On Friday, 23 May, The Guardian published a 3,000 word spread on Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, presidential candidate for the 2014 Egyptian elections. The article, written by Egypt reporter Patrick Kingsley, contradicts statements about the downfall of foreign correspondence. Fact remains that over the last three decades, celebrity news coverage by the prestige press has increased significantly, while more serious topics like politics and especially foreign affairs receive less and less attention from the media.

Between 1979 and 2009, the amount of international news stories in UK newspapers declined by an estimate of 39 percent, and the amount of international stories that made the front page went down by 73 percent. Meanwhile, celebrities seem to get more and more news coverage, even by the prestige press. As it turns out, the Guardian’s coverage of Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, compared to its domestic coverage, was ten times bigger than the coverage of Elvis Presley’s death in 1977. These numbers go hand in hand with the shocking 60 percent of young people estimated not to vote in the next general elections: UK citizens appear to be increasingly uninterested in politics. Newspapers still want circulation, and thus adapt to the interests of their audiences. But this phenomenon creates a downward spiral when it come to the public’s engagement with foreign politics.

It is very simple: news media influence the public opinion, and even the public concerns. “Before television, national elections were seen largely as contests between a number of candidates or parties for parliamentary seats,” Encyclopaedia Brittannica states about public engagement in Europe. “As the electronic media grew more sophisticated technologically, elections increasingly assumed the appearance of a personal struggle between the leaders of the principal parties concerned. In the United States, presidential candidates have come to personify their parties.” These are examples of information providers influencing the public.

The news media has a set position as an independent watchdog in society, making the public aware of the actions of policy makers and the consequences. But news media also has to make the citizens aware of issues in the public interest. It is important to realise that the public interest concerns issues that affect people’s life, not the issues that the public is interested in.

Naturally, arts and entertainment are interesting topics that deserve their share of media attention, but that does not take away from the fact that newspapers and online media alike went crazy over Solange Knowles attacking Jay-Z in an elevator, something that affected just two people directly, while two different elections were coming up in the UK, and crises were going on in Ukraine and Nigeria, affecting millions.

Harcup and O’neill identify 10 different values in shaping the news agenda: celebrity, power elite, entertainment, surprise, good news, bad news magnitude, relevance, follow-up and news agenda (meaning stories that are suitable for the publication’s specific agenda). This means that any story that regards at least a couple of these values is newsworthy, depending on the publication. As newspapers like The Guardian and The Independent are national newspapers (although they now have a worldwide readership), they are expected to run UK stories, as it is of geographical interest. Mark Zuckerberg once said about the selection of stories on Facebook’s news feed: “A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” This means it would be ridiculous to expect UK newspapers to be as engaged in Finnish as in British politics, but as countries get more involved with each other, the importance of foreign politics grows amidst, regrettably, a serious decline in its coverage.

 

The public concern and the news agenda are incredibly interdependent, meaning that newspapers do not only publish stories that the public cares about, but they also decide what citizens find important, by covering specific topics. Information providers should take the amount of people directly influenced by a certain event in account when publishing news stories, in order to create a more clear and fair news agenda.