The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Do Americans care about the rest of the world? These two Google maps give you the answer.

Map of how often Americans search on Google for each country of the world (Credit: Google Trends. Click on the map to reach an interactive version that gives more detail for each nation.)
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What countries do Americans care the most about? When talking about Western bias in the news media,  or the short attention span paid to global disasters, some people imply that the media is ignoring the American public’s global interests. Others suggest that Americans simply aren’t interested in the rest of the world, and that’s why U.S. news focuses at home. As Facebook’s founder was famously quoted as saying, “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

Does the relative lack of U.S. news coverage of areas like Africa reflect systematic media bias — or are Americans simply uninterested in those parts of the world?

One emerging tool for exploring public interest is Google Trends, which looks across the billions of daily Google searches to visualize global patterns in public search interest. The Trends team put together the map above, debuting here for the first time. This map ranks every country in the world by how often Americans as a whole searched on Google for that country between January and June 2016.

(Note: Here you can view the interactive version, where you can click on a country to see its rank.)

As you can see right away, Americans simply aren’t searching for information about Africa or central Asia very often. There’s a lot of curiosity about Latin America (except for Suriname) and South Asia (except for Bhutan and Papua New Guinea). The U.S. is quite interested in Western and Central Europe, less interested in Southern Europe, and scarcely interested at all in Eastern Europe, especially the Baltic nations — despite the growing news coverage of Russia’s threat to the region.

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Which country did American search for most? This will be anything but a surprise: Mexico, the centerpiece of Donald Trump’s foreign policy plan. Next in line were India and Canada. China was #6 and Russia #10.

How does this compare with how often each country appears in the news? Look below, and you can see that the map above is very similar to the number of times each country was mentioned on U.S.  television news over the last six years, as monitored by the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive.

So which came first – Americans’ lack of interest in a country or U.S. news media’s failure to report on it? From these two maps alone we simply don’t know enough to say. Does a lack of media coverage of Africa lead Americans to be less interested in the continent, or does a lack of interest drive the media to cover it less?

What we can say for certain is that search interest and media attention seem to mirror each other closely.

Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. He thanks Google Trends for creating the search trends map above and the Internet Archive for the use of their data in the creation of the television map.