Evidence on Interest in and Consumption of Foreign News

2011 was a peak year for foreign news coverage. The Arab spring and the Japan earthquake occurred along with the continuing war in Afghanistan and the slow unfolding of the Euro crisis. It is against that background that this brief article brings together two different sources of data.

First I use the Reuters Institute survey data to highlight some key findings about declared levels of interest in foreign news within the UK and how that compares with our comparator countries, the US, Denmark, Germany, and France. Second, I provide some early findings from a piece of research being conducted by the Reuters Institute on audiences for foreign news on the BBC.1 This draws on BBC research about declared interest in foreign news stories and then compares that with two different forms of news consumption:

  • audiences for the BBC 6pm and 10pm TV news bulletins in weeks when foreign stories predominated;
  • patterns of consumption online in the same periods.

The aim of the research is to assess how interested in or resistant to foreign news audiences were, and whether levels of consumption differed noticeably either according to the different kinds of story or by platform.2

This is important because there is very little research which compares declared interest with levels of provision and actual consumption of foreign news. It also allows us to see, in the case of the BBC, the extent to which editorial choices about the most significant stories have any impact on audience size when those stories are foreign.

Evidence on foreign news interest

The level of interest in foreign news in Britain is lower than in most of our comparator countries. Only 48% of British people place foreign news in their top five areas of interest, and this compares with 65% in Denmark, 64% in Germany, and 54% in France.3 The level of interest in the US, at 44%, is closest to that in the UK. If one were to assume that interest in foreign news might be correlated with levels of overseas diplomatic and military activity in each of the countries then the low US figure seems surprising, particularly alongside the very high Danish one. But interest in foreign news may also reflect people’s sense of interconnectedness, the degree to which affairs abroad are likely to impact on them directly, or for which they feel some affinity, as much as any direct relation with their government’s degree of foreign engagement. On that interpretation the low US figures may make more sense.

Interest in international news by country

Q2 Which of the following types of news is most important to you?

Base UK (n=2173) Denmark (n=1002) France (n=1011) Germany (n=970) USA (n=814)

We also see differences between countries in the ranking of the top five forms of news. In the UK foreign news comes third in the list, at 48% some way behind domestic (74%) and local news (50%). But this overall picture conceals striking differences between men and women. British men place domestic news first, with international news second (and sports news third). British women by contrast put international news in fourth place, behind domestic, local, and regional news. British men are on average 10 percentage points more likely than women to be interested in international news (53% compared to 43%). There is a similar pattern in the US where the overall figure of 44% conceals a 49:39 male female gender gap. However this pattern is not repeated in Western Europe. German women are slightly more interested in foreign news than men (66% vs 63%), whereas in France men are slightly ahead (57% vs 52%).

Interest in different types of news by country

Scroll data area to see more

United Kingdom All Male Female
Domestic news 74% 71% 77%
Local news 50% 41% 58%
International news 48% 53% 43%
News about my region 42% 36% 48%
News about the economy 42% 44% 41%

Scroll data area to see more

Germany All M F
International news 64% 63% 66%
News about my region 62% 59% 65%
Domestic news 61% 61% 61%
German politics 55% 59% 51%
Local news 50% 46% 53%

Scroll data area to see more

Denmark All Male Female
Domestic news 75% 69% 80%
International news 65% 67% 64%
Danish politics 56% 61% 51%
Local news 41% 39% 43%
News about the economy 36% 44% 28%

Scroll data area to see more

USA All Male Female
US politics 63% 70% 55%
Local news 56% 47% 65%
Domestic news 53% 52% 55%
News about the economy 52% 55% 48%
International news 44% 49% 39%

Scroll data area to see more

France All Male Female
Domestic news 66% 64% 68%
French politics 57% 64% 50%
International news 54% 57% 52%
News about my region 46% 41% 52%
Local news 36% 32% 40%
Q2 Which of the following types of news is most important to you?

Base UK (n=2173) Denmark (n=1002) France (n=1011) Germany (n=970) USA (n=814)Note – shows top five categories in each country

British interest in foreign news increases by age. The gender gap places men about 10% ahead of women for most age cohorts and only narrows significantly among the 25–34 group, with men’s interest just 4% ahead of that of women.

International news by age and gender

16-24 25-34 35-44 45-54 55+ All
Male 45% 47% 46% 58% 62% 53%
Female 34% 43% 36% 42% 51% 43%

Interest increases with age

Finally we compared levels of interest in international news according to the sources of news used by respondents each week. Here we have highlighted six of the 20 sources offered to respondents. The high levels of interest amongst readers of the Guardian and Financial Times and viewers of Channel 4 news are not that surprising. Users show very little difference in interest according to whether consumption is on or offline, other than for readers of the Sun and the Star who appear to have more interest in international news online than in their paper versions. The figures for the BBC are interesting for two reasons. First, 53% of users of BBC services place international news in their top five categories of news, compared to 48% of the UK population. That is relevant for the next stage of our analysis where we focus specifically on BBC consumption of foreign news. But it is also interesting that levels of interest hardly vary between users of BBC TV and radio and BBC online.

Interest in international news by news title

Q2 Which of the following types of news is most important to you?

Base All (n=2173)

BBC audiences and levels of declared interest in foreign news

The BBC regularly surveys the public on a range of different issues, using their Pulse panel and RISJ research underway uses this to look more closely at attitudes according to different types of foreign story. A BBC Pulse survey conducted in December 2010 (i.e. before the Arab spring) asked BBC viewers how closely they followed UK news, news from their area, and international news, from any source, and found that 50% of people followed UK news and news from their area fairly closely, with 44% following international news fairly closely. Those who followed these areas very closely broke down as 19% for UK news, 15% for news from their area, and 9% for international news.

The hard core of around 10% who follow international news very closely are relatively unaffected by the kind of story. But according to BBC research, looking at the period 2008–early 2011, for most people there is a wide variation between the kinds of foreign stories that attract interest. The BBC Pulse surveys asked people both whether they had followed certain foreign stories closely and whether they wanted to know more. The next graph plots a range of foreign stories from 2010–11 against these two axes. We have highlighted the contrast between the relatively low levels of declared interest in the coverage of events in Tunisia in early 2011 and the Pakistan floods, compared with the very high levels of interest in the Chilean miners story, the Haiti earthquake and the Australian floods, and the Egyptian and Libyan uprisings.

A few points emerge. Why was there such low interest in the first Arab revolution – the events in Tunisia? This had fairly extensive coverage on the BBC, but the low interest may have been precisely because it was the first Arab revolution – so its wider significance was not known – and Tunisia is not that familiar to most British people. But we can see that, as the Arab revolutions spread beyond Tunisia, the number of people saying that they were following the events closely and wanted to know more increased dramatically for the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain. Of course in each case the level of BBC coverage also increased, as did the number of familiar correspondents reporting from these countries, and it is reasonable to assume that audience interest may be influenced by the nature of the coverage.

Interest in foreign news stories 2010-2011

Interest in foreign news stories 2010-11
Source: BBC Pulse Surveys 2010-11

Second, it is clear that human interest and disaster stories such as the attempts to rescue the Chilean miners and the Haiti earthquake attracted very high levels of interest. But not all disasters attract equal interest. The Pakistan floods of August 2010, whose human toll was huge and which had extensive coverage on the BBC, attracted much less interest than either the Haiti earthquake or the far smaller floods in Australia. The full report will attempt to explain these different levels of interest.

How foreign stories affect audiences for BBC TV news bulletins and bbc.co.uk

Our research also examines weeks where there was intense coverage of foreign news on the BBC main TV bulletins to see what impact, if any, that had on TV audience numbers and use online. The work is still in progress but some emerging trends can be seen.

We have examined coverage and audiences for foreign stories over 2010–11. The stories include the rescue of the Chilean miners, the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in early 2011, the Japan earthquake, the New Zealand earthquake of 2010, and the Gaza flotilla of 2010. For each foreign story we have where possible coded the 6pm and 10pm BBC News bulletins for the relevant period (normally one week, though on occasions more) to see the numbers of minutes devoted to the story and its position in each day’s bulletins. We then examined BARB audience figures minute by minute for the relevant bulletins and compared those with the average audience for each bulletin. With online we examined the traffic to the relevant online stories on the same topic in the same week, and measured both the absolute amount of traffic (from within the UK) to each story, and how that traffic compared to that attracted by other stories on BBC online either about the region or across the whole of BBC online.4

Detailed analysis is underway but some early findings are as follows:

  • Most foreign stories get more coverage on the BBC 10pm compared to the 6pm bulletin. This reflects the different agenda of the two bulletins.5
  • While declared levels of interest in foreign news are generally below those for domestic stories, and vary greatly by topic, audiences of TV news bulletins dominated by foreign stories hold up relatively well. The most attractive foreign stories can draw up to 20% more than the average, with less attractive ones very rarely depressing the figures to below 10–20% of average. This suggests that, in spite of the challenges facing linear TV, BBC TV news editors can still play an important part in setting the news agenda according to their editorial values; a focus on major foreign stories does not have to come at the price of audience numbers.6
  • However, extended coverage of some foreign stories can lead to audiences dropping off during the bulletin even where the audience level has started at a high level. This may simply reflect the fact that the audience appetite for additional angles on the story may be less than that of the programme editors.7
  • Online audiences for individual stories are on average lower than those for the two main BBC TV news bulletins, and with levels generally ranging from 500,000 to 3 million (compared to average figures of over 4 million for the 6pm and 10pm news bulletins) are much more volatile than for TV, according to the story. That is not surprising given the active nature of online news use as opposed to that for TV.
  • Stories that peaked online included the Japan earthquake, the rescue of the Chilean miners, Egypt, and the New Zealand earthquake. Online audiences for the 2010 Pakistan floods were, in keeping with the Pulse figures, relatively low.


While the Reuters Institute Digital News Report shows that British people accord less importance to foreign news than those in Germany, France, and Denmark, there are some significant qualifications to this finding. First, levels of interest vary significantly by age, by gender, and by news source used. Second, as our BBC research demonstrates, levels of declared interest vary greatly according to the kind of story; lumping all international news together conceals this important fact. Finally, initial findings indicate two somewhat contradictory trends. In spite of the challenges to linear TV, the audiences to the BBC’s main TV news bulletins are ready to watch foreign stories and some major foreign stories in 2011 boosted audiences by up to 20%. On the other hand, consumption online is much more volatile, with huge peaks and troughs in consumption. The forthcoming research will try to better understand these variations, classify different types of foreign stories, and see how far audience behaviour reflects levels of declared interest. Longer term, as more news consumption switches from set-piece TV bulletins to online, public broadcasters such as the BBC may face a challenge in retaining audience attention for the full range of news stories.

  1. This research on foreign news has been made possible because Helen Boaden, Director of BBC News, gave us access to the relevant BBC data. The Reuters Institute would like to thank her and the BBC News audience research team for their support for this research.
  2. This research will be published in a forthcoming Reuters Institute report, due in autumn 2012, on The Public Appetite for Foreign News on TV and Online, by Richard Sambrook, Simon Terrington, and David Levy. I’m grateful to Simon Terrington and Richard Sambrook for allowing me to summarise some early findings from this project here.
  3. All of these countries have troops in Afghanistan but Britain and France also played an active part in the Libyan activity of 2011.
  4. With the help of the BBC News research team, Simon Terrington has kindly accessed and coded this very significant amount of data.
  5. This contrast is identified over the decade to 2009 in a recent piece of research by Steven Barnett and colleagues, ‘From Callaghan to Credit Crunch: Changing Trends in British Television News 1975–2009’, Jan. 2012: (accessed May 2012).
  6. Our research has not controlled for the quality and nature of the coverage in each case, which must clearly be a factor in engaging audiences in stories they might not necessarily have sought out.
  7. We have not compared this drop off in audiences for foreign stories run at length (more than 10 minutes) with audience reactions to similarly lengthy treatment of a single domestic story.