran
424 Communication Research 40(3)

LM-test = 17.38, p < .001 for fixed-effects model NBC, Peseran LM-test = 15.75, p < .001
for random-effects model NBC).
The combination of autocorrelation, panel-level heteroscedasticity, and contemporane-
ous correlation made an ordinary least squares regression model with panel-corrected stan-
dard errors a viable option (Beck & Katz, 1995). We tested different ways to capture the
autoregressive process present in our data. Overall, it turned out that a specification with a
panel specific AR(1) error structure was best suited to deal with autocorrelationthis speci-
fication results in models with considerable levels of explained variance, which means that
the size of the current error term is influenced by the size of the previous error term but
that the size of this influence is allowed to differ across countries. Substantively, this means that
we presumed that news about some countries is more stablethat is, a higher influence of the
previous error valuethan news about other countries. Mathematically, such a model can
be written as follows:
yi ,t = c + bxi ,t 1 + i ,t it = i i ,t 1 + i ,t

Specifically, yi,t is the value of country i at time t on the dependent variable, c the con-
stant, xi,t the value of country i at time t on an independent variable, i,t the error term, and
i,t1 the value of the error term a year earlier. i is the country-specific autoregressive
parameter that corrects for autocorrelation in the residuals, i,t is the part of the error term
that cannot be explained by the previous value of this error term. Finally, all of the indepen-
dent variables were lagged by 1 year. This was done to meet one of the basic requirements
of causalitythat is, the cause has to precede the consequence.5

Results
In this section, we begin with a descriptive overview of the results of our longitudinal
analysis of foreign nation visibility in U.S. news coverage. We then explore how well the
contextual factors analyzed in this study predicted visibility both in the aggregate and over
time. The first step in our analysis was to examine which countries were most visible during
each of the four geopolitical eras analyzed. Table 1 lists the top ten most mentioned foreign
nations in the NYT and on NBC during the early Cold War era (1950-1973), the late Cold
War era (1974-1991), the postCold War era (1992-2001), and the post-9/11 era (2002-
2006). Although NBCs foreign news agenda is clearly more concentrated than the NYTs,
there is considerable overlap in the specific countries that both outlets focused on during
each era. Notably, nine countries were among the top ten most mentioned countries in at
least four of the eight series analyzed. Specifically, Russia (USSR) and Israel received
the most consistent news coveragefollowed closely by Britain, China, France, Japan,
Germany, Iraq, and Mexico. It is worth pointing out that Britain, China, France, and Russia
(USSR) are nuclear powers and members of the UN Security Councilthe UNs most
powerful body. Israel is a nuclear power and one of Americas closest allies, whereas Japan
has one of the largest economies in the world, and is one of Americas biggest trading part-
ners. Germany is a member of the G-8 and has one of the biggest economies in the world,

Table 1. Top Ten Most Mentioned Countries in U.S. News Coverage by Yearly Percentage of Total Story Mentions, 1950-2006.
Era 1 Era 2 Era 3 Era 4
a
Early Cold War (1950-1973) Late Cold War (1974-1991) PostCold War (1992-2001) Post-9/11 (2002-2006)

Rank NYT NBC NYT NBC NYT NBC NYT NBC

1 Russia (6.0%) Vietnam (25.2%) Russia (5.4%) Russia (14.0%) France (5.6%) Russia (8.0%) Iraq (14.7%) Iraq (30.9%)
2 Vietnam (6.0%) Russia (9.5%) Israel (4.9%) Israel (6.2%) Japan (5.6%) Bosnia (7.3%) China (5.4%) Afghanistan (5.1%)
3 Britain (5.8%) Israel (5.7%) France (4.5%) Iran (5.7%) Russia (5.2%) Mexico (4.6%) France (4.3%) Israel (4.3%)
4 France (5.1%) Cambodia (4.6%) Japan (4.2%) Lebanon (4.6%) China (4.6%) Israel (4.6%) Israel (3.6%) Jordan (4.0%)
5 China (4.3%) China (4.3%) China (3.7%) Vietnam (2.9%) Germany (3.8%) Iraq (4.3%) Japan (3.5%) Britain (3.3%)
6 Israel (3.9%) France (3.9%) Britain (3.5%) West Germany (2.8%) Mexico (3.7%) Yugoslavia (4.2%) Russia (3.5%) Iran (3.2%)
7 Canada (3.7%) Britain (3.5%) Iran (3.3%) East Germany (2.7%) Israel (3.7%) China (3.5%) Britain (3.1%) Pakistan (2.9%)
8 Japan (3.3%) Egypt (2.6%) Lebanon (2.8%) China (2.6%) Britain (3.0%) Japan (3.3%) Afghanistan (2.8%) Russia (2.5%)
9 India (2.9%) East Germany (2.4%) Canada (2.7%) France (2.4%) Bosnia (2.8%) Britain (3.2%) Mexico (2.8%) North Korea (2.5%)
10 Italy (2.6%) West Germany (2.4%) Mexico (2.5%) Iraq (2.4%) Italy (2.5%) Cuba (2.4%) Germany (2.7%) South Korea (2.5%)
Top 10 177,636 (44.2%) 9,362 (64.2%) 89,927 (37.6%) 21,304 (46.3%) 45,045 (40.5%) 5,401 (48.8%) 21,421 (46.5%) 5,173 (61.2%)
Total N 401,934 14,603 239,451 46,032 111,296 11,060 46,041 8,462

Note: NYT = The New York Times; NBC = NBC Nightly News.
a. The early Cold War data for NBC only cover the period 1968-1973.

425
426 Communication Research 40(3)

whereas Iraq has been on the opposing end of two wars with the United States, and
Mexico, in addition to sharing a border with the United States, is one of Americas big-
gest trading partners.
The fact that the nine countries discussed above were so prominent in U.S. news cover-
age in the postWorld War II era suggests that at least at the top end of the distribution, four
of the factors that we considered to be of importance in determining foreign nation visibility
are indeed important. Specifically, during the time periods analyzed, foreign nation visibility
in U.S. news coverage seems to have been influenced by geographic proximity to the United
States (H1), economic significance to the United States (H2), military significance to
the United States (H3), and prominence in the hierarchy of nations (H4). Notwithstanding
the overlap in foreign nation visibility in the two news outlets analyzed, our data dem-
onstrate that the foreign news agenda of NBC was both more concentrated and more
variable than that of the NYTa finding that suggests that the systemic factors influencing
foreign nation visibility on the U.S. news agenda likely have different impacts depending
on the news format.
The next step in our analysis was to examine which countries dominated news coverage
on a yearly basis. Table 2 lists the top ten most mentioned country-years in U.S. news cover-
age during each of the four time periods analyzed. The data presented in this table demon-
strate that in the postWorld War II era, the biggest U.S. news agenda hogs have been
countries with which the United States has been in conflict. For example, Vietnam was the
most mentioned foreign country in the NYT for 9 consecutive years (1965-1973) during the
early Cold War era, whereas Iraq was the most mentioned foreign country during all 5 years
of the post-9/11 era. Interestingly, Iraq consumed far more of the NYTs foreign news agenda
in 2003 and 2004 than Vietnam ever dideven though there were more American troops
and more American casualties in Vietnam than there were in Iraq. Amazingly, one in every
four countries mentioned (24%) in the citation or abstract of the NYT in 2003, and one in
every six countries mentioned (17%) in 2004 was Iraq. By way of comparison, Vietnam
only consumed an average of 13% of the NYTs foreign news agenda during the 9 years that
it dominated news coverage. Although NBC data only go back to 1968, a similar pattern is
evident in its coverage of Vietnam and Iraq. Vietnam dominated NBCs foreign news cov-
erage throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, but Iraq accounted for a larger percentage
of NBCs foreign news stories in 2003 (37%) and 2004 (37%) than Vietnam ever did. Taken
together, these data are suggestive that the U.S. news medias window on the world has
ebbed and flowed with major U.S. military involvement abroad. Furthermore, foreign nation
visibility in U.S. news coverageat least during times of warseems to have become more
concentrated over time.
The key analyses in our study are depicted in Tables 3 and 4, which address the overall
relevance of the five contextual factors that were the focus of our study for the entire period
under examination: NYT (1950-2006) and NBC (1968-2006). Model 1in both tables
controls for autocorrelation as well as changes over time (via the trend variable). For the
NYT, the total explained variance of this first modelconsidering all five contextual factors
togetheris high (R2 = .598). Moreover, when we consider each variable on its own, we find
support for all five of our hypotheses. Specifically, distance (H1), trade (H2), troops (H3),

Table 2. Top Ten Most Mentioned Country-Years in U.S. News Coverage by Yearly Percentage of Total Story Mentions, 1950-2006.
Era 1 Era 2 Era 3 Era 4

Early Cold War (1950-1973)a Late Cold War (1974-1991) PostCold War (1992-2001) Post-9/11 (2002-2006)

Rank NYT NBC NYT NBC NYT NBC NYT NBC

1 Vietnam 1968 (16.9%) Vietnam 1968 (32.7%) Iraq 1991 (9.0%) Iran 1987 (19.1%) Japan 1995 (7.9%) Yugoslavia 1999 (25.5%) Iraq 2003 (23.9%) Iraq 2003 (36.9%)
2 Vietnam 1967 (16.0%) Vietnam 1972 (30.0%) Iran 1980 (8.7%) USSR 1984 (18.1%) France 1998 (7.3%) Afghanistan 2001 (21.7%) Iraq 2004 (17.3%) Iraq 2004 (36.9%)
3 Vietnam 1966 (15.9%) Vietnam 1969 (27.9%) Iran 1979 (8.3%) Iran 1980 (17.4%) Afghanistan 2001 (7.3%) Bosnia 1995 (17.4%) Iraq 2005 (12.5%) Iraq 2006 (29.6%)
4 Vietnam 1969 (14.5%) Vietnam 1970 (22.9%) Iran 1987 (8.2%) USSR 1988 (16.8%) Russia 1992 (6.8%) Iraq 1998 (14.6%) Iraq 2006 (11.2%) Iraq 2005 (29.2%)
5 Vietnam 1972 (14.3%) Vietnam 1973 (22.4%) Israel 1978 (7.3%) USSR 1987 (16.7%) Japan 1993 (6.7%) Bosnia 1993 (13.2%) China 2005 (7.9%) Iraq 2002 (16.6%)
6 Vietnam 1965 (13.8%) Vietnam 1971 (20.4%) Israel 1977 (7.2%) USSR 1989 (16.3%) Bosnia 1993 (6.5%) Russia 1993 (10.2%) China 2006 (6.2%) Afghanistan 2002 (11.4%)
7 Vietnam 1971 (11.7%) USSR 1969 (12.2%) USSR 1991 (7.1%) USSR 1990 (16.3%) Japan 1996 (6.4%) Russia 1996 (9.6%) Iraq 2002 (5.1%) Israel 2002 (7.6%)
8 Vietnam 1970 (10.5%) USSR 1968 (11.2%) Iraq 1990 (7.0%) USSR 1991 (15.7%) France 1999 (6.4%) Russia 1995 (9.6%) China 2004 (5.1%) Israel 2006 (6.5%)
9 Vietnam 1973 (9.4%) USSR 1972 (10.7%) Israel 1974 (6.9%) USSR 1985 (15.6%) Japan 1998 (6.2%) Cuba 2000 (9.3%) Japan 2002 (5.0%) Pakistan 2002 (6.2%)
10 USSR 1955 (9.4%) Cambodia 1970 (10.5%) Vietnam 1975 (6.7%) Vietnam 1975 (15.3%) France 2000 (6.2%) Russia 1992 (8.8%) Iran 2006 (4.9%) Iran 2006 (6.0%)

Note: NYT = The New York Times; NBC = NBC Nightly News.
a.The early Cold War data for NBC only cover the period 1968-1973.

427
428
Table 3. Predicting Foreign Nation Visibility in the New York Times, 1950-2006.

Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4 Model 5

NYT (1950-2006) NYT (1950-1973) NYT (1974-1991) NYT (1992-2001) NYT (2001-2006)
Distance (log) -0.181**** (0.0447) 0.0622 (0.0698) -0.174****,a (0.0451) -0.350****,a (0.0548) -0.227* (0.122)
Trade (log) 0.0519**** (0.0120) 0.0542*** (0.0173) 0.0488*** (0.0175) -0.00805a (0.0200) 0.0569*,a (0.0296)
Troops (log) 0.0615**** (0.00888) 0.0665**** (0.00871) 0.0548**** (0.0119) 0.0719**** (0.0172) 0.140****,a (0.0288)
GDP per capita 0.366**** (0.0334) 0.402**** (0.0387) 0.493**** (0.0412) 0.451**** (0.0664) 0.234***,a (0.0727)
(log)
Population (log) 0.514**** (0.0156) 0.519**** (0.0154) 0.535**** (0.0215) 0.610****,a (0.0271) 0.505****,a (0.0470)
Trend -0.0572**** (0.00262) -0.0615**** (0.00652) -0.0677**** (0.00763) -0.00000995a (0.0123) -0.0931****,a (0.0203)
Constant -0.601 (0.426) -2.952**** (0.738) -1.393*** (0.534) -3.232**** (0.801) 3.002** (1.509)
Number of 7,166 2,385 2,538 1,586 657
observations
Number of 169 132 146 164 166
countries
R2 .598 .844 .764 .751 .893

Note: NYT = The New York Times. Standard errors in parentheses.


a. Significantly different from previous period at p < .05.
*p < .10. **p < .05. ***p < .01. ****p < .001.

Table 4. Predicting Foreign Nation Visibility on NBC Nightly News, 1968-2006.

Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4 Model 5

NBC (1950-2006) NBC (1950-1973) NBC (1974-1991) NBC (1992-2001) NBC (2001-2006)
Distance (log) -0.130** (0.0604) 0.0622 (0.0733) -0.235****,a (0.0706) -0.224**** (0.0555) 0.0971a (0.194)
Trade (log) -0.0172 (0.0154) -0.103**** (0.0190) -0.0172a (0.0258) -0.0832****,a (0.0206) 0.0201a (0.0304)
Troops (log) 0.0900**** (0.0126) 0.0978**** (0.00897) 0.0801**** (0.0127) 0.0705**** (0.0205) 0.152****,a (0.0370)
GDP per capita 0.259**** (0.0407) 0.452**** (0.0580) 0.375**** (0.0483) 0.245****,a (0.0401) 0.119 (0.0868)
(log)
Population (log) 0.336**** (0.0254) 0.449**** (0.0360) 0.388**** (0.0319) 0.358**** (0.0318) 0.275**** (0.0561)
Trend -0.0306**** (0.00481) 0.100* (0.0600) -0.0426****,a (0.00842) -0.0293** (0.0136) -0.0107 (0.0227)
Constant -1.533*** (0.588) -8.762**** (1.651) -1.239* (0.663) -0.462 (0.895) -3.302 (2.338)
Number of 5,545 764 2,538 1,586 657
observations
Number of 169 132 146 164 166
countries
R2 .236 .568 .397 .345 .599

Note: NYT = The New York Times; NBC = NBC Nightly News. Standard errors in parentheses.
a.Significantly different from previous period at p < .05.
*p < .10. **p < .05. ***p < .01. ****p < .001.

429
430 Communication Research 40(3)

GDP per capita (H4) and population (H5) are all significantly correlated with foreign nation
visibility in the expected direction. For NBC, the total explained variance of this first model
is lower (R2 = .236) than it is for the NYT, but we do find support for four of our five hypotheses.
Specifically, distance (H1), troops (H3), GDP per capita (H4), and population (H5) are all cor-
related with visibility in the expected direction. The primary difference between the two
news mediums in our analysis is that trade is a significant predictor of visibility for the NYT
but not for NBC. This finding builds on our descriptive results and it suggests that foreign
nation visibility in the NYT is more stable, focusing on countries which are economically sig-
nificant to the United States, than foreign nation visibility on NBC, which tends to be more
focused on countries with which the United States is in conflict.
Finally, although it was not a primary focus of this study, it is worth highlighting that the
trend variable for both the NYT and NBC is negative, which means that that the total number
of foreign nations mentioned each year in each news outlet has decreased over time, even as
the number of countries in the international system has increased. This is an unexpected
finding, and it will be discussed more elaborately in the next section.
Models 2 through 5 in Table 3 and Table 4 tell us more about how the factors that influ-
ence foreign nation visibility in the NYT and on NBC have changed over time. Whereas
Model 1 took into account the entire period under examination, Models 2 through 5 repre-
sent distinct geopolitical eras within the broader postWorld War II era. Specifically, Model
2 focuses on the early Cold War era (1950-1973), Model 3 focuses on the late Cold War era
(1974-1991), Model 4 focuses on the postCold War era (1992-2001), and Model 5 focuses
on the post-9/11 era (2002-2006). Recall that we raised five research questions regarding
changes over time in the influence of the five contextual factors that are the focus of this
study. Specifically, we wondered whether distance (RQ1), trade (RQ2), troops (RQ3), GDP
per capita (RQ4), and population (RQ5) would become more or less important over time as
predictors of foreign nation visibility in U.S. news coverage.
Presented in order of our research questions, we find that distance was not a significant
predictor of foreign nation visibility in either the NYT or NBC in the early Cold War years;
it was highly significant in the late and postCold War years, and then it again became less
significant in the post-9/11 years. This finding suggests that distance may have lost some,
though not all, of its importance over time as a predictor of foreign nation visibility in U.S.
news coverage. Turning to trade, for the NYT this variable was a significant predictor of vis-
ibility in the early and late Cold War years, but it was not significant in the postCold War
years and it was only slightly significant in the most recent time period. For NBC, the trade
variable never contributed positively to predicting visibilityin fact, it exerted a slightly
negative influence in the early and postCold War years. These results suggest that trade is
not a consistent predictor of foreign nation visibility in U.S. news coverage. By contrast, U.S.
troop deployment was clearly significant for both news outlets in all four periods analyzed
moreover, the size of the coefficient was biggest in the post-9/11 era, suggesting that this
variable may be becoming more important over time. Finally, GDP per capita is significant
for both news outlets in three of the four eras analyzed, while population is significant in all
four. Taken together, these data suggest that a foreign nations prominence in the hierarchy
of nations is a relatively stable predictor of foreign nation visibility in U.S. news coverage,
Jones et al. 431

although GDP seems to have become less important post-9/11possibly due to the dom-
inance of Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan on the U.S. news agenda during this
time period.

Discussion
This study sought to shed light on three aspects of foreign nation visibility on the U.S. news
agenda: (a) Which foreign nations are most visible? (b) Why some foreign nations are more
visible than others? and (c) How foreign nation visibility and the factors that influence it have
changed over time? To address these questions, we conducted a content analysis of two major
U.S. news outlets: The NYT (1950-2006) and NBC (1968-2006). We used time-series analy-
sis to test the predictive power of several contextual factors that scholarship has sug-
gested influence foreign nation visibility in the news. Differences between the two news
outlets existfor example, NBCs foreign news agenda was both more concentrated and
more variable than that of the NYTbut foreign nation visibility in both news outlets
seems to have been largely driven by the same explanatory variables.
Our results indicate that four of the five contextual variables analyzed in this study
distance, U.S. troop deployment, GDP per capita, and populationwere predictive of visi-
bility in both news outlets, and the fifth (trade) was predictive of visibility in the NYT but not
on NBC. Superficially, it would seem that dramatic events such as the January 2010 Haitian
earthquake are what drive foreign nation visibility on the U.S. news agendaindeed, some-
times they do (e.g., Chang et al., 1987)but our study shows that contextual factors account
for a significant portion of the variance in U.S. news coverage of the rest of the world. These
findings not only corroborate earlier news flow studies but also extend them by adding a
longitudinal dimension that has been absent from previous news flow scholarship.
In particular, five longitudinal findings warrant emphasis. First, population and GDP
per capita were among the most predictive contextual factors analyzed in this study
population was significant for both news outlets in all four periods analyzed and GDP per
capita was significant in three of the four periods analyzed. This finding corroborates
previous research suggesting that a foreign nations prominence in the hierarchy of nations
remains the most powerful predictor of foreign nation visibility on the U.S. news agenda
(Kim & Barnett, 1996).
Second, and contrary to what one might expect, we found that geographic proximity to
the United States was not a significant predictor of visibility in the early Cold War years,
but it became a significant predictor in the late and postCold War years and then dropped
in significance again in the post-9/11 period. Notably, this finding challenges the generaliz-
ability of Livingston and Van Belles (2005) claim that remoteness is not what it used to
be in a world shrunk by advanced media technology (p. 58) and is in line with more recent
research findings that point to the persistent influence of distance on foreign news coverage
(e.g., Koopmans & Vliegenthart, 2010). Further longitudinal research is necessaryideally
on news coverage of different types of foreign eventsto gain insight into the conditions
under which distance does and does not act as an impediment to newsgathering from other
countries.
432 Communication Research 40(3)

A third longitudinal finding that warrants emphasis has to do with the relationship
between trade flow and news flow. Our results show that in the postWorld War II era trade
flow has become less predictive of visibility in the NYT. The trade variable was slightly
significant in the most recent time period, but over time it seems to have lost its status as a
stable determiner of foreign nation visibility in the NYT. Furthermore, the NBC data indicate
that trade flow was never a significant (positive) predictor of visibility. In light of the wide-
spread belief that trade flow influences news flow (e.g., Ahren, 1984; Golan, 2008), we
believe this is an important finding. Recent comparative studies by Wu (2000) and
Pietilinen (2006) have found that, in most countries, trade flow is a significant predictor
of foreign nation visibility in the news.6 Indeed, Wu (2003) has gone so far as to suggest that
economic interest plays the central role in determining news from abroad (p. 20).
However, both studies also point to the fact that the United States is different in this regard:
trade flow is not nearly as predictive of news flow as other variables. According to Pietilinen
(2006), this may be related to the fact that the U.S. news media are much more likely to
focus on countries with which the United States is in conflictand countries in conflict
rarely have significant trade relationships with each other.
Our fourth longitudinal finding indicates that U.S. troop deployment has always been
a good predictor of the visibility of foreign countries on the U.S. news agenda but that,
with the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it seems to have become an even more
important factor in the post-9/11 era. This finding suggests that the old adage, war is
Gods way of teaching Americans geography, may be more evident today than it was in
the past. Perhaps the U.S. news media are trying to localize the globalto borrow a
phrase from Clausen (2004)by focusing on our boys abroad. Recall that our data
demonstrate that in 2003 one in every four foreign affairs news stories in the NYTand
one in every three foreign affairs news stories on NBCwas Iraq. This heavy concentra-
tion of U.S. news coverage on Iraq supports Wus (2000) contention that international news
transmission reflect[s] the earlier imperial system in which news followed national flags
. . . [and] . . . armies (p. 27).
The final longitudinal finding that warrants attention relates to the size of the U.S. news
medias international agenda. Specifically, our analysis indicates that the total number of
foreign nations mentioned in both the NYT and NBC has gone down over time, even as the
number of countries in the international system has increased. This finding corroborates
the work of Riffe, Aust, Jones, Shoemaker, and Sundar (1994) as well as Norris (1995), and
it suggests that the U.S. news medias window on the world has shrunk even as the United
States has become more connected politically and economically to the rest of the world.
This is a disturbing development that has potentially contributed to the troubling lack of
citizen knowledge about foreign affairs in the United States, especially relative to other
developed democracies (Curran, Iyengar, Lund, & Salovaara-Moring, 2009; Iyengar, Hahn,
Bonfadelli, & Marr, 2009). After all, the news media are the institution primarily responsi-
ble for transforming the world outsideliterally the world outside our bordersinto the
pictures in our heads (Lippman, 1922).
In conclusion, we believe this study makes an important contribution to the literature
on international news flow by adding a longitudinal perspective that has often been
Jones et al. 433

neglected in the literature. Nonetheless, it is important to point out that our study has
important limitations. First, we only examined foreign nation visibility in one nationthe
United States. As such, it remains unclear whether our findings are generalizable to other
countries. Second, our analysis only considered five independent variables. We would have
liked to include more contextual variables in our analysis (e.g., the presence or absence of
foreign bureaus and/or foreign correspondents in other countries), but the ambitious longi-
tudinal design of our study made it difficult to do so. Several contextual factors that we had
hoped to include in our models were not available for much of the 57-year period ana-
lyzed. Others would have required a larger investment in time and resources than we
could afford. Notwithstanding these limitations, we think this study has shown that a
longitudinal approach to the study of international news flow results in additional and
valuable insights.

Acknowledgments
The authors would like to thank David Domke and the members of the Domke Research Group
for their comments on this article.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests


The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.

Funding
The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
article.

Notes
1. Notable exceptions include Larson (1984) and Norris (1995).
2. We chose to measure political significance in strictly military terms because that is how it is most often
operationalized in the literature (see, for example, Lee, 2007; Shoemaker et al., 1991).
3. Specifically, we gave the year 1950 a value of 0 and added one for each subsequent yearthus, 1951
equaled 1, 1952 equaled 2, and so on.
4. Diagnostic tests were conducted on the entire data file, except for checks of contemporaneous correla-
tion and panel heteroscedasticity, which required common years for all countries. In these instances,
we only analyzed those countries that had a minimum of 30 years nonmissing values on each of our
variables.
5. Various alternative models with longer lags (2 years, 3 years, etc.) were considered, but a 1-year
lag resulted in the best model fit. Models are presented for the whole period, as well as for the
four subperiods (early Cold War, late Cold War, postCold War and post-9/11). Notably, based
on a comparison of coefficients and their standard errors in each model for each period, we were
able to determine for each variable whether its effect had significantly changed compared with the
previous period.
6. Both Wu (2000) and Pietilinen (2006) base their claims on the results of a large comparative analysis
conducted in 1995 of 2 weeks of foreign news coverage in 45 different countries.
434 Communication Research 40(3)

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Author Biographies
Timothy M. Jones is an instructor in the Department of Political Science and International
Studies at Bellevue College, Bellevue, Washington.

Peter Van Aelst is an assistant professor of political psychology and political communication at
the University of Leiden, Leiden, the Netherlands.

Rens Vliegenthart is an assistant professor of political communication in the Department of


Communication Science at the University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.