Which Americans Are More Worldly? The Ones Who Read Newspapers

Insular tendencies among the public aren’t irregular — but America’s increasingly siloed media environment may present unique challenges for the country’s future
Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Ashley Berry
October 17, 2022 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • Regular newspaper readers are more likely than those who get their news from television to be able to identify foreign countries on a blank map and answer basic questions about them, but that might say more about the news consumer than the outlet.

  • Nonetheless, Americans seem to get the gist: The lion’s share can correctly describe the tone of relations with major allies and enemies regardless of news diet, though accuracy falls as relations become more complex.

  • Political scientists largely agree that most people’s foreign policy perspectives are informed by trusted interlocutors — which presents opportunities for misinformation to proliferate in America’s highly siloed and low-trust news environment.

Americans’ reputation as a notoriously insular bunch has been underpinned in recent years by a number of Morning Consult survey experiments revealing that relatively few are able to identify certain countries on a map even as those faraway places dominate the news cycle.

New research that examines Americans’ aptitude for worldly matters based on their media diets suggests that not all media formats are equal, with regular newspaper readers generally possessing a higher level of geopolitical knowledge. 

In the survey experiment, which was conducted Aug. 11-17 among more than 4,000 U.S. adults, less than one-third of all respondents were able to identify Germany, Ukraine or Iran on blank maps of Eurasia, despite heavy coverage of all three in recent months. By comparison, Americans who said they read the country’s legacy national newspapers at least a few times per week performed better on the test.

How media diets and global knowledge intersect

Newspaper readers were slightly more familiar with geography than their TV-watching peers: On average, 40% of respondents who regularly read The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post or foreign-based print outlets such as the Financial Times, The Guardian or The Economist were able to find Germany, Iran or Ukraine on a map, compared with 33% of respondents who regularly tune into broadcast news outlets such as ABC, CBS, NBC or PBS, or cable networks CNN, Fox News or MSNBC.

Regular readers of The New York Times, which has long touted itself as the paper of record for the world’s English speakers, ranked first in average accurate country location, with 42%, just ahead of a 41% average for regular readers of The Washington Post. 

At the other end of the spectrum, at 29%, were regular viewers of U.S. network news, just below Fox News viewers at 31%.

Similarly, newspaper readers were, on average, 14 percentage points more likely than all adults surveyed to identify China’s involvement with the persecution of the Uyghurs, and 16 points more likely to recognize that it’s Russia and Ukraine who are fighting over the Donbas and Crimea. It’s worth noting that television viewers also outperformed the general public, but by smaller margins.

How educational attainment and media diet intersect 

Newspapers aren’t necessarily doing a better job of informing their readers so much as attracting readers who are already well-informed: 58% of New York Times readers have at least a bachelor's degree, compared with just 36% of Fox News viewers, a trend that generally held true along both sides of the newspaper-TV news divide.

Newspaper Readers Are More Likely Than TV News Viewers to Have a Four-Year Degree

Share of U.S. adults with at least a bachelor’s degree who said they use the following news sources at least a few times per week:
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Foreign news sources include The Guardian, The Economist, the Financial Times and BBC News. Public news sources include PBS News and NPR News.
Survey conducted Aug. 11-17, 2022, among a representative sample of 4,421 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-1 percentage point.

“College or no college is a factor that's behind a lot of the major cleavages in American society right now; I'm not surprised that it's affecting knowledge of international affairs,” said Elizabeth Saunders, associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, who studies the role of social elites in foreign policy. She says democracies tend to delegate foreign policy to a highly specialized cohort, for which a university education is often — but not always — indispensable for membership.

But even those with higher levels of educational attainment miss plenty of nuance, especially when it comes to U.S. relations that are more complex in nature. 

Regardless of Media Diet, Americans Struggle to Identify Nuanced Relationships With Other Countries

Shares of U.S. adults who use the following news sources at least a few times per week who correctly identified five countries as an "ally" and two others as an "enemy":
Morning Consult Logo
Foreign news sources include The Guardian, The Economist, the Financial Times and BBC News. Public news sources include PBS News and NPR News.
Survey conducted Aug. 11-17, 2022, among a representative sample of 4,421 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-1 percentage point.

For example, neither media diet nor educational attainment made a major difference when survey respondents were asked about complex alliances with countries such as Pakistan and Egypt — or ties that receive less attention, like those with Brazil.

“It is so hard to keep track of events in this country, let alone everywhere else, and the more countries you start watching, the worse your ability to track any one of them actually gets,” said Paul Musgrave, a professor studying international relations at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “But if you have somebody who can just tell you what to think, a trusted agent, it becomes more manageable.”

Given America’s increasingly siloed news environment, polarized opinions and anemic trust in media, low levels of knowledge can create opportunities for malicious actors to play an outsize role in shaping public foreign policy opinion. Just 45% of adults — and 27% of Republicans — say they have at least “some” trust in the news media, according to Morning Consult’s Trust in Institutions tracker.

Musgrave says low trust in elites has a particularly deleterious effect on foreign policy following major breaches of faith in recent decades. 

“The shorthand explanation is Vietnam: We trusted the elites, and look what they did. A little bit later, we trusted them after 9/11, and look what they — the blob, the establishment, whatever — did,” he said. “So now you have a lot of room for entrepreneurs to show up and fill that niche to tell people what their opinion of foreign policy should be. And who are the most important foreign policy opinion shapers in America? With all due respect to Fareed Zakaria, Tucker Carlson is much more important. Sean Hannity has a huge impact.”

Alex Willemyns contributed.

A headshot photograph of Matthew Kendrick
Matthew Kendrick
Data Reporter

Matthew Kendrick previously worked at Morning Consult as a data reporter covering geopolitics and foreign affairs.

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