PATCHWORK NATION -- February 4, 2011 at 4:23 PM ET
Egypt Coverage Divide Seen Among Patchwork Nation Community Types
The scenes playing out in Egypt and across the Arab world are not just dramatic, they are remaking the region and U.S. policy for years to come. Regimes have been pushed out leaving an unsettled landscape in one of the world's geopolitical hot spots.
And yet, when we look around a selection of our communities in Patchwork Nation, we see a lot of indifference. Most local websites barely mention the news from Middle East, even in communities where one might expect a more intense focus. But there are sharp differences in how the story is being played and received.
On the whole, the wealthier, more-diverse, more-educated communities we follow seem more tuned in to the news from Egypt than others. Their local media is paying attention and people seem to be talking about the events.
But in more far-flung locales, there are a wide range of topics - from snow to local crimes to area bird populations - generating bigger headlines and more conversations than the uprising in the Middle East.
Not Big News in Many Places
To be clear, Americans in general are not exactly international news hounds. A survey from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that the protest in Egypt last week ranked third among the stories that news consumers followed most closely. Only 11 percent of those surveyed said they were most focused on the protests.
That is compared to 38 percent who said they were most closely following the Arizona shooting story.
And the people in some of our Patchwork Nation communities are in tune with that attitude. Out in Burley, Idaho, a Mormon Outpost that we follow, local newspaper editor Jay Lenkersdorfer says the protests in Egypt are barely a blip.
"Burley, Idaho, isn't paying much attention to the problems in Egypt," he writes in an e-mail. "[We are] more interested in our school bond election in March."
In Nixa, Mo., an Evangelical Epicenter, the protests in Egypt hardly appear on the website of the local newspaper, the Springfield News-Leader - just a few headlines in small type at the bottom of the page under the Nation/World heading.
And John Schmalzbauer, a local Patchwork Nation blogger in Nixa, says he perused 16-hours of Facebook entries and found no mentions of Egypt beyond "my journalist and former journalist friends (here and elsewhere), and college professor types." (Schmalzbauer is a professor of religious studies at Missouri State University.)
Some of that may not be surprising. As we note in the book "Our Patchwork Nation," even though the Web has made the same news available everywhere - and in theory made American culture more uniform - in truth, different kinds of communities have distinct media cultures created by their own socioeconomic and political realities. Those media cultures are reflected in what local media choose to cover what local people show interest in.
To people in Nixa and Burley, places that lack diverse populations, what's happening in Egypt seems to play no role in their immediate lives. Indeed, that's probably true in a lot of Mormon Outposts and Evangelical Epicenters.
Even in Hopkinsville, Ky., a Military Bastion near Fort Campbell, the story out of the Middle East is not receiving big play, even though many of the soldiers there are intimately acquainted with that corner of the world. The protests in Egypt only turn up on the newswire-based fringes of the homepage of the local Kentucky New Era. The main story on the website Thursday was on a local school summit.
It's not that local schools aren't an important issue in Hopkinsville - or in many a community - but the dearth of stories on the Middle East is telling in terms of how the story is being absorbed around the country.
Where Egypt is News
The protests in Egypt seem to be bigger news in a few of our better-educated and wealthier communities.
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, a Campus and Careers community that is home to the University of Michigan, the protests are a big part of the coverage in the student-run Michigan Daily. The story was near the top of website and the print edition of the newspaper, with comments from professors on the situation and it was the focus on the cartoon on the op-ed page.
There may be any number of reasons for the more intense focus. The diverse population of the campus may be more tuned-in to foreign affairs. And, certainly, the fact that the protests in Egypt were driven by youth, at least initially, may be of more interest to the younger audience.
Diversity may also explain the interest of a place like Philadelphia, a big-city Industrial Metropolis, where the local news website, Philly.com, prominently displays headlines from Egypt and where the clashes dominated the front page of Friday's Inquirer, including an interview with a local professor about the significance of Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Meanwhile, in the well-to-do, educated Monied 'Burb community of Manchester, N.H., where snow is the big story, the Union-Leader ran a story Wednesday about the protests with a local angle, focusing on the president of the Arab-American Forum in Manchester - and kept the story on its homepage all of Thursday.
In short, the news out of Egypt shows how different communities can perceive and understand big news stories differently. Even when a story dominates the national media, there are often places where it isn't making a serious dent in the consciousness.
In the 21st century, almost any news outlet can use wire stories to play up important breaking news events that aren't local. They do so all the time, but many simply don't.
And though the uprising in the Middle East is about struggles thousands of miles away, the way they those struggles are digested and followed in the United States offers an example of just how complicated the American cultural landscape is.